A few years ago, I went to Macedonia to talk to poor people, mostly Roma, about the gaps in the country’s supposedly universal health-care system – gaps that they had fallen through.

I went into people’s homes and sat around kitchen tables, as well as visiting local doctors. When I got home, I combed through data and called health officials and talked to them about the situation. That’s what a reporter does.

At the time, I lived in the Czech Republic, where I was accredited by the Foreign Ministry as a foreign journalist. That accreditation was not compulsory: It just put me on the mailing list for government statements and press releases.

So I was puzzled, but not entirely surprised, when one of our correspondents in Macedonia sent me an email about a piece of legislation under consideration that could severely restrict the right of foreign media to report there.

According to her and several other sources, only journalists from countries with which Macedonia has a “bilateral accord” would be able to base themselves in the country. Further, according to Reporters Without Borders, “the bill implies that foreign correspondents will be permitted only one renewal of their press accreditation, which would in practice limit their stay in Macedonia to two years. The issuing of accreditation will take up to two weeks, even for TV crews that are planning to spend less than a month in the country.”

There are more head-scratchers, still quoting RWB:

In an apparent attempt to curb contraband, strict limits are placed on the number of publications that can be brought into Macedonia. Individuals are allowed to bring only five copies of each foreign ‘publication’ with them. These are surreally defined as ‘books, CDs, periodicals, magazines, software, electronic publications, atlases, posters, photos, slides and any sound or video file, reproduced abroad.’

Finally, article 18 of the bill bans foreign correspondents from “gathering personal opinions and data from citizens by means of investigation.” Contravening this prohibition would be punishable by a fine of 100 to 300 euros for a reporter or 500 to 1,000 euros for a news media.

A few questions:

While accreditation is a reasonable requirement for a journalist covering a field where security is an issue – government agencies and courts, for instance – would a journalist have to get accredited for any reporting in the country? If so, why?

Why can’t someone bring in more than five copies of any single magazine or CD? I can see, perhaps, an effort to stop importers from evading customs duties – that happens with other types of goods – but the carrying limits are usually much higher (and why, then, the focus on media?)

Would the prohibition on “gathering personal opinions and data from citizens by means of investigation” have made my kitchen table interviews illegal? If so, who is meant to be served by a law that would block largely invisible people from telling their stories to foreigners?

Skopje already has a black eye when it comes to press freedom and it’s difficult to fathom why it would so needlessly enforce more controls and invite more criticism.

There is a bit of good news, however. The bill has not yet come up for second reading, and the government has invited the U.S. Embassy to review and comment on it. The justice minister has said the bill is open for amendment and that the government is paying attention to the discussions about it, according to RFE.

In addition, Skopje recently moved to decriminalize libel. That’s a good first step, as long as it is not followed, as it has been elsewhere, by laws that practically invite libel claims on spurious grounds like “hurt dignity.”

The EU has rightly started early accession talks with Macedonia. Thankfully, media freedom will figure in those talks.

Photo by Yan Arief/flickr.

Barbara Frye

Barbara Frye is Transitions Online’s managing editor. Email: barbara.frye@tol.org

More Posts