Government’s practice of stating its positions on annual work reports of the media regulator or the MRT is something that may be considered as pressure and possibility for jeopardizing the independence of the Public Service or the media regulator. According to experts’ interpretations and the law governing this matter, the Government should refrain and leave this task to the Parliament
Author: Teofil Blazhevski
Mildly put, the Government of the Republic of Macedonia has gone a little bit beyond its competences regarding the Public Broadcasting Service and the Media Agency, and on its 69th session held on 23 May 2018, it arrived at a conclusion to give a negative opinion to the Parliament regarding the annual work reports of the Agency for Audio and Audiovisual Media Services (AAAMS) and the Macedonian Radio Television (MRT) for 2017. In the press release, the conclusion was presented as following:
As regards the annual work reports of the Macedonian Radio Television and the Agency for Audio and Audiovisual Media Services for 2017, the Government of the Republic of Macedonia on its session decided to give negative opinions to the Parliament.
We deduced that the competences have been breached after we checked the laws and other obligatory documents of international bodies, received the response from the Government, Regulator’s opinions, the stance of the Association of Journalists of Macedonia (AJM) and an independent expert in the area.
In addition, this situation is not the first one of its kind that this Government has been in. Last year, on its 45th session, it arrived at a negative conclusion regarding the Annual work program of the MRT for 2018 and the financial plan for 2018. After the session, the Parliament received a positive opinion from the competent committee and with 59 votes in favor, it passed the Proposed Financial Program of the MRT for 2018.
Back then, the Government started handing qualitative assessments on what the Annual work program should contain, i.e. gave an opinion that the Program should exhaustively comprise the solutions to the remarks from Priebe’s and EU’s report:
THE LAW IS CLEAR – THE PARLIAMENT IS THE SOLE ADDRESS
Without getting into a material argument whether these two bodies have produced quality, credible or truthful reports, the substantial question is the following: does the Government of the RM has such competences?
After going through the laws, the answer seems to be negative. To wit, both the Law on the AAAMS, which governs the Macedonian Radio Television, and the Law on the MRT (ineffective since 1998) show clearly that the annual reports are reviewed by the Parliament of the RM. There isn’t even a provision that says whether the Parliament passes them or not – it just reviews the reports, except MRT’s financial plan for the next year.
Here’s what’s laid down in article 8, paragraph 1 of the Law on the AAAMS regarding responsibility i.e. accountability of Agency’s operation:
For its work, the Agency is held accountable by the Parliament of the Republic of Macedonia by delivering a work report.
Article 106 of the same Law stipulates MRT’s obligations. Paragraph 1 says:
MRT is obligated to submit an annual work report for the previous year and Annual work program for the next year.
Paragraph 5 of the same article states the address clearly:
MRT is obligated to submit the annual work report for review to the Parliament of the Republic of Macedonia not later than 31 December the current year…
Furthermore, article 18 of the Law on Establishing Public Enterprise Macedonian Radio Television from 1998 on the obligations of the director general says:
Once a year, he/she submits report on the work of the MRT to the Parliament of the Republic of Macedonia;
In fact, the current effective law states clearly that the Republic of Macedonia is the founder of the MRT and as a public broadcasting service, the MRT is independent from any state body, other legal entity, other trade company and its editorial and business policy ought not to be biased toward them (article 104 of the Law on the AAAMS).
GOVERNMENT: THE PARLIAMENT REQUESTED AN OPINION FROM US
We enquired the Government’s spokesperson, Mile Boshnjakovski, about Government’s position regarding the legal basis, i.e. what’s the legal basis for the Government to arrive at conclusion on the work reports of the AAAMS and MRT and give opinions to the Parliament of the RM? Basically, the answer we received was “on the basis of rules of procedure”. Here’s the full answer:
Pursuant to the Rules of Procedure of the Parliament of the Republic of Macedonia, the Parliament sent materials to the Government of the Republic of Macedonia, with which it requests Government’s opinion on the work reports of the AAAMS and MRT.
After the materials have been received, the Government of the Republic of Macedonia distributed them to the competent ministries according to the Rules of Procedure of the Government of the Republic of Macedonia, which after they reviewed the materials they sent a negative opinion to the Government of the Republic of Macedonia.
The Government reviewed all opinions and conclusions by the competent ministries and sent proposed opinion to the Parliament of the Republic of Macedonia so the Parliament can pay heed to it when making the decision.
Taking into account the negative opinions of some competent ministries (Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Information Society and Administration), the Government gave a negative opinion to the Parliament regarding the reports of the MRTV and AAAMS. The Government of the RM deems that these reports in particular are yet another corroboration of the necessity for amendments to the Law on Audio and Audiovisual Services.
For further information about the opinions of the aforesaid ministries, we encourage you to contact the PRs at the respective ministries.
We took the encouragement rather seriously and we enquired both ministries officially. But, they didn’t provide a response.
TRAJCHEVSKI: THE GOVERNMENT DOESN’T HAVE THE RIGHT
While looking for answers related to Government’s specific conclusion regarding the annual work reports of the MRT and AAAMS, we asked the head of the media regulator, Zoran Trajchevski, about his view on the situation. His response was a categorical ‘no’, meaning that the Government doesn’t have such competences:
The Government can review the annual work report of the regulatory body in Portugal, if you ask me, Trajchevski says. But the Government has no right to give an opinion, let alone a general opinion and conclusion on AAAMS’s Annual work report. Upon the request of the Parliament, the Government can give an opinion or a recommendation to the Parliament regarding some parts of the report… For instance, it has happened before, probably I year or two ago, they gave an opinion that we had had huge salary expenses or that we had had calculated salary for one managerial position in the Agency, something that we shouldn’t have done, and our stance on this was different… So, the Government can give an opinion, recommendation, express a position regarding a certain part of the report, because the Parliament doesn’t have expert services that can answer all the questions – in such case the Parliament can ask for Government’s opinion, position, recommendation regarding certain parts of the report. But, expressing a position, a general one on the entire report, as presented in its press release, the Government has no right to do so – Trajchevski says.
Besides, the Media Agency says that the Parliament only reviews the reports, it neither accepts nor rejects them.
AJM: MRT AND AAAMS ARE NOT GOVERNMENT INSTITUTIONS
We enquired the Association of Journalists of Macedonia for its stance regarding the Government’s conclusion. Naser Selmani, AJM’s president, says that the Government has no right to give an opinion, even if the Parliament has requested it:
Government’s negative assessment on the MRT and the Media Agency as independent institutions shows that the previous regime’s old practice of treating the public broadcasting service and the media regulator as governmental institutions is not discontinued.
In a democratic and European country, it is unthinkable for the MRT to be treated as a public enterprise like Makedonski Shumi or Vodovod I Kanalizacija. As a public broadcasting service, the MRT is an autonomous institution and in normal countries, such interventions on the part of the Government are considered as direct raid in its independence.
It is unacceptable for government institutions to perform constant financial inspections on public broadcasting service’s operations. MRT is held accountable by the Parliament of Macedonia. Even if such request for opinion on the annual reports of these institutions is submitted by the Parliament to the Government, it should refrain from giving opinions. If the Government wants to create a relationship with the MRT that is different than one of the previous ruling set, then such raids should not happen again in the future.
Selmani thinks that the Constitutional Court of the RM has to do its part here:
The Government should ask the Constitutional Court to go faster through the initiative for assessing the constitutionality of the Law on the AAAMS, in which the MRT is treated like an enterprise. That law should be amended as soon as possible, so similar raids in the independence of the MRT can be prevented in the future.
According to AJM’s head, in the past months, the Government has demonstrated that it has failed to interpret EU’s recommendation on the financial independence correctly, MRT’s in particular, and on the other hand, it submits requests to the public broadcasting service:
It’s really concerning that the Government ignores European Commission’s recommendations laid down in the last progress report on Macedonia regarding the reforms of the public broadcasting service and the media regulator.
EU recommends strengthened independence of the MRT and the Media Agency as well as long-term strategy on providing financial sustainability of the MRT. According to the EU, these reforms serve to prevent political interference in the work of the public broadcaster.
With its conduct, not only it doesn’t implement EU’s recommendations, but the Government goes in the wrong direction, because it meddles in the work of these bodies and pressures them too.
The disrespect of MRT’s independence is evident in the fact that the Government recently adopted an information on the need of restarting MRT’s music production. This attitude is inconsistent. On the one hand, the Government says it cannot allocate more than 0.7 percent of the budget to finance the MRT and on the other, it demands restarting of the music production, thus showing interest for providing additional funds from other Budget sources.
TRPEVSKA: THE COUNCIL OF EUROPE HAS A CLEAR DIRECTIVE
Associate professor Snezhana Trpevska PhD, a prominent expert and communicologist, shares the same view that the Government has no right to give such opinions:
The work reports of the regulatory body and the public broadcaster have to be reviewed only by the Parliament – primarily from the aspect of attaining the public interest in the media field. Both institutions have to serve citizens’ interest and perform their functions in a manner defined by the Law on Audio and Audiovisual Services. The debate on their operation needs to be held solely from the aspect of the lawfulness during operation and performing of the functions stipulated by law. The Law clearly states the recipient of regulator’s and MRT’s report and who holds them accountable. Giving an opinion on the work of these two institutions, no matter if that has been requested by the Parliament or not, is unacceptable.
Trpevska makes it clear that her position is not based on the domestic regulation only, but on key international documents regarding regulatory bodies too, such as the Recommendation of the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers:
For example, in the key Recommendation 200023 on the independence of regulatory bodies in the broadcasting sector, the Council of Europe points out to the independence of these bodies. Chapter III, item 10, for instance, says that “public authorities should not use their financial decision-making power to interfere with the independence of regulatory authorities. Furthermore, recourse to the services or expertise of the national administration or third parties should not affect their independence.”
The Recommendation also says that these bodies should be held accountable by the public, while control over their work should be exercised “a posteriori” only and in regard to the lawfulness of their operation. Other European documents define the principles and control over the work of the public broadcasting services in similar manner.
Based on the aforementioned stances and the legal regulation in particular, it is clear that the Government has no right to give opinions on the annual work reports of the MRT or the media regulator or other regulatory bodies, especially not in this particularly sensitive area – the media. Of course, within the realm of its competences, the Government can take care of specific segments of MRT’s and AAAMS’ operation, express its stance on certain segments related to them, take care of the lawfulness during operation, and even financial operations, but all of that should be done minutely and with complete and deep justification, and in compliance with the existing Law on the AAAMS. In addition, according to the European rules, it’s completely clear that the main address for demanding responsibility and accountability of these bodies is the Parliament of the Republic of Macedonia. Therefore, Government’s opinion on such work reports may be considered as possible pressure and possibility for jeopardizing the independence of the Public Service or the media regulator.