Macedonia: Does democracy exist without debates?

“…Freedom of political debate is at the very core of the concept of a democratic society…“
(court case Lingens v. Austria)ima-li-demokratija-bez-debati-namalena

“The purpose of argument should not be victory, but progress.”

Concealment of violence against journalists and MPs

The journalist should “verify the accuracy of information from each source…” and “closely monitor and boldly demand the people in power to take responsibility”. – Code of Ethics of the “Society of Professional Journalists

On April 5, most of the media reported about the published Chronology of the procedure and circumstances for the adoption of the 2013 Budget of the Republic of Macedonia on the website of the Assembly of the Republic of Macedonia.

However, only part of the journalists checked the accuracy of the information in the chronology prepared by the Assembly’s services. Only part of the critically-oriented media reported that the chronology conceals essential data about key events – the violent removal of journalists from the gallery and of the opposition MPs from the Assembly hall. For example:

Apart from one media being slightly reserved in the title, the other media did not comment on the information from the Assembly’s chronology:

“… The President was attacked and extracted from the hall for plenary sessions.”

Only one media indicated that the document covers:

“a video recording of Veljanoski’s attempt to start the session, along with the events in front of the Assembly’s building, but not a video recording of the moments when the Assembly’s services removed the opposition MPs and journalists from the Assembly hall.”

Not a single journalist demanded responsibility from the people in power for allowing the publication of the chronology of circumstances for the adoption of the Budget, concealing key circumstances: the counter constitutional enactment of the Budget in the absence of the public and most of the opposition MPs who were removed from the hall by use of physical force. And it is exactly this violent removal of journalists and opposition MPs that disabled the democratic debate on the budget and took away the freedom of political debate which is at the core of the concept of a democratic society.

Can we have fair elections without debates?

The freedom of political debate is considered to be a fundamental right in a democratic society. The media are responsible for creating conditions for the exercise of this fundamental democratic right, because the public forms its standpoints about the ideas and views of political leaders mostly through the media.

International observers often emphasize the importance of the freedom of expression and its active use, so that voters can make an “informed choice” at the polling stations. According to the Initial report of the Monitoring Mission after the second round:

“The public broadcaster decided not to allocate any free time to contestants or hold debates, limiting the scope of information for voters to make an informed choice“, but this observation was not accentuated by the reporters.

Even when certain political parties addressed the issue of certain politicians being ignored by national TV stations during the election campaign, the issue was ignored by the pro-government media, for example the following statement:

“During the one month campaign, not even once did the national TV stations cover a live speech by the president of VMRO-People’s Party, Mr Ljubco Georgievski, although he attended and held speeches at most of the meetings of the Alliance for the Future.”

Most of the pro-government media constantly ignored the oppositions’ calls to TV duels, including their crucial question:

Can we have democratic elections if we do not have debates that would allow voters to make an “informed choice”?

VMRO-People’s Party’s fierce criticism towards VMRO-DPMNE was presented only by a few media (Libertas;PlusInfo):

“They are afraid of direct confrontations, debates, duels, and the only thing they know is to censor their political opponents to the maximum extent and falsify their statements through the installed media control.”

Can we talk about democratic elections, if the media does not play the watchdog role, which is particularly protected by the European Court of Human Rights? Namely, when it comes to controversial issues of public interest during a political debate where criticism is directed towards the government, politicians or public authorities, harsh words and fierce criticism are tolerated to a greater extent by the court in Strasbourg (see Macovei).

The harsh words and fierce criticism are an integral part of the pre-election debates broadcasted live, hence there is nothing more absurd than the explanation of the public broadcaster that debates are not organized live “in order to prevent an incident from happening during the debate“. In the report of the Monitoring Mission from March 25 journalists had the opportunity to read the following information:

“MRT1 did not organize any debates, but MRT2 held 17 debates between ethnic Albanian parties, the majority of which were supporting DUI”.

Unfortunately, apart from the aforementioned story, the critical question “Why where debates organized only on MRT2, and not on MRT1?” was not asked.

Given that the election debates are an issue of public interest, journalists are expected to be critically oriented towards all media that do not allow pre-election debates and to all candidates and parties avoiding debates. Unfortunately, the question about the purpose and the meaning of the debates was posed after the elections, when the Ministry of Information Society and Administration tried to organize a public debate on the Media Law, which was not at all available to the media workers, until the day of the debate.

Written by Žarko Trajanoski, MA in Human Rights

This analysis was created within the framework of the USAID Media Strengthening in Macedonia Project – Media Fact-Checking Service Component, implemented by Metamorphosis. The analysis is made possible by the generous support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents are the responsibility of its author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Metamorphosis, USAID or the United States Government. For more information on the work of USAID in Macedonia please visit its website (http://macedonia.usaid.gov) and Facebook page (www.facebook.com/USAIDMacedonia).

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