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Macedonia Dead Last In Europe On Press Freedom

A prominent critic of the Macedonian government, Borjan Jovanovski of the web portal Nova TV, received a funeral wreath at his home bearing the inscription "Final Regards."

Wiretapping, death threats, and politically motivated prosecutions have all contributed to pushing Macedonia to the bottom leagues in Europe in terms of freedom of the press.

In an April 29 report on press freedom around the world, U.S.-based Freedom House rated Macedonia 125th out of a total of 199 countries surveyed. The result puts the Western Balkan state in the uncomfortable company of countries like Bhutan, Kuwait, and Uganda when it comes to restricting freedom of the press.

According to Freedom House, the former Yugoslav republic is now last in Europe in terms of press freedoms and the least-free country for media in the Balkans, aside from Turkey. (The watchdog puts Moldova, Belarus, and Ukraine in a separate "Eurasia" section with most other former Soviet republics.)

Freedom House still rates Macedonian media as "partly free" (the best is "free"), but the country's overall score of 58 puts it just a few notches away from "not free" -- the worst category.

The most recent findings come as little surprise to close observers of the local situation. Macedonia's rating on press freedom has been falling for years, and the most-recent report merely confirms an uncomfortable trend.

The country's ranking in a separate international survey by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) -- the World Press Freedom Index -- fell from 34th place in 2009 to 117th in 2015.

While the Freedom House report did not identify individual reasons for Macedonia's drop, the report's concluding comments could easily have been written with Macedonia in mind.

READ MORE: Watchdog Says Press Freedom At Lowest Point In 10 Years

In the report, the watchdog identified several global threats to journalism, ranging from "governments that control information" to "groups that make reporting a potentially life-threatening activity" to "media owners who manipulate news coverage to serve personal or partisan interests." Macedonia checks all the boxes.

Wiretap Scandal

The part in the report about governments controlling information cuts particularly close to the bone.

The country is still reeling from a wire-tapping scandal in which the right-wing ruling party, the VMRO-DPMNE (or VMRO), allegedly -- and illegally -- eavesdropped on the phone conversations of more than 100 journalists and thousands of other citizens.

News of the recordings, apparently aimed at suppressing and embarrassing the government's critics, surfaced when the leader of the opposition SDSM party, Zoran Zaev, began leaking them.

Opposition leader Zoran Zaev leaked phone conversations of journalists and other citizens that were allegedly recorded by the right-wing ruling party.
Opposition leader Zoran Zaev leaked phone conversations of journalists and other citizens that were allegedly recorded by the right-wing ruling party.

Zaev says he got the recordings from a whistle-blower in the Interior Ministry. He points the finger squarely at VMRO Prime Minster Nikola Gruevski, whom he accuses of orchestrating the surveillance. Zaev has since released more recordings that also embarrass government officials.

Gruevski, for his part, denies any wrongdoing and says the recordings were fabricated with the help of a foreign intelligence service. That explanation seems unlikely, though, as many journalists have come forward to say that they recognize their own interviews among the wiretaps.

'Final Regards'

The part in the Freedom House conclusion about "life-threatening activity" must also ring true to Macedonian ears.

In April, a prominent critic of the government, Borjan Jovanovski of the web portal Nova TV, received a funeral wreath at his home bearing the cryptic inscription "Final Regards."

It's still not clear who sent the wreath, but it sparked a protest by journalists outside the government building in Skopje to draw public attention to what they say are the increasing dangers of reporting in the country.

Sefer Tahiri, a former RFE/RL correspondent and now an expert at the Institute for Spiritual and Cultural Heritage of the Albanians in Macedonia, also points to growing control over the media by private interests. "It is clear," he says, "that when the media is affected economically, it turns into a political servant -- not a public one anymore."

The latest problems follow a long list of threats to journalism over the past several years. In 2011, the pro-opposition television station A1 was forced off the air by a mountain of tax debt that critics say was simply a pretext to silence it.

The legal situation for journalist Tomislav Kezarovski remains unclear following his arrest on charges dating back two years that are widely seen as politically motivated.

'Degrading And Shameful'

Media experts in the capital, Skopje, reacted with shame on hearing the results of the Freedom House report.

"It is not only worrying but degrading and shameful for the whole society, especially for the political and state leadership, intellectual elites, and reporters," says Erol Rizaov, the editor of Macedonian daily newspaper Utrinski Vesnik. He says it's the general public that suffers most.

Rizaov says he sees no way out of the situation because, he says, the government has no democratic capacity to make the necessary changes.