The propaganda campaign using all weapons, launched these days against the NGO sector, quite openly resembles the smear campaigns and attacks of propagandists in countries where leaders practice authoritarian populism, countries with the so-called “Hybrid political system,” i.e. a system of “managed democracy” in which a consensus is not built with the political opponents, but they are seen as enemies whose political extinction is quite normal.
“Facts do not cease to exist just because they are ignored.”
Aldous Huxley, Complete Essays, Vol. 2, 1926-29
Author: Vladimir Petreski
When 46 NGOs in a country, especially in a small country, hold a common position telling the Prime Minister they do not believe in his ability and legitimacy to organize a population census, as an operation of paramount importance for the creation of the right policies, such a Prime Minister should stop and think about what is going on, why is there so much distrust in his actions and he should take all the possible corrective measures for reducing that distrust.
But, that would be the case in democratic countries. In Macedonia though, as a country going through the worst political crisis in the past 25 years, with democracy and Euro-Atlantic integrations depending on its outcome, the recipe of the government for dealing with the NGOs’ publicly stated distrust is quite different. In short, it consists of the following procedure: unleash your propagandists and attack the NGO sector with all the available weapons, in order to take down its credibility on both an institutional and personal level, in front of the domestic public and the world. We are amidst a new propaganda attack of the government, in which the power of media information is turned into a destructive weapon, targeting individuals, organizations and the entire NGO sector.
Describing the propaganda of the Kremlin in Russia, Peter Pomerantsev, probably the best-known analyst of the propaganda techniques used by modern autocrats to manipulate the public, said that viewers of public television channels in Russia are aware that a big part of the news is incorrect, but the regime profits from such news as well: it is not always clear what is false and what is true in the news. In addition, viewers do not always watch the news just to be informed about what is happening, but to also see what kind of crazy and nonsensical stories will be invented that day by the propagandists, which, if nothing else, are entertaining, because they contain attacks on some of the political opponents, so it’s worth seeing them just for their entertainment value or to have something to gape at, as seen in a reality show or a movie.
In Syria, the regime’s media create newscasts about the achievements of the government of Bashar al-Assad, even though everyone knows there’s a civil war raging in the country. During the protests in 2011 as part of the Arab Spring, the Syrian state media claimed that in the enemy state of Qatar, the “Al Jazeera” TV station built replicas of the squares of Syrian cities, bringing false demonstrators and that the protests were staged and directed by Western directors, in order to falsely report that there are protests in Syria.
Is there an additional reason for the media to be “acting crazy”? Yes. The problem is that the regime’s broadcasters and their bosses have been telling lies and manipulations for so long, according to the usual narrative provided by the government, that it is now impossible to change the story in any other direction without looking like a manipulator. Therefore, they must continue with what was repeatedly said before, because the regime no longer has any choice, same as its media propagandists. We had an opportunity to hear about how close the cooperation is between the pro-government media and the government, from the wiretapped conversations released by opposition leader Zoran Zaev, and these days we see that the cooperation continues as if nothing had happened, although propagandists are now aware and it is quite clear to them that they were wiretapped by their political chiefs. However, despite the clearly expressed mistrust in them by the regime, they must continue to protect the same regime that eavesdropped their conversations, simply because they have no other option.
FOSM IS THE CULPRIT FOR EVERYTHING
The best example for this are the recent offensive, defamatory and often senseless attacks by “Sitel” and “Vecer” on the NGO sector in the country. The absurdity started in the first article suggesting that VMRO-DPMNE should look for a director of the private Foundation “Open Society” – Macedonia (FOSM – the local NGO from the Soros Foundations network). It was instantly clear that the reasoning in this article was wrong, and it seemed as if it was retaliation for SDSM’s request to have its own senior officials in the state institutions. And, in the following article, common sense completely flew out the window. Aside from the pointless, libelous mentioning of names of leaders and employees from the NGO sector in order to smear them, FOSM was blamed for everything that happened in the past 25 years. And, in order to magnify FOSM’s guilt, a number of events from the contemporary history of the independent Macedonian state were presented as defeats; just so FOSM can be blamed for them. For example, the grand coalition government of 2001, which was an important condition for the ceasefire between Macedonian security forces and the KLA, is presented as a defeat, with FOSM being the culprit. Macedonia’s entry into the UN under the provisional reference FYROM is also presented as a defeat, and it is here in this article, that we found out for the first time that this was also FOSM’s fault, with the date of this event presented as being in 1995, although the country entered the UN in 1993. There are a bunch of examples like these and it makes no sense to analyze them one by one, because nonsense does not deserve such a treatment, and the former executive director of FOSM, Vladimir Milcin, provided a detailed explanation about the tragic lack of facts and about the piles of falsehoods.
Nobody blamed FOSM for these “defeats” in the past two decades. So, how is it possible that nobody accused FOSM for this nonsense in the past 15 or 20 years, and now “Vecer” and “Sitel” are here to wake us up and tell us what actually happened before our eyes, without us knowing it. And we were not the only ones who were not aware, but numerous foreign donors assisting the foundation were also unaware of this, some of them for years, foreign embassies and countries, even SDSM was not aware, as a party which is said to be under the umbrella of FOSM and commanded by FOSM, so members of SDSM are asked to “choose” whether they want to be its “hostages.” No one had a clue about this destructive underground political role of FOSM for decades, except for “Vecer” and “Sitel”, who figured out what was happening just now, or for some reason they were hiding all these secrets, and not revealing them to the public.
ATTACKING WITH FALSEHOODS
After the nonsense referring to recent history, the direct character assassinations were methodically initiated, NGO after NGO. And once again, lies and fabrications were used, such as the 500,000 euros from FOSM for the NGO “Civil” which was immediately denied, and then dealing with a local NGO from Kavadarci, i.e. with its location (this or that house), but without saying what’s wrong with their actual action and then absurdly saying that FOSM funded Islamic extremists, presenting a court verdict – containing nothing that would indicate Islamic extremism.
The latest nonsense in this smear campaign, whose last victim were the media assisted by FOSM (and those who are not assisted by FOSM, but as it is well known, facts are not very important) is the requirement to pass a law following the example of the US FARA (Foreign Agents Registration Act), under which all organizations/institutions that receive foreign grants should be registered with the Ministry of Justice. The only problem is that FARA is not created for non-governmental organizations implementing development projects, that’s not its goal, and the government knows exactly which organizations received grants and from whom, and the problem is that the Government itself is the recipient of most of the grants in the country, along with its ministries and institutions, so they should be among the first ones included in such a list of “foreign agents.”
But this whole Rashomon effect of nonsense works through direct accusations for which a bunch of fictional indications are used, as well as lies and half-truths about someone’s dishonesty or lack of ethics. That’s why there are so many of them – so they cannot all be answered. When confronted with a myriad of lies and half-truths without any arguments and facts, you need a lot of space to deny them all, because you – as the person being attacked, are the one who should provide all the explanations, the overall story and context, while the attacker can just sit back because he already did his job without entering into details, with his attack being full of falsehoods, although it may not sound like that at first. The problem is that in order to understand the manipulation it is necessary to elaborate the whole story in its proper context. And that requires a lot of time, detailed explanations and patience from the reader, which as a rule he does not have, and the detailed explanations do not fit the media context, which by its nature strives to economize words, in order to provide information faster and more efficiently.
MANIFESTATION OF POWER
The next goal of this propaganda is the manifestation of power. The character assassinations of opponents, the mentioning of their names in newspapers, the names of the organizations they work in, are not used for indoctrination, but for confirmation of power. The goal is for the public to think that although the government is not “good”, it is “strong” and it can with impunity intimidate, slander and even imprison and convict without consequences, and not that it needs to persuade somebody of something or express an ideological message, as Pomerantzev says (translation here).
Another goal of this propaganda is to prevent the public from understanding what exactly is going on. Unlike Western media systems, where integrity and the truth are the only weapons that the media possesses and cherishes and that serve for survival in the market, retaining the trust of readers and viewers, in the modern authoritarian systems the media do not depend or do not depend entirely on the market, and the companies they own are financially assisted by the government directly through tenders or through other areas of their business, so truth and professional integrity are irrelevant or far less important. In such a situation, the media supporting authoritarian leaders serve to promote that government, and to blur the truth, to spread confusion for the public not to find out what’s exactly happening and who can it trust. This is achieved by using piles of misinformation, half-truths, manipulations, etc., and by delivering “naked” value judgments for which there are no arguments, but are so numerous that start to function according to the old saying “repetition is the mother of knowledge.” Here, it is transformed as “the more comments with attacks, insults and slander, the stronger the impression of truthfulness”. Or at least an indication for the consumer to think that “there must be something going on here”, because such a large space has been dedicated to the topic. So, the goal is to create mistrust in the other side and to at least create an opinion that the other side is equally bad, if not worse. For this purpose, Russia has its own “troll factories” posting a myriad of comments and blog posts with the official Kremlin line, China has the “50 cent army” whose members receive 50 cents for each comment they post online, etc. But the whole thing goes even further now, the Kremlin is already developing entire websites intended solely to discredit Putin’s political opponents. And, in our country we have dedicated media for this, considering the fact that the price for their establishment, especially online, is low due to the small market and the unresolved copyright issues, so by stealing someone else’s content one can make an information-rich website, ran by only two or three people.
WELCOME TO ABSURDISTAN
However, Macedonia is neither China, nor Russia and the problem occurs when slander and insults reach absurdity. In a small country in which much of the information is revealed in an informal way and which must at least publicly follow the recommendations of the European Union, under whose eye it is constantly anyway as a candidate for EU membership, there is hardly anybody who would believe that an opposition protest did not happen but that, for example, America built a replica of the government building and brought protesters just to be able to record them. The absurd was a satirical gesture of the same type as the ones on the “Cosa Nostra” satirical website, or a subject to direct rejection and wide disagreement, such as the “answer” of the unnamed author of the Vecer editorial staff after the denial of the former executive director of FOSM Vladimir Milcin where insults crossed every boundary, and nonsense about blaming FOSM for funding Islamic extremism was actually interpreted as “nonsense”.
Propagandistic Absurdistan will certainly continue its smear campaign against the NGO sector until it satisfies the defamatory appetite of the one who runs the smear campaign. The war with lies, slanders and absurd claims will continue until the heads of the propagandists on duty are satisfied with the quantity of poison injected into the public debate or until the leader himself is satisfied with the return blow to the NGO sector which openly criticized him because the proposal for electronic signature is not serious and in a situation when he has no legitimacy for its implementation anyway.
One of the favorite topics of the current propagandists is the amount of FOSM’s budget, they are calculating FOSM’s budgets from 1993 up to date, inventing an amount of a 100 million euros (first this was 90 million, but what’s another 10 million plus, just to make it a number with three figures) without explaining how they were able to calculate euros from 1993 to 1999 before the introduction of the euro. Although this is a non-existent amount, even if it were doubled, it would show how small the NGO sector actually is in the country. In the UK, for example, the NGO sector generates 7 percent of the British annual gross domestic product (GDP), which would be the equivalent of an amount of 560 million euros annually in Macedonia, which is inconceivable, as the actual amount is probably 10 times less. Then they invent some additional 5 million euros per year that FOSM awards to non-governmental organizations – organizations that don’t actually exist. The amount of the funds regranted by FOSM to other NGOs is much lower and it is known to the public (3.08 million euros in 2014, page 3, paragraph 22, Donations and other fees), but they are certainly lower than those the Government awards to the fictitious NGOs (Page 71, item 463, transfers to non-governmental organizations - 5.56 million euros), which are mostly spent on projects related to the "Skopje 2014" project, without having anything to do with development programs. Of course, this amount of 5.56 million euros is also deceiving because the actual amount is much higher. First, a large amount of funds for NGOs are being awarded through the municipalities, and we all VMRO-DPMNE governs most of the municipalities having a majority Macedonian population, in all but three municipalities. In addition, the government also has great influence in the allocation of the funds of the European Commission in the country, which amount to 95 million euros annually. Aside from the fact that a large portion of these funds end up in government ministries and other state institutions as development projects (for example, 300,000 euros for the Ministry of Finance for EU databases or 750,000 euros for the Inspectorate for Transport from the EU, etc.).