Today’s cover of the Macedonian daily Vest (News) is blank except for the headline, “This Is How Front Pages Will Look.”

Personally, I would have gone with something like “The Future of News.” But Vest’s point is clear enough: Macedonian media are under attack.

The powerful cover is in protest to hefty new fines for libel. Announced 13 June, the sanctions, ironically, were part of a successful negotiation between the government and the Macedonian Journalist’s Association (ZNM) to decriminalize libel to meet EU accession criteria. (Libel is not a criminal offense under European standards).

The ZNM says the fines – up to EUR 2,000 for reporters, EUR 10,000 for editors, and EUR 15,000 for media outlets in civil convictions – are a compromise, partly because the government wanted higher penalties. It insists that they will be a last resort after a thorough and transparent legal review.

But many journalists see skullduggery. A TOL correspondent in Skopje says the fines will further stifle media in a country with an already backsliding press freedom record. That’s because reporters rarely receive cover from media owners in libel convictions that carry fines, she says.

This will lead to bigger censorship and self-censorship (which is more dangerous), because the practice till now has shown that journalists themselves are paying the fines, out of their pocket – some of them even took bank loans to pay the fines.

Even if a media owner is potentially liable, our correspondent suggests, reporters remain vulnerable because they simply can’t trust the judicial system to issue fair and independent rulings. Given that the new fines are, at minimum, equivalent to the average Macedonian’s yearly income, the risk of reporting on corruption or corporate governance or other sensitive but vital issues is enormous –  nearly prohibitive.

It looks like Skopje has pulled one over on journalists, rights groups, and Brussels, which have slammed its press freedom record recently for putting the screws to media that have criticized the government. (Several of these outlets have closed). Skopje has been negotiating with the ZNM over decriminalizing libel and other issues since last year, and EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele praised the 13 June deal. But it came at quite a cost.

Photo of a 2011 protest march by journalists in Skopje from Flickr

S. Adam Cardais

S. Adam Cardais is a TOL contributing editor. Email: adam.cardais@tol.org.

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