DIRECT AWARDING OF PUBLIC MONEY TO THE MEDIA LEADS TO CONTROL OF MEDIA
Within its commitments for free, independent and professional media, Metamorphosis Foundation for Internet and Society deems that the media should not be directly and financially aided by the state. The aid ought to come in other forms such as lowering the tax rates and lifting the journalist employment fees and it ought to be for the purpose of quality and professional journalism regardless if it a matter of print, electronic or online media.
The trend of profitability decrease, low incomes, laying off of journalists and media workers, and winding-up of media largely affected the mainstream media in the Republic of North Macedonia (print and electronic). In recent years, the operations of the three biggest dailies in the country (Dnevnik, Utrinski Vesnik, and Vest) as well as one national TV station (TV Nova) were ceased. This shutdown wasn’t just a result of the market conditions and the management of companies, which didn’t go unnoticed by the law enforcement, but also of an intensive political meddling in the editorial policies of the media due to which hundreds of journalists and media workers were left jobless.
North Macedonia was also the one that attracted the world’s attention in recent years with the disinformation and fake news “factory” during the US presidential elections in 2016. Disinformation, manipulations and fake news aren’t novel here, therefore by recognizing this problem, Metamorphosis Foundation started fact-checking via Vistinomer.mk and the Media Fact-Checking Service in 2011 and 2013 respectively. But since 2016 onward, the degree of manipulations, disinformation and fake news as well as number of media that publish or repost them has increased severalfold.
The low profitability of media in North Macedonia didn’t affect the increase of journalism’s quality, the finding of new, smart manners to present news, the introduction of data journalism, and the finding of various funding sources.
Over the past decade, the media in the country were in the grip of a system of payment of public funds paid by the tax payers, and appointment of “eligible” editors and journalists in the newsrooms. All media, including print, electronic, online, national, and local were affected.
The direct awarding of public funds to media houses, comprised of multiple media outlets, may easily conflict the legally stipulated limitations in the Law on State Aid Control and Law on Protection of Competition.
In such cases, it would be exceptionally difficult to monitor and establish how and where the awarded funds have been spent, i.e. whether they have been used for the designated media outlet or purpose.
Oftentimes, media houses in the country are part of consortiums or group of companies with a complex ownership structure. Such businesses have interests in multiple economic activities that have nothing to do with media. Apart from the economic, they also have political interests that are effectuated through lobbying and close ties with political parties.
In such situation, the direct awarding of public funds puts the media in a position that leads to undermining the editorial independence and media freedom, destruction of integrity, and increased political influence.
Owing to the aforesaid, Metamorphosis Foundations deems that pointing out to the risks and ramifications that could emanate from the direct subsidizing of media by awarding public funds is of utmost importance.
Based on the domestic practice, and taking the European practice into account as well, especially the Recommendation CM/Rec(2018) of the Committee of Ministers to member States on media pluralism and transparency of media ownership; Declaration by the Committee of Ministers on the financial sustainability of quality journalism in the digital age (2019); and the opinion of the Federal Media Commission FMEC, stated in the paper Media subsidies: Current position and recommendations for the future, Metamorphosis deems that:
- The financial aid to media should not be in the form of direct awarding of funds. There ought to be other ways to financially aid the media.
- The aid ought to be given only to quality and professional journalism, regardless if it is a matter of print, electronic or online media. Criteria and ethical standards of what’s called professional journalism are clearly defined and available to the public in the Code of Ethics of Journalists.
- The state can offer aid to media through:
- Encouraging employment of journalists by lifting some of the fees;
- Reducing the relevant taxes, VAT for media above all;
- Relieving from customs and tax levies for import of new and modern equipment;
- Relieving from or reducing the levies for media start-ups, i.e. companies whose owners have no other income sources;
- Providing conditions for training of journalists (providing space and covering some of the training expenses)
- Subsidies for education and further education of journalists and media workers;
- Non-monetary aid for creating fact-checking teams in bigger newsrooms or for media already working on fact-checking, which is an exceptionally important tool and an investigative method in journalism for purging disinformation and manipulations;
- Reliefs provided by the local self-government (from physical space to lifting various fees, such as the company tax);
- Non-monetary subsidies not referred hereto, which could arise as ideas of the representatives of the media community in a future public debate.
- We emphasize that all stakeholders need to partake in a wider and more extensive public debate prior to making the final decision on the type and manner of subsidizing the media, while the decision itself must not, under any circumstances, leave space for influencing the editorial policy and controlling the media.