A bizarre incident in Brussels in which three pro-government reporters shouted insults at a panel on media freedom in Macedonia has cast a spotlight on the country’s polarized climate.
By Sinisa Jakov Marusic
A public shouting match at a debate on the media in Macedonia in Brussels this week has cast a fresh spotlight on the yawning political chasm in the fractured Balkan country.
The affray broke out at a debate on press freedom in Macedonia in the European Parliament on Tuesday called “Silencing the Press”.
After several Macedonian journalists were invited to detail what they saw as incidents of government harassment, three pro-government reporters present accused the invited panel members of betraying the country.
The trio erupted after the panel organizers, two MEPs, asked them to wait until the listed participants had finished their speeches before addressing the panel.
After accusing the two MEPs present of being “Taliban” and “Euro-Bolsheviks”, German MEP Jorgo Shatzimarkakis asked them to leave.
The journalists said a scuffle between them and Shatzimarkakis then occurred during which the MEP cursed them in Greek – his language of origin.
Back home, pro-government media outlets accused the organizers of the debate, the MEPs Shatzimarkakis and Jelko Kacin of Slovenia, of not allowing the trio to speak.
Opponents on the other hand said the whole row looked engineered and timed to match the schedule of the main TV evening news in Skopje.
All agree that the incident has cast an embarrassing spotlight on Macedonia, polarized as never before between equally passionate allies and foes of the nationalist government of Nikola Gruevski and his VMRO DPMNE party.
A culture of insults, accusations and hate speech appears to be spreading in Macedonia, which has worsened since VMRO DPMNE clinched another term in office in the general election held in June 2011, consigning the leftist Social Democrats to another spell in opposition.
“This only shows how alarming the situation with the media freedom in Macedonia is becoming,” Skopje-based communications expert Klime Babunski said.
“If these mutual accusations become standard, we can say goodbye to professional journalistic standards in future,” he told Balkan Insight.
Babunski said he suspected that the action of the three heckling journalists would draw more criticism of Macedonia from Brussels, which has long hesitated to offer the country a start date for EU accession talks.
Macedonia’s Journalist’s Association, ZNM, on Wednesday criticised both groups of journalists as well as Shatzimarkakis, who was accused of swearing at them.
The ZNM said that “the two groups of journalists that presented extremely opposing views do not reflect the real situation with the media and journalism in the country”.
However, the ZNM in a letter on Thursday asked the police to provide protection for the journalists who had participated at the debate because of the growing atmosphere of public intimidation against them back home.
“The proofs of this are the discussions on social networks and the way in which some of the media and journalists are encouraging violence through hate speech”, the ZNM said.
The three journalists involved in the shouting match were unrepentant about causing a rumpus at EU headquarters.
“This panel discussion was a demonstration of one-sidedness and of Euro-Bolshevism,” Mirka Velinovska, columnist for Nova Makedonija daily, said afterwards. “We decided to bust them by making a scandal.”
Milenko Nedelkovski, a talk show host on Macedonia’s Kanal 5 TV, dismissed the invited panel as “a representative sample of five Macedonian traitors wanting to trash our country and create a negative view of our media”.
Boban Nonkovic, a journalist and editor at the daily Dnevnik, blamed the panel organizers for having, he said, rudely thrown them out.
Velinovska and Nedelkovski joined other prominent pro-government figures in the media in Macedonia in sending a letter to the EU enlargement commissioner, Stefan Fuele, on September 4, accusing some of their colleagues of spreading a false impression that the government was out to quash critically inclined media.
“We assure you that media freedom in our country is a non-existent problem,” they wrote. “Macedonian journalism does not suffer from government pressures and attempts at control.
“Our main problem is a network of people, close to the former ruling Communist Party [the current Social Democrats] who simply cannot accept pluralism in society, politics and the economy,” the letter added.
In spite of what the signatories to the letter asserted, concern over media freedom in Macedonia is not limited to pro-opposition newspapers and reporters.
The issue has loomed large in all recent annual reports on the country issued by the European Commission.
Those concerns mounted this summer following a wave of closures of anti-government media outlets, all owned by the same mogul, Velija Ramkovski, who is on trial for tax avoidance.
First to shut in July were three dailies, Vreme, Spic and Koha e Re. In late July, the country’s most popular TV station, A1, also closed.
The government has insisted that it has played no role in the closures, blaming Ramkovski’s own financial irregularities.
In a separate incident, unrelated to Ramkovski’s alleged financial wrongdoings, the daily Utrinski Vesnik, owned by the German media group WAZ, sacked five reporters for taking part in a strike against planned lay-off plans.
Media watchdogs said both the sackings and the closures formed part of a crackdown on independent minded journalists and media groups.
“The closures and the taxes demands all appear to be politically motivated,” Nicola Duckworth, Amnesty International’s director for Europe and Central Asia, said in a press release in July.
“These closures are looking more and more like an all-out assault on freedom of expression,” she added.
In July the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, expressed similar concerns over the series of closures, noting that the opposition media in Macedonia had been “practically eliminated”.
The Vienna-based South East Europe Media Organisation, SEEMO, has also said it believes independent media voices in Macedonia are being silenced.
In August the France-based group Reporters Without Borders said it feared for the future of a free media in Macedonia following a summer of closures.
One journalist invited to speak at the panel in Brussels was Borjan Jovanovski, former editor of Eurozoom, a show aired on the now defunct A1 TV.
In his speech to the panel – following the interruption – Jovanovski said the authorities had a growing tendency to anathematize and discredit anyone who tried to think or act differently.
He recalled being labeled a traitor in 2009 as a result of his initiative to stage a debate between Macedonian and Greek experts on the vexed issue of Macedonia’s name, which Greece disputes.
As a result of the “name” dispute, Greece blocked Macedonia from joining NATO at the Bucharest summit in 2008 and is threatening to do the same with Macedonia’s EU accession bid.
“The only thing that resulted from it was hysteria and me being called a traitor,” he recalled at the debate.
In a far from untypical incident, a young man had come up to him in a café and abused him as “a traitor to the fatherland”, Jovanovski said.
“That is the reality in which we live and work, intellectuals, journalists, professionals and others who love this country but not in the way that those who govern want us to,” he added.
The timing of the rumpus in Brussels is unfortunate for Macedonia.
In October, the European Commission is to issue a report on the country’s EU bid, which officials in Skopje hope will speak positively of Macedonia’s progress towards accession.
One of the two MEPs involved in the debate, Germany’s Shatzimarkakis, insisted that his decision to expel the three reporters from the meeting was right.
“If people shout and disrespect the rules instead of listening, they are going to be expelled from any assembly,” he said.
He apologized for cursing in Greek in the incident and for uttering the word “malakas’, which means “wanker”, saying it was intended for the security guards and not for the journalists.
His colleague, Jelko Kacin, on Wednesday said the incident would not pass unnoticed. The Slovenian MEP’s office said the relevant EU institutions would be informed.
But Kacin also said he suspected that the Macedonian government was behind the whole incident, hoping to use it to its advantage.
“The incident was published in Macedonia even before the debate had begun, so the public in Macedonia was clearly manipulated,” Kacin said.
Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule said on Thursday that the Commission was “aware of this incident and finds it regrettable”.
He added: “We understand this was an attempt by a group of individuals and their backers to disrupt a public hearing in the European Parliament. Those involved have missed a valuable occasion to take part in an open debate.’”
This article is funded under the BICCED project, supported by the Swiss Cultural Programme.