Ongoing protests for democracy and free media in Macedonia


The transparency and competitiveness with which Macedonia conducted its last parliamentary elections won the congratulations of High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton, but the call to the people ended on a dramatic note, when 22-year-old Martin Neshkoski was beaten to death on June 5 by police forces just a few hours after the vote.

The death of the young Neshkoski, a supporter of the ruling nationalist VMRO party (Macedonia for the Macedonians), aroused the indignation of his countrymen, who first learned the news mainly through social networks.

In fact, the heavily state-controlled mainstream media did not at first acknowledge his death.

Even though the victim belonged to the ruling party, the national media neglected the story, until the news was finally broadcasted by the opposition controlled television station TV A1.

Three weeks later, protests, rallies and sit-ins are still shaking the small Balkan republic, which is also one of the candidate countries seeking to join the EU.

Skopje hugs the Parliament - Protests, day 20 from Dejan Velkoski on Vimeo.

“This was the first case in Macedonia where citizens have been using their legitimate right to practice direct democracy without interference from political parties”, says Sead Dzigal, a journalism expert at New Media Center in Skopje.

For more than one day, no official information was released on the death of the young man, who was erroneously identified as Daniel in the first news reports.

Significantly, the protests, which gathered hundreds of participants, started off in an attempt to obtain more information on the case from the government and the media, who are generally seen as being too cautious when dealing with news that could harm political parties in place.

Journalistic independence is a major concern in Macedonia. “The country has numerous media outlets (tv, print, radio) that greatly outnumber what the market forces can reasonably support,” says Dzigal. “As a result, the government is one of the main buyers of private media time, while the Parliament directly controls the public channel MTV (Macedonian TV). Media loyalty towards the government is thus being ‘bought’ by large sums of advertising money.”

According to statistics for 2010, there are about 2300 journalists in Macedonia. “The average salary of a journalist in Macedonia is EUR 200-300 per month. Chief editors and other high ranking journalists can earn up to EUR 500-700,” says Dzigal. “It’s not enough to afford the costs of a trial.”

“The country’s libel laws make journalists vulnerable to personal law suits by government officials and discourage hard-hitting investigative journalism,” Dzigal points out. “Furthermore, the Macedonian media is polarised along political and ethnic lines. This hurts the objectivity of reporting”.

A December 2010 survey indicates that only 39 percent of Macedonians trust the media.

Protests against police brutality in Skopje, Macedonia. Photo credit: Dejan Velkoski

When Martin Neshkoski passed away in Skopje’s central square “Macedonia”, his body was covered with a plastic bag for several hours, as later reported by eyewitnesses.

This is when Twitter proved to be an efficient tool to spread the news and organise the protests. Several people noticed the presence of the special “Tigers” police unit around the young man’s body and the information soon became public despite the silence of the mainstream media.

After being brought out by independent news agency NetPress and shown on opposition television station TV A1, the news story gave rise to the protest of a growing number of people.

“The movement is evolving, it’s difficult to know what’s going to happen,” says Dejan Velkovski, the only blogger who has been following and posting regular updates of the protests since they started until now. “However, the mainstream media is not helping us, because it is mostly taking sides with the political parties and it is not being objective, not even at the bare minimum.”

Already under the attention of Human Rights organisations for violations perpetrated during the 2001 conflict, the special “Tigers” police unit answers directly to the Prime Minister.

“I have been saying all along that all the members of the unit who participated in the battles ten years ago are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. They need professional help,” declared Stojance Angelov, a former “Tigers” commander.

“The worst part is that everyone has been trying to cover up what happened, people from the government even went to the boy’s family to ‘advise’ them not to say anything,” cries out Marija, a young journalism student who joined the protests in the centre of Skopje. “His mother admitted it in public.”

“We ask the government media to say the truth. It’s not possible that news like this, the death of a young man in the middle of a capital city during a celebration, is not properly investigated!”

Protests against police brutality, Day 20, Skopje, Macedonia. Photo credit: Mite Kuzevski via Flickr

The spokesman of the Ministry of Interior Affairs, Ivo Kotevski, first denied having any information about the killing, in an attempt to decrease media attention.

However, the news started to spread when the first eyewitnesses spoke to the independent news agency NetPress and the victim’s mother publicly called for justice for her son.

“The media is mostly trying to discredit and belittle the protests by claiming that they are organised by some political party, which is not true,” says Dejan. “For the first time in Macedonia, young people are organising themselves and taking action, beyond political divisions.”

Macedonia protests police brutality - The Stream/Al Jazeera interviews Dejan Velkoski, 13 June 2011

Due to high prices of computers and low salaries, and the fact that the country’s population barely reaches more than two million inhabitants, there is no significant amount of social network users in Macedonia.

However, three weeks after the event, about 1000 people are still rallying every day, waiting for an answer from the national authorities.

After finally acknowledging the protests, the mainstream media has started carrying out interviews with alleged representatives of the movement.

Meanwhile, protesters are reporting that new faces are showing up and that there is a fear this could be a move by pro-government forces to sabotage the rallies.

In fact, a woman named Biljana who was interviewed as a leader of the protest movement appears to be unknown to the people who have been involved in the demonstrations since the beginning.

In a country as divided as Macedonia, whose Slavic Orthodox and Albanian Muslim ethnic groups fought against one another in 2001, the protests could unite the younger generations in their common aspiration for a more efficient democracy.

After witnessing 20 years of contention with Greece over their country’s name, and the Greek veto over Macedonia’s candidacy to the EU, Macedonians today are calling for a more participative, solidaristic democracy, where the media plays a role in increasing people’s awareness and education rather than in boosting nationalism and propaganda.

“We need more Europe,” says Fatoun, a producer for the public Macedonian TV broadcaster. “I am an Albanian Muslim, but my values are European, I want more democracy, not less! Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia are selling us TV shows and soap operas, where is Europe in all this?”