The media are not what they used to be: Can the ministers give partisan statements during their work hours?
Written by Zarko Trajanoski , MA in Human Rights
‘The conservatives are not what they used to be: the British parliament approved gay marriages’ –
– title on a web portal
The watchful monitoring and criticism of the political processes during the elections and the (ab)use of political power is one of the major ethical and professional responsibilities of journalists.
Journalists reporting on political processes in the Republic of Macedonia are facing a number of ethical challenges in an extraordinary political and media context. The current political context is predetermined by the political crisis following the events of December 24, 2012, endangering the legitimacy and regularity of the upcoming local elections.
One of the major ethical challenges for the journalists in a situation of a threatened freedom of expression is: How to meet the ethical imperative for critical monitoring of the political processes (the elections especially) when many of the critical media after the elections in 2011 were closed or ceased to exist and critical journalists were and are still exposed to various pressures and threats?
What happened to critical journalism after the elections in 2011?
Before the elections in 2011, the majority of opposition parties were boycotting the Parliament for quite a while, as a ‘response to the freezing of the bank accounts of four media, due to the criminal investigation of the owner of A1 TV, as a media that was criticizing the government the most.’ According to the media monitoring by the OSCE/ODIHR, ‘most of the media monitored the election campaign according to political party editorial policies, lacking critical analysis, and often complementing the facts with editorial comments.’
The lack of ‘critical analysis’ was complemented with other assessments that suggested an illegal connection of most of the media with the political representatives:
‘Most of the private television channels broadcasting on a national level, are owned by relatives of leaders of political parties represented in the parliament, which is contrary to the Law on Broadcasting.’
Instead of being perceived as the voice of the public interest, during the elections in 2011 most of the media were perceived as a voice of the government’s or political parties’ interests.
What catches the eye two years after the parliamentary elections is that ‘the most critical media’ – A1, Vreme, Spic and Koha e Re – are long gone. The Helsinki Committee noted that ‘…the closure of several media outlets that were criticizing the government, is detrimental to the media space in the country, and to its democracy’. The lack of critical analysis is becoming more and more noticeable and with the disappearance of critical media (‘Den’, ‘Gragjanski’) that failed to survive the economic climate in which the government ads are ‘awarded as a reward for the loyal editorial policies’ and advertisers fear government pressures if they publish ads in critical media. The change of ownership in some of the media contributed to changes in the editorial policy as well, and to the removal of journalists who are criticizing, or for softening their criticism.
It is alarming that most of the pro-government media are criticizing the opposition or the critics of the government more than the representatives of the authorities. Instead of ‘closely monitoring and bravely call to account those in power’ the pro-government journalists closely monitor and are bravely calling for accountability the opposition representatives who are not in the government. Thus, most of the media are not focused at all on seeking responsibility from the government for the events of December 24, 2012, but they are making the political crisis thematic by focusing on the decisions of the opposition.
Absence of criticism and calls for the government’s responsibility
The titles ‘VMRO – DPMNE reaches out to SDSM again’ (Kurir, February 25, 2013 ) and ‘Stavreski: We reached out, it is a shame that SDSM made a bad decision’ (MIA, February 27, 2013) were uncritically conveyed by a number of media, without attempts to raise the issue of the responsibility and involvement of the ‘Deputy Prime Minister’ in the violent removal of the MPs.
Let me remind you, the Helsinki Committee announced that ‘Several witnesses have seen and captured the scene when Finance Minister Zoran Stavreski, required the removal of opposition MPS from the Assembly hall, waving his hand to the security personnel.’ Based on the video footage, the Helsinki Committee stated that ‘the principle of division of power was violated, because the police were forcibly removing MPs at the ‘order’ of the Minister of Finance Zoran Stavreski.’ Despite this, the authority of Stavreski and his ‘image’ as a representative of those who ‘reach out’ was not challenged by journalists asking questions with criticism.
Moreover, MIA presented without any criticism the party statement of Stavreski given at a public event (promotion of non-cash payment for new identity documents) during work hours, when he is performing his government function, not his party function. The media did not mention the issue of whether public officials can give party statements at government promotions or at press conferences of the party during working hours. On the contrary, several media reported that the new proposal was announced at the party’s press conference by the Deputy Prime Minister Zoran Stavreski, although the party webpage states that the proposal was announced by ‘Zoran Stavreski, member of the Executive Committee of VMRO-DPMNE’. Practically, although Stavreski did not act as a finance minister or deputy prime minister, but as a party member, this was not a sufficient reason for journalists to challenge his statement in the name of public interest. Although citizens are directly affected as taxpayers, the journalists did not dare to investigate whether the finance minister took a day off, so that he can perform his duties for the party. On the contrary, some media merged his state and party post (‘deputy prime minister Stavreski, member of the Executive Committee of VMRO – DPMNE’) without wondering whether there is a case of abuse of the public office for partisan purposes.
State and party spokesmen
The media also failed to question the role of the Minister of Internal Affairs as a party spokesperson of VMRO – DPMNE. The article ‘VMRO – DPMNE quickly adopted amendments giving SDSM a chance to participate in the elections’ (published on TV Sitel’s website on February 26, 2013) includes an integral ‘statement at the press-conference of VMRO – DPMNE given by Minister Jankulovska’ although the party’s website contains a post that this is a ‘press conference of Mrs. Gordana Jankulovska, member of the Executive Committee of VMRO – DPMNE.’ The information presented during the party’s conference was not party information, but government information:
‘… We would like to inform you that the Government of the Republic of Macedonia, during today’s session adopted a draft-law on amendments to the Electoral Code…’
In this case there was also a noticeable absence of a critical approach and no questions of public interest were asked: Why is the information not presented at a government press conference? Can the ruling party use its press conferences to inform the citizens about government decisions? Furthermore, the last parliamentary elections were criticized by the OSCE/ODIHR due to ‘cases of insufficient separation of the state from the party structures, which is contrary to paragraph 5.4 of the OSCE Copenhagen Document of 1990’ on the ‘abuse of state resources for campaign purposes and use of partisan rhetoric in cases where candidates acted in the role of public officials.’ Namely, the reporters failed to affirm paragraph 5.4 of the OSCE Copenhagen Document of 1990, in which, for the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, the countries have committed to respect as an essential element of justice ‘the clear separation between the state and the political parties, and political parties in particular, shall not be merged with the state.’
Again, there were no questions with criticism about the responsibility of the Minister of Interior for the police removal of the journalists and MPs which resulted in a deep political crisis. There was also no question about the issue that particularly affects the citizens who are filling the budget from which the minister is being paid: Did Jankulovska take a day off to act as a member of the Executive Committee of VMRO – DPMNE during work hours, in order to hold a press conference of her party, or did she abuse her ministerial position for partisan purposes?
The ethical and professional obligation to closely monitor the political process during the elections requires journalists to re-examine and analyze the cases where there is no clear separation between the state and the political parties, between the state and party functions. Such cases are indicative of a possible abuse of political power.
(To be continued)
Ilustration: Gabriel VanHelsing