Rise in anti-migrant sentiment poses a threat to civic space

Expression

As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, despite signs of improvement for civic freedoms in Macedonia, threats against media workers and free speech activists remain a serious concern. In particular, over the past few months, tensions have risen over a perceived increase in migration to Macedonia. In one example, on 23rd August 2017 a journalist and camera crew working for Nova TV were physically attacked while working in TC Biser, Skopje. Journalist Saka Cvetkovska was reporting on a petition organised by a social movement calling themselves "Awakening" who were collecting signatures against the alleged construction of migrant camps in the municipality of Aerodrom. When Cvetkovska asked the activists collecting signatures which organisation they belonged to and did not receive a clear reply, one activist simply replied that they belonged to former ruling party VMRO-DPMNE. The situation escalated after an unknown assailant arrived at the scene and attacked Cvetkovska and her camera operator. The incident was captured in the video below: 

The attack against the media workers comes at a time when human rights organisations in Macedonia have warned of rising xenophobic sentiment rising across the country for political gain. In a recent statement, the Helsinki Committee Macedonia drew attention to the misuse of statistics to stir fear over the level of migrant settlement in Macedonia. In a statement, the Committee warned that rising xenophobic tensions could fuel a hike in hate crime, stating that: 

"The Helsinki Committee hereby warns that the continuous spread and encouragement of hate speech towards refugees can easily lead to hate crimes. As a reminder, from the beginning of 2015 up to date, the Helsinki Committee has registered 34 hate crimes committed against refugees or migrants on the territory of the Republic of Macedonia".

With growing evidence of inflammatory language used by public oofficials affiliated with VMRO-DPMNE, concerns continue to grow over the normalisation of ethnically-divisive and derogatory language in Macedonia. Similarly, with a number of anti-migrant social movements such as "Awakening" taking root, progressive civil society groups have called on the authorities to ensure adequate protections for migrants as well as investigative journalists. 

In a separate incident, a camera operator from the news site Kurir was allegedly barred from recording an open session of the State Election Commission (SEC) in late August. According to sources, the journalist was asked to leave by security after SEC member Violeta Duma requested that no internet broadcasters be allowed to record in the session. While Duma later denied the allegations, the incident is illustrative of the impediments faced by media workers when trying to cover political events. 

While there have been no changes to laws, the Ministry of Information Society and Administrationdrafted a Law on audio and audio-visual media service that aims to reform the chief media regulator and the public broadcaster MRT. According to journalists in Macedonia, both institutions came under concerted pressure during the previous administration's eight years in power, consequently leading to a decline in respect for freedom of expression. Consultations with civil society have been held on the draft proposals and authorities have called all interested parties to submit comments.

Positive civic space developments

Several positive developments have also been recorded. The government circulated a draft Law on the Usage of Languages with the aim to extend the official use of languages from other ethnic communities in Macedonia. After several months of deliberations and despite vociferous opposition from political opponents, on 15th November 2017 the Macedonian Parliament voted the bill into law, officially recognising Albanian as Macedonia's language. 

Finally, on 6th September 2017 the government passed a decision to allow investigative journalists unfettered access to the Central Registry of Macedonia and the Cadaster. The move has been broadly welcome by media freedom groups, hopeful that the improved access to information will enhance the quality of investigative journalism in Macedonia.  

Peaceful Assembly

A number of protests on a variety of social issues have taken place in Macedonia lately. Below are some examples from the last few months:  

  • Tetovo citizens protested against landfills located in the city, while BESA movement held a performance entitled “The shame of Teuta Arifi (mayor) cannot be covered with umbrellas"; 
  • Karposh Municipality residents protested against air pollution and Struga citizens protested over lack of water
  • Ohrid citizens protested against urbanisation of Lagadin beach
  • Bitola citizens protested against police brutality following an incident during which security forces used firearms against two minors. An investigation into the incident is ongoing. 
  • Initiative Tvrdokorni (Hardliners) protested to demand the abolition of perpetrators in the violent protest that took place on 27th April in the Parliament; 
  • Citizens movement against poverty and the Association Blaze Koneski protested against an agreement on good neighbourly relations with Bulgaria. In addition, 30 cars blocked the streets in front of the government several times in connection with this protest action; 
  • The Macedonian Manifesto and the World Macedonian Congress protested during the visit of Kodzias – Greek Minister of Foreign Relations - to demand an unconditional end to talks on the state name and an extension of UN membership under the state name of Macedonia; 
  • A group of citizens protested against NATO which led to a confrontation during which the protest was broken up by Macedonian security forces and four individuals were arrested; and
  • Citizens in Skopje protested “Against the Betrayals of Macedonia”.

Association

Since Macedonia's change in government, civil society has noted improved relations with government officials and relevant ministries. Civil society organisations (CSOs) have held meetings with government officials including the Prime Minister, as well as participated in working groups on policy reform within ministries. In one example of this increased collaboration, on 13th July 2017 the Office for Cooperation with Non-Governmental Organisations within the General Secretariat of the Government of Macedonia held a consultative meeting with CSO representatives to discuss the revision of the Decision for Establishment of Council for Cooperation between the Government and the Civil Society Sector, and called all interested CSOs to submit their proposals and comments via e-mail.