Peaceful protests – a „turbulent ground“ for reporting!


Written by: Svetlana Bozhinovska

Protests have always been a „turbulent“ reporting ground. As a rule, they are announced as „peaceful“, but often the mass protests end with incidents, mostly between the police and the protesters, but also „hostile“ towards the journalists.

Exposure to constant danger in the journalistic profession can lead to a post-traumatic experience, said psychologist Milka Ololovska. Although an event, march or protest is announced as peaceful, for the journalistic team it is a kind of disturbance from what awaits them, from the unknown. According to her, this can cause continuoulsy accumulated work-related stress.

„The thought that as a person your integrity is threatened and exposed to the will of the crowd is disturbing and stressful. In the journalistic profession, it is very difficult to distinguish between private and professional engagement. Additional pressure is created by the censorship of the audience, the public, colleagues, how the event will be reported, etc. Posttraumatic syndrome is the most common, when there is a continuum of exposure to stress. It is best to have psychotherapy for easier coping with the stress and conditions i which the journalists or cameramen find themselves. Stress affects physical and mental health. Physiologically, the balance changes, secretions are secreted in the body, sweating occurs, the person becomes highly tense“, explains the psychologist Ololovska.

After physical and verbal attacks – psychological support is necessary

The practice of working with people who are exposed to stress on a daily basis in the performance of professional duties, as Ololovska says, creates an urgent need for every institution, especially the media, to have a special department for psychological support of its employees.

„Often the journalistic teams are left alone in the race with the time constraint to get the information on time, such information to be accurate and objective and presented to the audience on time. You can not be prepared in advance for such situations because you never know what you will encounter. Crowd psychology can lead to attacks, insults, and even physical confrontations. The most important thing is to preserve physical and mental integrity. „The journalist must create a „protective armor“ and a personal psychological defense mechanism“, said psychologist Ololovska.

But the question is how to achieve that in conditions when risk in journalism is an integral part of the profession?

„With professional help, of course. Danger always exists, you go home with fears, burdened by everyday events, under tension. Journalists must constantly work on self-motivation, not taking others as their own experience. Hence, there is an urgent need for every institution to consider having a psychological counselor who will work with journalists, their problems and needs because this is a really high-risk profession“, Ololovska is decisive.

In „journalis’s shoes“: field experience, how reporting from a protest became a field for attacks!

„People, quick steps, a couple of swear-words and shouting in the background, fear, uncertainty… I hear voices, someone approaches me from behind, and I squeeze the pen, which made a bruise on my palm… Then just a loud bang, punches, pain, I do not know who to defend myself from, it became a real mess, darkness is all I could see“, this is how the journalist Aleksandar Todeski remembers the attack during the protest of the initiative „Macedonia to all of us“, which happened about five years ago. He says that even after all this time, he still feels fear and restlessness. That day, his only thought was to report on time due to the city congestion and protests. But what was announced as a peaceful and non-partisan protest became a field for attacks!

„It was a protest season. Both the cameraman and I were attacked from behind by two people, kicking and punching. The two of us were taken by ambulance to the Emergency Center. What we experienced was horrible, not only as violence against a person, but also as violence in the workplace, which normally led to the question of whether the same thing would be allowed to happen to another colleague tomorrow, as always before“, says Todeski.

The case ended with a court ruling for one of the attackers, but, as Todeski says, it was slow, mild and degrading. It hurts more than the attack.

„Our case was resolved with a six-month sentence for one of the attackers, a person who still works in the City of Skopje. Although the resolution was supposed to restore my trust in the system, the bitterness remained due to the fact that the institutions failed to find the second perpetrator, so justice was served partially. What leaves great bitterness is the fact that these attacks do not stop, not only physically, but also verbally, and which rarely end in punishment for the attacker. Every time I pass by the gate „Macedonia“, I inevitably remember the event and I think that the traces left by this event, cannot be overcome“, explains Todeski.

Both journalists and cameramen face the same safety risk…

Carried away by the wave of emotions, but also unjustified violence – there are moments when we are not aware that we may harm to our first neighbor whom we have to see every day. The cameraman Vlatko Zhelcheski had such an experience.

„One of the attackers is my first neighbor today, we see each other every day in the neighborhood, on the street, the feeling is a bit uncomfortable, but I have nothing to be ashamed of. I have been working in this profession with dedication and love, since 2003. If it were not so, I would have left it a long time ago, especially after the attacks. But I decided to stay. It is even more difficult over the years, but we must love and respect what we do because we are the eyes and ears of the citizens“, says the cameraman Zhelcheski.

This experience of the journalistic team, however, had its genesis!

The protests that started on February 24, 2017 were organized by the „Hardliners“ under the motto „Macedonian March – a vow for Macedonia“. After a few days, they became more massive and grew into a „civil march“ directed against the so-called „Oppressive platform“. The rhetoric of the protests referred to a common and multiethnic Macedonia, but the messages and vocabulary changed after the then interview of the leader of VMRO-
DPMNE, Nikola Gruevski, who would say:

„Citizens are mistaken if they think that by sitting at home and watching TV, someone else will defend their country“.

Since then, the protests have gained momentum, with public figures joining in and addressing the protesters. Tension and hate speech also grew! Four days later, the attack on the team of journalists from „A1On“ portal took place.

Through numbers and statistics!

In the statistics of the Ministry of Interior, in 2020, nine incidents of attack on journalists were registered, and in the period July 2020 – October 2021, 9 reports of online threats against journalists and media workers were registered.

„During 2020, nine events were registered which included offensive or threatening words against journalists used online or verbally. One of them is registered as a violation of public order with a verbal argument. All reported events were forwarded to the Public Prosecutor’s Office for further action. In the period July 2020 – October 2021, 9 reports of online threats against journalists and media workers were registered. All have been cleared and submitted to the Public Prosecutor. Under one of the reports, the Public Prosecutor’s Office issued an order for further investigation, for which the Ministry of Interior is waiting for a response from a platform on social networks, one case was closed with a warning to the perpetrator. The rest are in the Public Prosecutor’s Office for further action#, said the Ministry of Interior.

The Ministry of Interior said that in cooperation with the OSCE Mission and the Association of Journalists of Macedonia, a „Manual for the safety of journalists during high-risk events“ has been developed to identify risks and avoid attacks on journalists, especially when reporting on high-risk events. But reporting risk remains an integral part of the profession, and stress is a consequence.

Are international agreements and conventions respected?!

That journalistic work on field is risky is nothing new or unclear, the profession by its nature is associated with certain security risks. Dejan Georgievski from the Center for Media Development says that a rather radical intervention is needed in international agreements and conventions, which protect freedom of expression, and national legislation, which operationalizes such protection of journalists, but also their consistent respect.

„What has been a problem for us so far is the culture of impunity, which, above all, is due to the slowness, and sometimes the obvious lack of interest of the institutions in charge of prosecuting and sanctioning such cases to take the necessary actions. Those reporters and investigative reporters who report on crime and corruption report on people who do not think much about using violence or threatening violence. Although I would like it to be different, it is hard to expect that if you have exposed any organized crime or high-level corruption, anyone on the other side will come and say: „Congratulations! Great, you exposed me, bravo! The public has a right to know!. It is very difficult to talk about preventive protection, unless we think that journalists should go on the field, on duty, together with bodyguards or police escorts. Or that journalists should consciously, for security reasons, avoid reporting on certain types of events, or on certain topics. As far as the online sphere is concerned, it is difficult to imagine any preventive action without „ex ante“, censorship in advance of everything that is published on the Internet“, adds Georgievski from CRM.

At home – at the request of journalists associations, whose representatives participated in the working group on amendments to the Criminal Code, in the future, the attack on media workers will be treated the same as an attack on an official.

The Ministry of Justice has prepared amendments to the Criminal Code, which in a separate article stipulates the protection of journalists and media workers, which provide for imprisonment of up to three years for attacking a journalist or media worker, for online or personal insults to journalists. The government has adopted the draft legal solution, which is now waiting for the green light from the Parliament. In addition to the amendments to the Criminal Code, amendments to the Law on Civil Liability also propose a reduction of the compensation for defamation and insult up to 10 times. Reforms in the part of the media were recommended in Priebe’s 2015 report on urgent reform priorities.

The story was prepared within the project „Кeeping Journalists Safe in Situation of Crisis“; funded by the UNESCO program – „Global Media Defense Fund“ and implemented by the Association of Journalists of Macedonia and the Independent Trade Union of Journalists and Media Workers.

The author is responsible for selecting and presenting the facts contained in this video story and for the opinions expressed, which are not necessarily those of UNESCO and do not bind the Organization.

The references used and the presentation of the material in this video story do not imply the expression of any opinion by UNESCO regarding the legal status of any country, territory, city or district or its authorities, or regarding the delimitation of boundaries.