By Sinisa Jakov Marusic
Many Macedonian journalists feel they have been duped by the government with a new deal on decriminalization of defamation that imposes steep fines instead.
A number of Macedonian journalists and media groups have energetically denounced a new deal between the government and the country’s Journalists Association, ZNM, which scraps the criminal offence of libel.
While the ZNM defends the deal as the best possible solution and as a breakthrough in the arena of media freedom, many journalists think they have given to much away.
They say that the steep fines for libel envisaged in the new agreement make the apparent concession by the government worthless, and say they will only boost self-censorship.
Under the agreement, journalists will no longer face criminal charges for libel and judges can no longer set arbitrary fines if journalists are then found guilty of the offence in court.
Reporters will be sued in civil procedures instead, and the fines will be strictly laid down: 2,000 euros per author, 10,000 euros for his or her editor in charge and 15,000 euros for the media company’s owner.
If the journalist decides to apologize or publish a disclaimer, the judge will have to stop the procedure and may not issue a fine.
The head of the ZNM, Naser Selmani, on Wednesday defended the deal, saying it was not perfect but an “optimal compromise” with the authorities that will now impose fines only as “last resort”.
But many disagree. “Is it ‘optimal’ for a Macedonian journalist, working for 200 to 300 euros a month, to pay ten monthly wages in a defamation fine?”, Branko Geroski, a senior journalist and editor asked in his column for the popular web portal Plus Info.
“After this… editors and owners will introduce censorship on their own,” he added. “Probably they will have nothing to censor as there will be few journalists left who will want to risk such steep fines for being critical.”
In its protest against the deal, one of the biggest circulation dailies in Macedonia, Vest, pubished a blank front page on Thursday, stating: “That this is how front pages will look with the new deal”.
Following last year’s crackdown of several prominent critically oriented media outlets, the centre-right government of Nikola Gruevski came under increased criticism over the state of media freedom in the country.
The closure of A1 TV, once the country’s most widely watched channel, and three daily newspapers, Vreme, Shpic and Koha e Re, was widely blamed on government pressure.
Gruevski has denied this, insisting that the media outlets were closed solely because they had not paid their taxes.
However, the European Commission, the OSCE, Freedom House and the Vienna-based South East Europe Media Organisation all expressed concern over the development.
They also pinpointed the use of high and often seemingly arbitrary fines against journalists as one of the main tools used to for exert pressure on the media.
Last October, the OSCE representative for freedom of the media, Dunja Mijatovic, following her inspection of the media in the country, said that Macedonia lacked a “stable and professional legal framework that is actually implemented and fosters media freedom.
“If the authorities want to show they are ready to cooperate, they should decriminalize defamation as soon as possible,” Mijatovic added.
Later that year, the government launched a series of talks with the ZNM aimed at addressing the main problems of the journalists.
The new agreement comes eight months after the talks with the ZNM began.
Meanwhile, Macedonia was also urged to decriminalize libel as part of its high-level talks with Brussels that started in March.
The dialogue is intended to boost the reform process in general and complement future accession negotiations.
But the deal was made after a good deal of uncertainty concerning the size of future fines.
In April some media reported that the new penalties that the government had allegedly drawn up would be draconian, ranging from 10,000 euro for journalists, up to 40,000 euro for editors and up to 80,000 euro for media owners.
Jadranka Kostova, editor of the political weekly Fokus, believes these reports were all part of a government hoax designed to scare journalists and make the newly agreed penalties look more acceptable.
“The government expertly set the bait about draconian fines so that now the new sums would make us happy. A million other questions remain unanswered,” she said.
A court last year ordered Kostova to pay 15,000 euros in fines to former Foreign Minister Antonio Milososki for a text called “How Drivers Associations Became Milososki’s Family Firms?”
Currently, according to the journalists’ association more than 300 lawsuits are pending against journalists in the Macedonian courts, most brought by politicians, wealthy businessmen and other public figures.
According to Teuta Arifi, Vice Prime Minister, responsible for EU affairs, the new agreement shows that “all open questions concerning media freedom can be discussed” and the agreement proves the government’s willingness to improve journalist’s conditions.
She noted that the draft of the law tackling defamation will be first sent for review to the Council of Europe followed by a public debate in Macedonia before the government sends it to parliament. The procedure is expected to finish in September.
The EU Enlargement Commissioner, Stefan Fuele, has welcomed the announcement.
“The agreement on law on defamation is proof of effectiveness of the High Level Accession Dialogue & of our overall approach to the freedom of media,” Fuele wrote on his Twitter profile.
Revoking the broadcasting license of A2 TV, on the same day that the libel deal was announced, was “not so good news”, he added.