Termination of Impunity as a key condition for reducing attacks on journalists

Written by: Enis Murtezi

Freedom of speech is a valuable indicator of the capacity and institutional set-up of democracy in society. At the same time, freedom of expression is not an absolute right, but carries with it duties and restrictions that users of the online space often do not respect. In that context, on social networks, in the comments of the posts, but in the mutual communication as well, one can often notice the use of threats, insults, curses, as well as hate speech towards various groups and individuals. It does not belong to the freedom of speech and does not enjoy protection by the laws that regulate freedom of speech. In this analysis we will address the (un)safety of journalists, which is the main precondition for quality and timely information.

Freedom of speech, public appearance, public information versus the safety of journalists are inextricably linked topics that touch the most important pores of journalism. They are, in fact, one of the main indicators of the maturity of a society or democracy in a country to meet the challenges faced by journalism.

Among the main problems and challenges that have lingered in the media for years are: the poor
economic situation of some journalists, the financial pressure on some of the media from various political and business centers of power, as well as attempts to influence journalism or editorial policy of a medium in a brutal manner, by threatening the security of journalists, editors or media workers.

As we have mentioned, the basic precondition for professional performance of journalistic duties and for the objective and timely informing of the citizens is exactly the safety of the journalists and media workers. Ensuring the safety of the teams of journalists also demonstrates the democratic capacity of a society, as it leaves room for journalists to practice their profession freely in order to satisfy the public interest. Therefore, the issues of journalists’ safety are one of the main indicators that the European Commission deals with when monitoring the countries that have the status of candidate countries for membership in the European Union (EU).

The annual reports of the European Commission (EC), Chapter 23, which deals with the judiciary and
human rights, in addition to the degree of freedom of expression, provides qualifications in the context of the safety of journalists and media workers, as well as the policy of impunity in cases of violation of their rights. In recent EC reports, one of the main problems that has persisted for years is the high degree of impunity for attacks on journalists.

The attitude of the state towards this problem is one of the key indicators, which helps to determine the country as free, partially free or not free. The growth of the country on the scale that measures freedom of speech, apart from some other factors, is largely determined precisely by the relationship of state institutions (MoI, Public Prosecutor’s Office, courts) and social actors (Government, political parties, NGOs, public) to this problem. Not only in terms of (im)punity for these acts, but also by creating a general climate that stimulates or discourages such acts against journalists and media workers.

In the last two years, in the register of the Association of Journalists of Macedonia (AJM), more than ten verbal attacks on journalists have been registered. Most of the attacks are threats made on social networks. Unfortunately, although most of the attacks were reported to the Ministry of Interior (MoI) or the Basic Public Prosecutor’s Office (PPO), only one of the intimidators was punished by the court.

The Sector for Cybercrime and Digital Forensics at the Ministry of Interior is in charge of researching and clearing up digital threats to journalists. Although journalists’ associations often report threats against journalists in the Cybercrime Sector, the number of cases in which the Ministry of Interior has acted on such reports is still very small. According to the data we received from the Ministry of Interior, 12 reports of hate speech against journalists were received at their address in 2020, while this year, three reports have been submitted so far.

The Ministry of Interior also informs that the Sector for Internal Affairs in Tetovo has filed charges against a person from Tetovo, who sent death threats to several media on a social network.

„SIA Tetovo filed criminal charges against A.E. (36) from the village of Tearce, Tetovo region, due to the existence of grounds for suspicion of having committed the crime “endangering security”. On March 22, 2021, the Association of Journalists of Macedonia reported that on the social network” Facebook “, the defendant published a text containing threats against journalists from several media,” said the Ministry of Interior.

The only case that ended with a court ruling and the attacker was punished in court is the case of Emil Jakimovski, who made threats against journalists Meri Jordanovska and Iskra Koroveshovska. Even the names of politicians who threatened journalists and were not punished by the relevant institutions can be seen in the register of attacks.

The journalist Meri Jordanovska, regarding the hate speech, told us that she many times faced insults and threats of different types in the course of her work. According to her, women journalists are mostly attacked on the basis of gender. She retold in detail the case of VMRO-DPMNE member Emil Jakimovski, a case she says she simply could not keep quiet about.

„I often kept silent about the insults, but what I could not keep silent about was what happened to me last year, when the spokesman of the Central Registry at that time, member of VMRO-DPMNE, Emil Jakimovski, early in the morning, around 5 o’clock, when he noticed that I joined the telecommunication network “Telegram” started sending me threatening and insulting messages. “We will see you at the obituary”, “foreign mercenary”, “I know exactly where you live”, photos with handcuffs, were just some of the messages that Jakimovski sent to me, which was terribly disturbing for me. Moreover, in the following days I found out that he was also reported for domestic violence and that similar insults and threats were faced by other colleagues of mine, as well as employees of the Central Registry. That is why
I decided to report the case, which to my surprise was expressly resolved. The case was taken over by the Violent Crimes Unit at the Ministry of Interior, and together with the Department of Domestic Violence, they connected my case with the case of his ex-wife, who had been dragged through the court labyrinths for years. Jakimovski was sentenced to one year and eight months in prison and sent to compulsory treatment. “He is still serving his prison sentence,” said Meri Jordanovska.

On the other hand, the journalist Furkan Saliu says that online threats are so common that after a while he does not take them seriously and that he has not reported such a case so far.

„So far I have not reported, because I do not take them seriously. And why should I report them? – There were more serious threats to journalists, so they did not end with verdicts. “Simply, we have started to treat such cases as the prosecution and the judiciary treat them,” said Furkan Saliu.

Only through concrete amendments to the Criminal Code, by empowering the prosecution to act ex officio and by increasing the sentences for the attackers, will the security and the policy of impunity for journalists and media workers be systematically improved. In addition, journalists’ associations are demanding that a special unit be set up at the Basic Public Prosecutor’s Office to work on clearing up attacks on journalists.

In this context, AJM and SSNM are in constant communication with the Ministry of Justice in order to make legal changes, which will provide a safer working environment for journalists and media workers. The legal changes must be voted unanimously in the Assembly of the Republic of North Macedonia. Parties should and must put this issue high on their agendas if they are to make real progress on the safety of journalists.

The MP from The Alliance for the Albanians and Alternative coalition, Adnan Neziri, told us that
impunity for hate speech is the main motive for spreading and increasing cases of hate speech. According to him, the institutions are the biggest culprits for not acting in these cases. He announced that their coalition would support the amendments to the Criminal Code, which would treat the attack on journalists and media workers as an attack on an official.

„In those few cases where investigations and cases are encouraged, they end up in drawers and become obsolete as acts. Institutions are the main culprits, and we often hear and read hate speech from the leaders of the institutions. We are for such a law and I personally, but also as a party, will not only support it, but also insist that the law be passed as soon as possible. “Apart from attacks, journalists need to be protected from a social perspective, and from psychological torture, mobbing and censorship,” said MP Adnan Neziri.

The efforts of the Association of Journalists of Macedonia (AJM) and the Independent Trade Union of Journalists and Media Workers (SSNM) are aimed at amending the Criminal Code and tightening penalties for threatening and attacking journalists. Numerous activities, workshops, manuals and trainings have been made to improve the cooperation between institutions and journalists in order to improve the safety of journalists.

Milan Spirovski from AJM says that it is important for the Ministry of Interior (MoI) to conduct urgent investigations to determine the identity of the people who incite hate speech through comments on social networks, and then the Basic Public Prosecutor’s Office to initiate a case through which they will be sanctioned in accordance with the Criminal Code. According to him, these two institutions need to understand the seriousness of impunity for hate speech in the Republic of North Macedonia, which must stop in order to avoid acts of hate speech. On the other hand, he says that the distrust of journalists in these institutions is justified.

„Viewed from the perspective of the past year, there is an increasing number of online threats and attacks on journalists and the inefficiency of institutions in punishing the attackers. AJM records 14 attacks and threats, of which more than half against journalists. Unfortunately, only one of these cases has been resolved in Skopje courts. That distrust in the institutions is justified precisely because of their inertia, i.e. not acting on the reports of online hate speech addressed to journalists. The procedure for preparation of a new Criminal Code is in progress, which will include criminal acts that will raise the level of protection of journalists and media workers, “said Milan Spirovski from AJM.

Recommendations on how to improve the situation with online hate speech:

– Urgent handling of cases of hate speech and punishment of perpetrators. This discourages other people to do the same;

– Increasing the monitoring of social networks and acting through indications and campaigns to reduce hate speech;

– Raising the overall social awareness on this issue, especially among the younger categories of the population, who most often appear as creators of hate speech;

– The Ministry of Interior and the Public Prosecutor’s Office need to understand the seriousness of the impunity of hate speech in the Republic of North Macedonia, which must stop in order to avoid acts of hate speech;

– Adoption of amendments to the Criminal Code which will treat an attack on journalists as an attack on an official;

– Stimulating journalists to report cases of hate speech on social networks. One must not remain silent in the face of insults and threats, it is the only way to raise awareness and sanction the perpetrators.

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