Online harassment via Telegram sparks protest

Online harassment via Telegram sparks protest
(Photo by Vančo Džambaski, CC BY-NC-SA via Flickr.com)

Association

The Parliament of the Republic of North Macedonia elected a new Commission for the Prevention and Protection against Discrimination on 25th January 2021. The election came after the Association ESE and the Network for Protection Against Discrimination demanded a transparent and accountable way for personnel to be appointed to the Commission.

Peaceful Assembly

During this reporting period, several protests were held:

  • On 3rd December 2020, protests held by the opposition VMRO-DPMNE party continued, calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Zaev due to comments regarding Bulgaria (see previous update). The demonstrators gathered in Skopje around government buildings, including the Ministries of Justice and Foreign Affairs.
  • In December 2020, Kocani rice producers went on a protest march with cars and tractors around the local villages, demanding a better purchase price for rice and higher amounts of state subsidy.
  • High school students threw eggs at the building of the Ministry of Education and Science to show their discontent with the forthcoming online examination procedure. Students protested across many cities in North Macedonia by taking to the streets and boycotting classes.
  • On 26th January 2021, health workers from the 8th of September hospital protested against the Healthcare Ministry, arguing that hospital management has failed to organise reimbursements which were promised to healthcare workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • On 26th January 2021, accountants gathered in front of the North Macedonian government in a bid to be granted an extension of deadlines. The pressure of the COVID-19 pandemic has made it difficult for the accountants to prepare financial statements on time.
  • On 27th January 2021, locals of the Probistip village protested against the construction of a mini hydropower plant due to concerns about the negative impacts on vegetation, wildlife and agricultural lands.
  • On 29th January 2021, family members of the accused in the “Monster” murder court case and their supporters, who are dissatisfied with the trial process, held a protest rally, previously announced, blocking the traffic in the centre of Skopje for a few hours. In addition to not respecting COVID-19 measures in place, several incidents were reported, such as protesters throwing smoke bombs and damaging public property, which resulted in criminal and misdemeanor charges against some of the protesters.
  • Another protest over the same issue took place on 26th February after a final ruling was made, sentencing three of the accused to life imprisonment for the five counts of murder committed in 2012. The protest was held in a tense atmosphere and resulted in incidents and clashes with the police. Protesters threw stones and heavy objects at the police, who used shock-bombs to disperse the crowd, resulting in injuries on both sides and also two injured journalists. Seven people faced charges and six of them were detained after the protest. Three of them were later sentenced to one year in prison on grounds of “participating in a mob that acted violently against police officers and other bystanders”, while the rest await trial. An investigation was requested into the unprofessional behaviour of police officers, which only resulted in warnings with no sanctions.
  • On 3rd February 2021, hundreds of young girls and women protested over online harassment. This comes a year after a predatory Telegram group called Javna Soba (Public Room) shared explicit private photos of young girls and women by hacking their social media accounts. Names and contact details of the girls and women in the photos were also leaked. The group emerged once again in 2021, prompting protests. The Macedonian government has threatened to block Telegram if no action is taken by the platform to permanently remove the group. Protesters marched to the Interior Ministry and to the Public Prosecutors office under the banner “Public Room is a Crime”, demanding accountability. The protest was organised by 16 women's rights organisations, human rights groups and numerous activists.
  • The administration and technical staff in the Hospital "September 8" held a protest in February 2021, demanding they be paid the once-off financial assistance of 30,000 MKD (approx. 500 EUR), as was paid to the medical staff, because they also work with COVID patients.
  • Three consecutive protests were held in Skopje by catering workers, restaurant owners and event industry representatives on 19th, 22nd and 23rd February 2021 demanding that COVID-19 measures be reduced and that special protocols should be introduced so they are able to carry out their activities.

Expression

A grouping of North Macedonia NGOs filed a lawsuit over a textbook that “blames women for the rising number of divorces, condemns abortion and classifies same-sex partnerships as debauchery”. The NGOs have accused the textbook of showing discriminatory speech against numerous social groups.

In a separate development, global voices condemned an online hate campaign against the Metamorphosis Foundation, calling for authorities to investigate the hate attacks. The Foundation advocates freedom of expression, freedom of the press and the protection of digital rights in the region.

“The attacks have exploited the volatile political situation that currently prevails in North Macedonia, falsely accusing Metamorphosis of colluding with Facebook to censor “patriotic” content from the social media platform. They also include calls for physical violence towards Metamorphosis staff, threats of sharing of their private information, and online harassment.
We call on North Macedonia’s authorities to investigate these activities and to enforce the appropriate legal remedies against the perpetrators, as well as provide protection to Metamorphosis staff.”

The North Macedonia government granted 488,000 EUR in financial aid to 11 print media outlets.

The Association of Journalists of Macedonia (AJM), the Independent Trade Union of Journalists and Media Workers (SSNM), the Macedonian Media Institute (MIM) and the Council for Media Ethics (CMEM) expressed concerns regarding the process of amending the Law on Audio and Audiovisual Media Services, initiated by a group of ruling majority MPs. They state that according to the proposal, the election of members of the Program Council in Macedonia Radio Television (MRT) and the Agency for Audio and Audiovisual Media Services (AAAVMS) by the Assembly proposes the election to be done through the majority votes of the total number of MPs, instead of a two-thirds majority, as per ongoing regulations. The media organisations say that failure to follow the current regulation would risk “party-political influence” by MPs in the election of members of these bodies.

Another concern flagged is that it is proposed that the Law be adopted in a fast-track procedure, without any explanation in the proposal, leaving no opportunity for “public debate or transparency and involvement of stakeholders” in its adoption.

Incidents against journalists

The Association of Journalists of Macedonia (AJM) strongly condemned the attack on a team of the Media Information Agency that professionally reported on the protest related to the "Monster" case (see above). The AJM demanded that the Ministry of Interior punish all violence against journalists.

Impunity for attacks on media workers can incite more serious violence against journalists, further endangering their safety, the right to freedom of expression and the right to inform citizens. That is why it is important to amend the Criminal Code as soon as possible in order to systematically protect journalists and media workers.”

On 11th February 2021, the creator of the domain vaksajns.mk, Adil Bakiu, was summoned by police for questioning following a report from the Ministry of Health for alleged "intrusion into the official website vakcinacija.mk". The domain vaksajns.mk was registered after the Prime Minister Zoran Zaev mispronounced the word for vaccines in English. According to Bakiu, it is worrying that satirical cases of this type are prosecuted more quickly by the state than others that are much more serious, such as the ‘Public Room’ case.