The Thrust at Media
Changes to the Macedonian Constitution
Author: Vesna Šopar
The expected formally-legal changes to the RM Constitution will not directly affect functioning of media; however, a highly responsible task will be placed upon media to provide an objective and authentic information on the substance of changes, procedures of their adoption and implications for the future of Macedonia. The matter which directly concerns the media are the legislative changes, primarily the Law on Local Self-Governing, the Law on Local Financing, the Law on Municipal Borders and amendments to all laws related to the use of language.
However, before setting to work on these changes, one “condition” has to be met: adoption of the new Constitution and the intended amendments, primarily amendments to Articles 114 and 115 (related to local self-governing) and the amendment to Article 7 (related to the use of language). Time limits have been set to do so. The revised Law on Local Self-Governing, which is being “cooked” for some time, has to be adopted within 45 days after signing the Framework Agreement, i.e. by the end of September to the latest. The new Law on Local Self-Government Financing should be adopted during the present mandate of the Assembly, and we know that elections are scheduled for 27 January 2002. The same time limit applies to all laws related to the usage of language. Only the Law on Municipal Borders was granted a bit longer time frame. It should be adopted by the end of 2002, during the new mandate of the Assembly.
So, the media both have and have not enough time to switch into the discussion, to scrutinise their own future legal status and express their views and possibly offer suggestions for better and more consistent legal solutions. They should not fail to take advantage of this, not so frequent chance to influence their own destiny.
Who do these laws directly affect? First of all, the local radio-broadcast stations – the 29 radio and televise stations which, after adoption of the Law on Radio-Broadcast Activities (Article 29), continued to work as public radio-broadcast companies at the local level. Nevertheless, the majority among these radio-stations was not able to regulate the legal status because their parental municipalities failed to assume foundation rights (primarily due to political polarisation of interests in the Council of Municipalities); so, the Government “had“ to take that obligation upon itself (Article 29 of the Law on Foundation of the Public Company of Macedonian Radio-Television), and appointed its own trusty (Party) personnel as directors; thus, the problem was placed ad acta.
Paradoxically but truly, it is exactly when this new Law on Local Self-Governing is enacted, that the local radio-stations will again find themselves subjected to the blow by municipalities – those same municipalities that showed no interest for them, all in the hope to establish their own media as a status symbol. Only, this time the things are expected to take another turn.
Enactment of these laws, and in particular the Law on Local Financing, provides municipalities with a budget autonomy, and thus the possibility to participate in financing the local radio-stations, so far regarded as a burden which should be avoided due to imprecisely defined obligations of municipalities.
The drafts, i.e. the wordings of these laws will show whether they will resolve the status of local public radio-broadcasters. According to the planned timing of their adoption, initial changes in functioning of local public radiobroadcast organisations can be expected later this year or early next year at the earliest. But the assistance by the international community will be necessary in this, too, not only in prepares of the required legal changes relating to financial mechanisms, aimed to reinforce financial bases of municipalities and their financial management capabilities. This is in particular the case because economic experts claim that municipalities have virtually collapsed – around ninety percent seem to have bankrupted, and spent their budgets for the next 5-6-years!
Anyway, the crucial question that has to be posed by the media themselves is whether these changes in legal regulations will “mitigate” or “aggravate” their work.
In the worst instance, it could happen that public local radio stations remain completely excluded from the new laws on development of decentralised authorities. In a slightly milder option, local authorities could get full responsibilities to govern over these radio stations, through election of directors, steering boards and programme council; this would give powers to local politicians to have the “last” word about the programme contents. Situation is similar in Macedonian Radio-Television. Yet, for the sake of the truth it needs to be noted that these happenings are not a new experience for local stations. When we add the financial influence of municipalities to the entire picture, than the question remains if anything will stay for residents of the area to do and whether anyone will consult them whatsoever. So much of a public service in Macedonia.
From an optimistic point of view, enactment of these laws can finally resolve the painstaking question of current unregulated status of local media. This is particularly the case with the Law on Local Financing, and the possibility for local radiobroadcast organisations to get their share in the local government budget resources. Effectively, according to the current regulation, these radio and TV stations have three sources of financing: 5% from radiobroadcast taxes (i.e., from citizens), the rest from advertisements and local self-government budget. However, due to their financial dependability on central authorities, and having no means even for their own functioning, local authorities have entirely forgotten about the local media. Maybe the local authorities will now show more interest, or at least any interest, in the media whose “brave” founders they are. But, as we already warned, this is a sword with two edges, because the virtual possibility to influence their work will thus be increased. Still, it is very likely that most local radiobroadcast organisations will accept such an influence and dependence in exchange for the present unbearable financial situation at the edge of collapse.
If a local self-government gets a factual autonomy and, through its representatives, the right to decide about all issues of local nature and character (especially in the field of public services, urbanism, rural planning, protection of environment, local economic development, local financing, communal activities, culture, sport, social care and care for children, health care) and proves truly interested in “its” local radio and TV station, it is not likely that the idea initiated by the Macedonian Radio-Television will revive again to merge a certain number of local radiobroadcast organisations (primarily those in bigger towns as Bitola, Štip, Tetovo, Gostivar, Kumanovo, Ohrid and so on) with this national service, in the attribute of regional centres. According to the statement by the MRTV Management team, the intention was to establish a regional network with a programme of public interest. But, it would be simply naive to expect that “local strongmen” will easily give up the possibility and the privilege to abundantly promote their programmes and personalities by means of the local electronic media.
Another difficulty is the number of these radio stations, which is far smaller than the number of existing municipalities. The current number of 123 municipalities is expected to be drastically reduced, but the new municipal division will also not be able to fulfil everyone’s appetite. This does not necessarily have to be a problem but, on the other hand, can turn out to be a huge problem. After all, with the exception of Skopje, all towns have sufficient amount of free frequencies, so that the decision can be taken to establish new public radio-stations for the needs of local residents. It would be easy to find arguments for this idea, particularly if we insist on the need to strengthen local self-governments, local democracy or, as Europe calls it, “close-contact democracy”, which directly arises from ever-day life.
Unlike the changes that can be expected at the local public radiobroadcast service after the new legal regulations have been passed, and where the final state can at least be roughly outlined, it is highly unclear what changes are to be expected with public service of Macedonian Radio-Television. Namely, from the very beginning of Macedonian crisis, the Prime Minister himself has on several occasions emphasised the on-going prepares to set up the Third channel – once for programmes in Albanian language, another time for programmes in the languages of minorities. He even announced its launching in December this year. Today no-one mentions it any longer, and it remains unclear whether elaborates had been really prepared for the programme structure of this channel. Those malicious say that the (latest) technical support has already been provided for the start of the Third TV Channel in Albanian language, to the detriment of the current technical support in other MRTV channels. However, the full truth about this issue remains unknown.
But, even if we set to drawing hypotheses and suppose that Georgievski’s promise will be fulfilled, the question remains what will happen with the Second TV Channel of MRTV, which currently broadcasts its programmes in the languages of national minorities. Furthermore, it remains unclear whether the Law on Radio Broadcast Activities can be affected by adoption of the amendment to Article 7 which, in its Item Two says that “any other language spoken by at least 20% of the population, shall be regarded as official language”. Namely, Article 45, Item One of the Law on Radio Broadcast Activities reads: “Radio-broadcast organisations run radio-broadcast programme in Macedonian language”; Item Two of the same Law says: ”Public radio-broadcast company working in the territory of the Republic of Macedonia, in addition to its broadcasts in Macedonian language, also broadcasts programme in languages of national minorities”. Has the issue been clearly regulated by the Item Two? In order to get the answer, we shall have to wait for positions by legislature, or perhaps politics, given the issue includes a sensitive problem of the second official language.
In the instance that normative changes to this Article are not enacted, it will be realistic to presume that changes will happen in “scope” of the programmes in minority languages, which is the issue completely different from the idea of a separate televise channel for programmes in Albanian language. Such changes can be expected at local level, too, as the Item Three of the same Law on Radio Broadcast Activities reads: ”In the areas where as majority, i.e. in significant numbers, live national minorities, the local-level public radio-broadcast companies will broadcast their programmes, in addition to Macedonian language, in languages of the minorities, too”, although most current stations already broadcast programmes in minority languages, too. The criteria for operationalisation of this solution remain to be produced.
However, while we are dealing with all these legal dilemmas and catches, the Annex to the Framework Agreement on Solution of Macedonian Crisis, which is related to its implementation and confidence building measures, in the part related to culture, education and usage of language, urges the international community to increase its assistance for projects in the area of media, with the aim of further enhancing radio, television and press, including the media in Albanian language and multi-ethnic media. Even more importantly, the international community is invited also to intensify the programmes for professional education of media professionals among Macedonian minority members. The small (and very numerous) local “media for members of national majority” should be included here, too, as their situation in terms of journalistic personnel is alarming. The sooner we start the implementation of these projects and education for journalists, the sooner we shall have a professional journalism, immune to any economic or political influence, resistant to prejudices and stereotypes, mature enough to take active part in improvement of inter-ethnic relations and development of democracy in Macedonia and, ultimately, to define their own place under the sun.
Prof. Vesna Sopar, PhD, teaches a graduate course in mass media, communications and culture, at the Institute for Sociological, Political and Legal Research in Skopje. Translation by: O.H.
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