Five MPs from North Macedonia’s ruling Social Democrat government have proposed a motion to allow state and municipal authorities to buy ad space in private media for public awareness campaigns. In fact, the new rules would oblige this form of spending.
The Social Democrat party banned the practice of paying private media and private broadcasters with public funds to run state publicity campaigns in 2018. At the time, authorities reasoned that the move would put a stop to a running scam by the previous VMRO-DPMNE government to pay for favourable media coverage.
The former VMRO-DPMNE government was led by Nikola Gruevski, who fled North Macedonia to Hungary in 2020 to avoid a corruption conviction. Gruevski spent millions of euros on a number of publicity campaigns promoting ethnic tolerance, family values, patriotism, and the otherwise-criticised makeover of the capital Skopje.
Slogans of these campaigns included “Have a Third Child,” “Open Your Heart,” “Eat Healthy” and “Smile!”
At the time, authorities insisted that the media spending was in the public interest, and raised awareness about important social issues. Critics of the spending, including international media watchdogs, warned that the campaigns appeared to be intended to buy favour in the media using taxpayer funds.
The Social Democrats banned the practice in late 2018, after taking power in 2017.
This week’s motion, however, would see the ban scrapped by removing Article 102 of the Media Law. Instead, it calls for spending of between 3.5 and 4 million euros per year on these kinds of campaigns.
North Macedonia’s Association of Journalists (AJM) and the Trade Union of Journalists and Media Workers (SSNM) have all warned against lifting the ban. The Agency for Audio and Audiovisual Media Services (AAVMU) has also opposed the move.
“By repeating this mistake, Macedonia is going back 10 years, when the media were directly bribed in a similar way and the editorial and journalistic independence was violated,” the AJM said.
Even so, MPs from the Social Democrats are pushing to approve the amendments via a shortened parliamentary procedure, on the basis that they are neither “complex or extensive.”
North Macedonia’s national television stations, Sitel, Kanal 5, Telma, Alsat-M and Alfa, have all been pressing the government to lift the ban for the past several years.
The motion says the changes will ensure a “transparent, independent, efficient and accountable public broadcasting service and a transparent, independent, efficient and accountable regulatory body in the field of audio and audio-visual media services.”
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