By Sinisa Jakov Marusic
The much heralded start of dialogue between the government and the media has hit a bump after Nikola Gruevski singled out a prominent journalist for a highly personal attack.
In an interview on Tuesday with the state owned MIA news agency, Nikola Gruevski made a highly personal attack on journalist, Borjan Jovanovski, accusing him of working with the EU to denigrate the country.
Macedonia’s Journalists’ Association, ZNM, responded by reminding the government that it was not its job to comment on the work of individual journalists in this way.
To this, the government replied that they felt entitled to comment on reporters’ work, as journalists commented on ministers’ work all the time.
Despite the harsh nature of the exchange, the head of the ZNM, Naser Selmani, said he hoped the new row will not derail recently started talks with the government on resolving some of the issues troubling reporters.
“I remain an optimist and hope for good will from both sides so that we can improve the image of the Macedonian media and freedom of speech” Selmani told Balkan Insight. He said he hoped that the next session of talks would take place in November.
Talks kicked off last week after the government earlier this year came under strong criticism for its treatment of the media.
In the news agency interview on Tuesday, Gruevski accused Jovanovski of asking a “pre-arranged” question to the EU enlargement Commissioner, Stefan Fuele, at a press conference last week in Brussels, where the Commission was presenting its annual report on Macedonia.
Jovanovski asked Fuele whether Macedonia would retain its recommendation for a start to EU accession talks if the situation remained the same with regard to media freedom.
Fuele replied that with the current “half-hearted” pace of reforms in Macedonia, politicians “should not take for granted” that next year’s report will contain the same recommendation as this year’s did.
Gruevski said he saw the remark as part of a trend in the EU towards “exaggerated” criticism of Macedonia and pressure on the country to accept an unfavourable deal with Greece “at any cost” on the country’s name.
Greece disputes Macedonia’s name, saying use of the term Macedonia suggests a territorial claim to the northern Greek province of the same name.
“Considering that the person in question [Borjan Jovanovski] is well known to the Macedonian public and is involved in a trail of scandals and affairs, I would refrain from commenting,” Gruevski told MIA.
Gruevski went on to say, however, that “Jovanovski is not a journalist any more” and that “it was obvious that Jovanovski’s question [in Brussels] was pre-aranged and comes as a preparation for next year’s withdrawal of the recommendation [for start of the accession talks], if the name dispute [with Greece] is not solved by then.”
“In a democratic country it is not a usual practice for the PM to comment on who is journalist and who is not,” the ZNM replied in a press release, saying Gruevski had no business commenting on a journalist’s question.
To this, a government press statement on Wednesday replied by accusing the ZMN of “distorting” the principles of freedom of speech.
“It is strange that you defend at any cost the activity of anyone who is part of your profession, and at the same time you try to deny us the right to comment on your profession,” the government said, reiterating that freedom of speech in the country was not in danger.
Not everyone agrees with that assertion.
According to the recently published European Commission report on Macedonia, “the media continue to be subject to interference from political and business interests,” and, “Intimidation of journalists and selective enforcement of legislation against media companies are increasing causes for concern.”
The Commission’s remarks followed similar concerns raised in July from a number of media watchdogs such as Amnesty International, the Vienna-based South East Europe Media Organization, SEEMO and the France-based group Reporters Without Borders.
The closure in summer of A1 TV, the country’s most prominent critically inclined media outlet, was widely blamed on government pressure.
So was the closure of the three dailies owned by A1’s owner, Velja Ramkovski, Vreme, Spic and Koha e Re. Ramkovski is now on trial on for tax avoidance.
Jovanovski who worked in the now defunct A1 TV, is editor of the “Eurozum” magazine show, which is funded by Brussels and tackles European issues.
The latest intervention on media freedom in Macedonia came this week from Jean-Paul Marthoz, a senior adviser for the New York-based media watchdog, the Committee to Protect Journalists, CPJ.
“International and European press freedom groups… are preparing a joint mission to Skopje in mid-November to assess the state of press freedom and express their concerns to the Macedonian government. The message is clear: Fundamental freedoms must not unravel anymore, either in [EU] member states or in candidate countries”, Marthoz wrote in his blog published this Monday.