Macedonians under high (cyber) surveillance

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By FD for APCNews

SKOPJE, Macedonia, 15 August 2012

The Republic of Macedonia is ranked among the poorest countries in Europe. It is isolated not only geographically, as it is landlocked, but also in the political and economic contexts. However, that is where the generalisations stop.

For six years, a conservative government in Macedonia has increasingly monopolised public space: citizen participation is listless, associations curbed, journalists intimidated and researchers controlled. Alternative or critical visions of society remain on the sidelines. Skopje, its capital, is not exactly a landmark for free thinkers, social critics and other kinds of independent folks. However, that does not mean that discordant voices do not make themselves heard.

In recent years, the independent media have left the printing press and the airwaves one after another. A significant example is the television station A1, whose journalists frequently investigated affairs related to corruption and the integrity of the ruling government. Closed down in 2011 by the authorities, A1 was succeeded by A2 (in 2012) – from the same media group – which also had to close shop. The three newspapers from this group, Shpic, Vreme and Koha were also shut down. However, although the authorities seemed to have succeeded in controlling the media space, a plethora of internet media have taken their place.

According to the most recent statistics from the International Telecommuncation Union (ITU) http://www.itu.int/ITU-D/ict/statistics/explorer.index.html, the percentage of Macedonians using the internet is approximately 57%. Compared with Europe as a whole, this relatively low percentage can be explained in particular by the near-generalised absence of elderly persons and the large sections of the population living in rural areas. So it is not everybody, but it is a beginning.

For those connected, social networks are a big hit: 80% have a Facebook or Twitter profile. “That is where there is an opportunity,” Bardhyl Jashari tells us. Realising that, the director of the Metamorphosis Foundation recalls having contacted sponsors, such as the Soros Foundation, and has taken back about 20 journalists who recently lost their jobs. That is how the Macedonian portal, Plusinfo.mk, was born.

Subsequently, in an unexpected burst, other independent media on the internet have reaffirmed their commitment to freedom of expression. The Albanian portal of journalists and bloggers, Portalb.mk, and the young journalists of Libertas.mk have quickly developed a community of avid readers. At the beginning of 2012, the media group behind the only independent weekly, Fokus, re-invested in the written word with a daily of the same name.

The battle over public space is never one-sided and the government also launched its own information websites before announcing that a new media law would be implemented in the near future. “This new law, possibly inspired by Hungary (see this article for reference: http://www.apc.org.fr/node/14153), is of concern to us because we believe that the government will use it to try to control the net,” says Jashari from Skopje.

It is not the first incursion into the internet by the government of the Republic of Macedonia. In 2011, Metamorphosis and the local association, the Helsinki Committee, already crossed swords with the government of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski on the subject of a controversial law on electronic communications. At the heart of this law, civil society denounced the direct surveillance of electronic communications by the government. Since the Helsinki Committee was already working on human rights such as freedom of expression and the right to privacy, all Metamorphosis needed to add was technical skill. The two groups then elaborated a critique of the draft law.

Initially put aside due to public outcry provoked by civil society organisations, the law finally passed with some minor amendments. State surveillance of the internet is henceforth a reality in the small southern European country.

There are many groups and individuals presently working on the rights of women, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transsexuals, homosexuals and migrants, among others. According to Jashari, they are barely using the web to amplify their message. Metamorphosis is therefore working with these groups to find ways of increasing their visibility through the astute use of social networks and the internet. “We are essentially coming in with technological support. This said, we are involved with human rights in Macedonian and Albanian every day, even sometimes in English and French”.

Expressing himself in impeccable English and French, he states that Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (freedom of expression) as well as Article 12 (right to privacy) are the main issues. “We are currently endeavouring to put together journalists and members of civil society groups to raise awareness on the subject of freedom of expression on the internet and its limitations, such as hate speech. We believe that this supports the professionalism of the media, while conferring visibility to the groups,” explains Jashari.

With regard to the respect for privacy, every year Metamorphosis produces a report which is put out by the NGO Privacy International.

Links of interest:

Charter of internet rights: https://www.apc.org.fr/node/6721/
Impact of the internet on human rights: http://www.apc.org/en/irhr/internet-human-rights
Metamorphosis: http://www.metamorphosis.org.mk
Independent media: Plusinfo.mk; Portalb.mk; Libertas.mk; Focus.mk
Report on privacy in Macedonia 2010 (page 511): http://bit.ly.OWMbvh

(END/2012)

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