Journalists threatened as people demand clean air in Skopje

Expression

In late December 2019, The Association of Journalists reacted to the news that a journalist had been pressured following a story about construction. Maja Jovanovska, a journalist working for the Investigative Reporting Laboratory, had been covering a story about a building project in the Taftalidze area of Skopje. After publishing an article about the construction, Jovanovska was subjected to verbal harassment from the owner of the construction company overseeing the project, who proceeded to tell her how she "should" have written about the story. Jovanovska also received a phone call from an anonymous number which mysteriously played sounds of explosions in an attempt to scare her from continuing her work. In a statement, the Association of Journalists said: 

"We call on the Ministry of Interior and the Public Prosecutor's Office to seriously engage in clearing up these threats and finding out the identity of the person who threatened Jovanovska over the phone. We remind them that institutions can only prevent future violence against journalists by strictly sanctioning attacks and threats."

The incident of harassment against Jovanovska comes at a time when the lack of action over threats against journalists has sparked concern among media freedom watchdogs. The Association of Journalists published two reports outlining issues facing journalists in North Macedonia, in which they highlighted attacks on media workers (journalists, cameramen, photographers) as a recurrent issue facing independent media outlets. Over the past five years, 50 attacks have been reported, but only 10% of cases have ended in prosecution of the perpetrators. This pervasive situation of impunity means that journalists are left to pursue justice on their own by filing private lawsuits against the attackers or, worse, self-censorsing their work, which has worrying knock-on effects for media freedom. The reports also highlighted that professional media workers were essential for the fight against the growth and spread of fake news which has rocked North Macedonia in recent years. In closing, the association stressed the need to amend the Criminal Code in order to better protect journalists.

Civil society in Macedonia strongly condemned the destruction and forcible removal of an exhibition by activists in Tetovo. The protest used art as a form of protest to draw attention to Tetovo's Mayor and his failure to fulfil his election promises. On 11th November 2019, the #Transformers, placed different photographs at three installations named: Dirty Downtown, Trash Monster and Grand Prix Tetovo to highlight the Mayor of Tetovo, Teuta Arifi's failure in a variety of policy areas. The installations were vandalised after a car belonging to the municipality of Tetovo arrived on the scene and several individuals destroyed the photographs. Onlookers have highlighted that this constitutes a dangerous attack on freedom of expression. In a statement, a group of CSOs commented on the incident: 

"This scandalous act of the mayor's gang is a serious violation of human rights and freedom of expression, which has not happened even under the previous regime...We call on the Prime Minister, the media and the diplomatic corps to pressure the Municipality of Tetovo to respect the constitution and uphold the rights of freedom of expression."  

A positive development in this period was the establishment of the Register for self-regulation of professional online media in North Macedonia, initiated by the Association of Journalists and the Council of Media Ethics of North Macedonia. It aims to serve as a mechanism for better quality information, protection of editorial freedom and strengthening of media credibility. It should also help citizens to recognise which media adhere to ethical reporting standards when publishing information.

Peaceful Assembly

The past few months have seen attempts to amend the legal framework governing protests. In November 2019, the Ministry for Interior Affairs set forth proposals to amend the Law on Public Gatherings, citing a need to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of policing during protests. However, the proposals have been met with caution by civil society groups. For example, new clauses such as: 50 people are required to hold an assembly (instead of 20 people), restrictions regarding the location of protests, for example, in front of the state institutions and surrounding areas, as well as other measures including prohibition of participants covering their faces or heads which may prevent the recognition of their identity, and regulation of the time period in which a protest can be held (6-23h). The proposed measures were drafted without prior consultation with relevant CSOs that are working on these areas and after serious reactions from the public and CSOs on social media the proposal was withdrawn.  

On the other hand, the end of 2019 was marked by many peaceful protests. Of particular note were protests held across North Macedonia to demand improved air quality which quickly gained momentum. Hundreds of citizens gathered in front of the Ministry of Environment in Skopje as part of the Clean Air March. They demanded urgent measures be taken in order to reduce the air pollution in Skopje. The Government responded by inviting CSOs involved in the march to discuss possible solutions. High school students also boycotted the lectures to join #FridaysforFuture and the protest for clean air.  During this period, protests against air pollution were also organised in Strumica and Bitola.

Several other protests took place peacefully. Below are some examples: 

  • A group of citizens protested in front of the Bulgarian Embassy in Skopje as a reaction to the statement made by the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences that the Macedonian language does not exist and is a dialect of the Bulgarian language.
  • About hundred people gathered at the “March of Red Umbrellas” to mark the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers and walked through Skopje’s main pedestrian areas. They called on the authorities to decriminalise sex work in North Macedonia and to provide better social services for sex workers, as well as improve measures to protect them against gender-based violence.