Experts: The spending of public money in the media remains an unresolved issue

Article 102 of the Law on the Audio and Audiovisual Media Services (LAAMS), which used to govern the “informing of the public” while now it “prohibits the advertising”, still leaves space for abusing and corrupting the media with public money. This article ought to be deleted or reworded

 

Article 102 of the Law on the Audio and Audiovisual Media Services (LAAMS), which used to govern the “informing of the public” while now it “prohibits the advertising”, still leaves space for abusing and corrupting the media with public money. This article ought to be deleted or reworded

 

Author: Teofil Blazhevski

 

On the second last working day of 2018, the Parliament of the Republic of Macedonia passed the “Amended Bill for Amending the Law on Audio and Audiovisual Media Services” which apart from some other dilemmas, brings forward the dilemma whether the government is really deprived of the opportunity to spend public money in private media.

The main concern is article 102 of the law enacted in 2013, which explicitly allowed spending public money in private media. Now, after all this time waiting for this law, the amendment, with the title “Prohibition of advertising” and the text which is ambiguous and poses risk, according to the experts and the major journalistic association we consulted, was passed unanimously during an amendment discussion in the eleventh hour:

State bodies, state administration bodies, public enterprises, local self-government units, public facilities and institutions as well as legal entities with public authorizations and companies owned completely by the state must not allocate funds for informing and familiarizing the public with their services or activities through private broadcasters – says article 102.

Generally, the remarks are that the ambiguousness lies in the phrase “must not allocate” and also that such provision should not be contained in the principal media law, but in other ones instead.

 

CHADIKOVSKI: THE ARTICLE HAS TO BE AMENDED

The Association of Journalists of Macedonia (AJM) reacted promptly to Parliament’s enactment of the amendments to the law, which happened during the “dead hours” of the festive season. As regards the article 102, the AJM said the following in their press release:

Despite the positive amendments to the law, which were agreed upon with the journalistic and media community over the past period, we are concerned about the content of the article 102 of the law pertaining to the prohibition of advertising with public money. Instead of a clear provision that shall prohibit the spending of public money in media outlets, this article reads that the “institutions shall not allocate funds” from their budgets for spending in the media.

Asked to provide a more detailed explanation on the views in the press release, AJM’s president, Mladen Chadikovski, told us that the AJM is absolutely resolute regarding this issue and has no intention of backing down.

We warned immediately that the imprecise wording leaves space for reallocating other budget items for the ones specified in the article. If this article continues to form part of the Law, the AJM, either on its own or in coordination with other journalistic organizations, is going to demand and initiate amendment thereto. This article must be additionally explained and made more precise in order to reject any possibility or suspicion that it will be abused by anybody, that public money in the media may be used for corrupting the media space, as it was the case. We are well aware of the consequences faced by the public from that practice and that’s why the media organizations opposed the article 102 of the LAAMS, which was even absent in one previous bill submitted to the Parliament – Chadikovski says.

 

TRPEVSKA: STRANGE WORDING SHOULD NOT BE USED

That this law, i.e. the specific article, is not being read too harshly has been confirmed by the media expert Snezhana Trpevska, PhD, head of the RESIS Institute, an NGO:

I suppose that the amendment to this article, which, again, is unclear, seeks to prohibit the so called state advertising in the media. However, the prohibition, as it is put, pertains to the state and local institutions, not the media. It’s strange how a law governing the audiovisual media prevents the institutions from doing something. The prohibition should be explicit for the media as well – not only when it comes to the state, but also for the entire political advertising too. 

Trpevska says that the previous version of the article 102, which was abused, contained strange wording:

The problem was the use of strange wording to conceal that all of that is actually advertising. The term “informing the public” (in the previous version of the article 102, our remark), points out to the PR of the state institutions and bodies, but that’s not advertising and it’s not done as a paying activity. In fact, the basic difference between the PR and advertising is the actual process of paying for the service, since the first has the aim to “feed” the media with well-prepared information rather than paying them for preparing or producing informative content. Informing the public about the work of the state bodies is actually journalistic task and in no way should be paid by budget money, because in such case, the critical role of the journalism as a safeguard of the public interest is deeply undermined – Trpevska says.

TASEVA: THE RISK OF CORRUPTION IS PROFOUND

Given that it’s definitely a matter of a problem that may lead to corruption in the media, we asked Slagjana Taseva PhD, expert of anti-corruption and Transparency International Macedonia’s president, for her interpretation of the article and the wording.

First of all, Taseva says, this wording without a doubt poses a risk of corruption.

Second, an article such as article 102 should not be a part of the major media law, but of laws on government, local self-government, public enterprises and so on. Any future mayor, director or the like might allocate or reallocate funds with the justification that they didn’t consult the law on AAMS, since it’s not their main law.

Third, if the article continues to form part of this law, saying only “must not allocate” (funds, our remark) is not enough. Instead the sentence “must not reallocate and must not spend” in the public radio and TV stations should be included, too.

Finally, the penal provisions of the law must cover an article related to this article which prescribes some sort of a sanction for non-compliance with the principal demand of not spending public money in the media – Taseva says.

 

PUBLIC MONEY WILL BE SPENT DURING ELECTIONS

The history of spending public money in Macedonian media is notorious. Banning such practice was sought so persistently because the past experience has shown that it is the means of “purchasing” of the editorial policy, especially when it comes to the most influential media outlets in the country, like TV stations.

This demand was set forth during the “Przino talks” but the previous government turned a deaf ear to it. After the SDSM-led coalition took power, it met the media organizations’ demands almost instantly. First, in a declarative manner, the Government announced that it won’t spend funds on advertising, except on social media.

Then, the bill that was debated by all stakeholders for a long time saw the deletion of the article 102, which can be seen in the versions submitted to the Parliament. So now, all of a sudden, an amendment supported by all MPs in a committee session returned the law in a form that is dubious both for the AJM and experts as well.

But, an amendment made before the referendum to another piece of legislation, the Electoral Code, may prove that this is not just a plain coincidence. By inserting a new article, it has been provisioned hat the media campaigns of the political parties that will participate in elections will be paid for by the Budget of the RM via the Ministry of Finance. Back then, the AJM and other media organizations reacted strongly, but they faced a wall and even resistance by owners or editors of media. Plus, this new article wasn’t amended anew, although the government promised the international community precisely that.

Speaking about this problem, which, depending on the elections, might amount to several millions of euros per cycle, Trpevska says:

AJM’s demand, which I fully support, is to implement a complete prohibition of political advertising in audiovisual media during elections and after they have finished. This means that the disputable provisions under article 76-e of the Electoral Code, according to which media may receive funds directly from the Budget of the RM in exchange for commercials about political subjects in the electoral campaign, ought to be deleted. This is one of the key demands for systemic reforms, emanating from Priebe’s reports, in order to tackle the finance-clientele triangle the media are in – between the big political parties, the state and the media owners.

According to Trpevska, it’s of utmost importance to thwart this from happening “so we won’t witness the transformation of media into ideological institutions, which instead of defending the public interest, will serve to spread propaganda supporting the established system of power”.

That’s been recognized by the media organizations, hence the excitation about article 102 of the amended law on AAMS! Huge amounts of money aren’t spent solely by the executive power, but also by the local government and public enterprises too.

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This article was created within the framework of the Project to increase the accountability of the politicians and political parties Truthmeter implemented by Metamorphosis. The article is made possible by the generous support of the National Endowment for Democracy(NED) and The Balkan Trust for Democracy (BTD), a project of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, an initiative that supports democracy, good governance, and Euroatlantic integration in Southeastern Europe. The content is the responsibility of its author and does not necessarily reflect the views of Metamorphosis, National Endowment for Democracy, the Balkan Trust for Democracy, the German Marshall Fund of the United States, or its partners.