Funding cuts and no economic assistance for CSOs during COVID-19

Association

According to the latest Freedom of the World 2020 report by Freedom House, North Macedonia still remains within the group of “partly free” countries, with Associational and Organisational Rights still receiving below optimal scores. However, it is important to note that the country recorded one of the biggest jumps compared to last year's report, with an overall improvement of 4 points.

Funding cuts for CSOs

Amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) induced economic crisis, the government decided to exclude CSOs from its economic assistance measures. Moreover, the government announced a 525,000 EUR funding cut from the 2020 state budget which was allocated to support associations and foundations. As this decision was made without any consultations involving the Council for Cooperation and Development of the Civil Society Sector or the public, CSOs have called on the government to reconsider and change its decision. They further stated that this decision demonstrates that the government does not see the civil society sector as a partner in fighting this crisis, despite CSOs having the skills to tackle the crisis and the especially fast response from those CSOs working with service provision and humanitarian aid.

Anti-Discrimination Law repealed

In a separate development, on 18th May 2020 activists expressed outrage after the Constitutional Court struck down the Anti-Discrimination Law which was passed last year, citing procedural omission as a reason. The law recognised discrimination which included on the grounds of gender identity and sexual orientation. Human rights organisations have labelled the move as a major step back.

“With the scrapping of the law, the state and also this government shows that LGBTI persons, as well as other marginalised groups, are invisible and unimportant for society. They are again forced to return to living in fear and shame, and to suffer from violence, which they already face on a daily basis,” - Lila Milic, an activist for sexual workers and transgender persons told the Balkan Insight.

Peaceful Assembly

During most of this reporting period, freedom of assembly was affected by restrictive measures taken by the state in order to protect citizens from the COVID-19 outbreak. Namely, a state of emergency was declared on 18th March 2020 which, among other things, also prohibited gatherings of more than five people. However, some protests were held until the first week of March 2020.

  • Most notable are two protests in the city of Shtip, where high school students from the surrounding areas protested against a decision of the municipality to cancel their free school transport, organised by private carriers.
  • International Women’s Day (IWD) on 8th March 2020 was marked in Skopje with a women’s rights march held under the slogan “You Are Not to Blame”. The march was also joined by female students from the University in Skopje in order to raise awareness for the rights of female students due to cases of sexual harassment at some of the faculties.

Expression

According to Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) World Press Freedom Index 2020, North Macedonia is ranked 92, which is an improvement from last year, mostly due to the attempts to improve self-regulation and the establishment of a register of professional online media. However, despite the progress, the country is still part of the group of countries in the region that have a lower score. Namely, it is noted that municipal authorities are still able to place advertisements and thus maintain some financial pressure on media outlets, which might compromise media independence. Furthermore, there is a growing practice of cyberbullying and verbal attacks on media workers in the country.

The Association of Journalists of Macedonia (AJM) condemned the court verdict in the case against Infomax's editor-in-chief, who was sentenced to six months’ probation for leaking an official secret. Namely, he published records of testimony given to the court about a high-profile case dealing with corruption of state officials. AJM called the verdict a "strong blow to the journalistic profession, the public interest and the basic rights of citizens to know the truth about the ways of working of the public institutions, and the corruption of politicians and the judiciary as a whole."

In a positive development during this period, the Association of Journalists of Macedonia (AJM) and the Council for Media Ethics of Macedonia (CEMM) informed the public that a website with data from the Register on professional online media is available and can be used by citizens. At present, the Register consists of 101 online media, which publish content in multiple languages.

According to the AJM and CEMM:

The main purpose of creating this Register is to contribute to encouraging the process of professionalisation in the operation of online media, and thus improving their credibility, as well as recognising those who comply with standards as opposed to unethical ones that damage the reputation of professional online media.”

Amid the COVID-19 outbreak, the AJM and the Council for Media Ethics of Macedonia prepared ‘Guidelines for Safe and Professional reporting on the coronavirus', in order to ensure the safety of journalists and media workers, a higher quality of reporting and a better informed public. The US ambassador to NATO also stated that NATO would assist North Macedonia in the fight against fake news in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In order to provide better information andthe unhindered execution of freedom of expression, the Ministry of Information Society and Administration announced that it would provide permits for media workers to do field work even during the curfew hours, during which there is limited movement for the general public.

The AJM also asked for better communication and transparency from government institutions and health centres. It pointed out that institutions should not be allowed to share information with only certain journalists or media outlets before holding press conferences, thus providing exclusivity to specific media, as opposed to all others who are directed to attend press conferences. It also highlighted concerns regarding the silencing of certain questions during press conferences for some online media outlets who are not registered and the lack of social distancing measures at press conferences.