28 September 2020
Dear Prime Minister Zaev,
At the start of your new term as Prime Minister, we the undersigned partner organisations in the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) wish to express our concern about several recent attacks on journalists and media workers in North Macedonia.
In April 2017, at the start of your previous term as Prime Minister, a fact-finding mission including several of the MFRR partners visited North Macedonia. At the time, the country was at the bottom of a sharp decline in media freedom that had started in 2009. Since then, we recognise that important progress has been made in the area of media freedom, as reflected also in assessments by the European Commission and Reporters Without Borders, among others. Nevertheless, we are concerned that instances of violence and harassment, both online and offline, against journalists alongside impunity for the perpetrators remain important problems that require your new Government’s urgent attention, as is equally reflected in the European Commission’s reports.
In this regard, we wish to draw your attention to six alerts regarding North Macedonia that we have registered through the Mapping Media Freedom project since the launch of the MFRR in March 2020:
- On 9 September, journalist Milka Smilevska and camera operator Jorde Angelovic, who were covering a VMRO-DPMNE-organised protest in Skopje for Al Jazeera, were assaulted and obstructed by a protester. The alleged perpetrator was eventually identified and brought in for questioning;
- On 27 July, journalists and activists at human rights NGO Civil, Xhabir Deralla and Petrit Saracini, were targeted by insults and threats on social media, allegedly because of their media coverage of the parliamentary elections. In June, Civil’s office was the target of vandalism with threatening and insulting messages;
- On 23 July, journalist Miroslava Byrns received threats on her personal Facebook account following the publication of a news story about a wedding with about 200 guests at the moment when gatherings were forbidden due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Byrns received police protection after reporting the threats to the police;
- On 11 and 12 July, journalist Tanja Milevska was harassed and threatened via Twitter in relation to her coverage of the election campaign. Following her coverage of statements made by Zoltán Kovács, international spokesperson for the Hungarian government, Milevska received threats from a range of pseudonymous accounts, including threats of physical and sexual violence;
- On 7 July, journalist Biljana Sekulovska was obstructed while carrying out her professional duties and threatened with legal action, as she tried to film a police patrol performing checks during the Covid-19 curfew. On 23 July, the Ministry of Interior announced that an investigation had concluded that the actions of the police officers involved were illegal and that the officers involved would face disciplinary procedures. Sekulovska has previously faced threats and has been the target of physical attacks because of her work; and,
- On 6 May, journalist Misko Ivanov received a serious verbal threat via Facebook, shortly after he had finished interviewing the leaders of SDSM and VMRO-DPMNE on television. The threats were reported to the police and Ministry of Interior. After Ivanov went public about the threats, two more journalists, Aneta Dodevska and Natasha Stojanovska disclosed that they too had received similar messages.
The frequency and severity of these alerts serve to highlight that attacks on journalists and media workers remain an acute problem undermining press freedom in North Macedonia. We note also that several of these attacks have a particular gender-based aspect to the harassment experienced by the journalist. Moreover, to date in none of the above cases have the pertinent law enforcement and judicial authorities taken the necessary steps that have resulted in the perpetrators being held to account. These attacks constitute particularly serious violations of human rights because they target not only individuals but also deprive others of their right to receive information and have a chilling effect that restricts public debate. As such, they require in all cases a thorough, prompt and impartial investigation and, where warranted, prosecution that results in the appropriate punishment of those responsible, and in which any possible link to journalistic activities is duly and transparently taken into account. Moreover, given the negative impact on the rights of the immediate victim and the public at large, it is of the utmost importance that the State authorities are proactive in this regard: it must not be left to the victim to ensure that the police and prosecutorial authorities adequately fulfil their respective roles within the criminal justice system, nor should they have to pursue justice through civil litigation or other private action.
We welcome your new Government’s commitment to the EU accession process and in this context, to an effective rule of law. The latter will require an urgent response to the impunity that currently prevails in cases of attacks on journalists and media workers.
As civil society, we stand ready to support a free and independent media in North Macedonia and we look forward to engaging with you and your Government to this end.