SEKULOVSKI: If the government tries to impose what is ethical and what is not, we have a problem
It is good that the Government of the Republic of North Macedonia has an interest, an idea to seriously pay attention and energy to the prevention of misinformation and the malicious information that appears in our society and can do serious harm to our public discourse. However, on the other hand, it should be recognized that these types of processes are conducted only when they are inclusive and transparent, when the main stakeholders, primarily journalists and media organizations, as well as the media need to be involved from the outset, says Executive Director of the Association of Journalists of Macedonia, Dragan Sekulovski in an interview with Inbox7. This association initiates the preparation of a list of relevant on-line media, which they expect to lead to a self-regulation or greater professionalization of the portals.
Mr Sekulovski, the Government has announced an Action Plan to combat fake news. You as an association said that you disagreed with some of these measures and that they were problematic. What exactly do you mean?
– Yes, it is correct. A week ago, the Government, at a press conference led by Prime Minister Zaev personally, he announced and elaborated a draft plan for decisive action against spreading misinformation. I have to say that the Association, colleagues, as well as other media organizations, were a little overwhelmed by this information. Namely, we did not have an announcement, nor were we involved in a certain process before, in consultation with this document, and in one way we were surprised that there were certain topics within the content that were of interest to the organization. We are closely following the process. We also had a public announcement, but also more information in the media in our country about the presentation of this draft plan. I want to say that it is generally good that the Government of the Republic of North Macedonia has an interest, an idea, and they are also seriously talking about paying attention and energy to preventing misinformation and malicious information that may appear in our society and can make a serious damage to our public discourse, however, on the other hand, it should be known that such processes are conducted only when they are inclusive and transparent, when the main stakeholders, above all journalists and media organizations, as well as media need to be involved from the outset.
Part of the public said the plan was related to former Prime Minister Gruevski’s idea of desoroization of the media, which was described as not dealing with inappropriate media. Your comment?
Personally, I can’t make a comparison between that because for the previous Prime Minister, that plan as you said, there was a strategy where individuals and civil society organizations were targeted in order to be discredited in the public and exposed to some security risk. And what the purpose and intent of this draft plan is, of this Government, remains to be seen, however, if we look at its contents, I might say that in those two parts, in this document the plan itself does not look like a plan, but more like a presentation, because if we compare the plan that the European Commission adopted on December 5 last year we will see that it has more content with over 45 references, has conclusions tables with specific recommendations and explanations on one and in some way duties for all Member States of the European Union. In this draft plan we have two parts – security measures that in a way neither the public nor the media organizations or the journalists are interested in, because they are more internal measures for the Government itself and the institutions themselves as to how they will position themselves in the future and in order to prevent breaches of their protocols when it comes to communication and internal communication to the public. But in the other part of this draft plan, which is called proactive measures, the Association of Journalists of Macedonia has specific remarks above all that the very same points that we consider problematic are not sufficiently well explained and leave doubt that they may be abused.
Do you think that journalists should be members of this government body as a better solution?
One of the problems that we point out is specifically the so-called action group, that is, the anti-misinformation and democracy attack group, which is composed exclusively of representatives of government institutions, such as the Office of the President of the State, the President of the Government, the Assembly, from the Government, from the Cabinet of the Minister in charge of Communications, Transparency and Accountability, MoI, Ministry of Defense, MFA, Directorate of Security and Counterintelligence as well as the Intelligence Agency and other organizations, and I personally do not think that a journalist should sit down with representatives of these institutions for reasons that, if the purpose of this action group is to internally analyze data in the area of misinformation and fake news, and use it for their internal goals like positioning them inside to have better communication with citizens and to be more transparent in order to avoid harm, then it is okay. However, if this action group has a proactive role in having occasional activities that try to impose its views on whether something is ethical or not in the media itself, then we have a problem. Whether a media outlet does its job professionally or not, whether a journalist is acting within the code of ethics or not, it’s a matter for the journalistic community alone. Here we cannot say that a government institution or a body composed of representatives of multiple government institutions could be objective and have the potential and capacity to somehow deal with the truthfulness of facts or the truthfulness of information created by professional media and journalists in our country. So we would have more information, or have a more complex attitude built around the issue specifically about that body knowing what its exact role would be and knowing the exact responsibilities of the action group itself.
You have initiated a list of so-called relevant media. What is the purpose of such a list and might it be part of the fight against fake news?
You probably think of our announcement of a list of professional online media. Yes, in a way we want to help the public know what type of media they are informed from. Whether that medium is professional or not. And we want to do that with enhanced self-regulation. Why – because regulation is easier to access, some law needs to be passed in Parliament, but the regulation itself leaves room for freedom of expression to be restricted and then to have a democratic problem. Therefore, in order to avoid this as a potential risk we as an Association in cooperation with the Media Ethics Council in Macedonia and in cooperation with the Chamber of Commerce are launching a bold project through which we will try, say by the end of the year or in the coming months or the next period to establish a register of professional online media within the Ethics Council. How – with clearly defined criteria constituting a medium, that is the recommendations of the Council of Europe every online medium that has an impressum, ownership structure, contact, copyright, supports and promotes the reporting code and strives in a way to be professional in its work, that online media will have the right to be a member of the online media register within the Ethics Council, on the other hand, the Chamber of Commerce will recognize the media as credible and make a cooperation agreement with them through the business community and its members. That way, the effect we want to achieve is the following: those online media that still do not have those elements of professional media, there are still media that have no contact and you do not know who is behind them, so if they want to be treated as professional, recognized by advertisers, will have to somehow correct and remain corrected, professional and those who in some way want to continue doing such unethical work may, however, continue to do so, but the public will know that they are unprofessional and the business community should not support them.
Is this is because the Media Council does not regulate these media?
This has come out of necessity because in recent years if you statistically look, most of the texts or content with elements of hate speech, elements of defamation and insult, as well as unprofessional journalism, appear exactly on the online media. One reason is that these online media outlets work with small newsrooms, have very few people behind them and sometimes make mistakes, but sometimes there are situations where the media is deliberately abused in order to achieve another negative goal and for these reasons we believe that the focus should be on the online media. Because we do not want to make excuses to either the Government or the Parliament that restrictive regulation is needed, but that we can make the effort ourselves in order to make the online space and online media in our country professional.
But who will make that selection of media and by what criteria?
The criteria are currently being discussed, because as I said, this is a process that will follow in the coming months. We want to invite all online media in the coming months, which are interested in contributing to defining the right criteria and defining the right measures, to cast their vote. So the purpose is not for us to impose a solution, it is not the purpose for us to impose certain criteria that the Association of Journalists and the Ethics Council consider to be the best. On the contrary, we can offer practices such as a solution or how it is conducted as a process in other countries, and then the main stakeholders, in this case the online media, to contribute voluntarily, in the coming period they can apply to the Ethics Council and say – Yes, as a medium I meet these conditions, Yes, I will respect the Code in the future, and if I do not, you have the right to exclude me from your register and then I will not be a professional again, but on the other hand a chance is given all to be corrected and be part of the group of those online media that the public will be able to build a new relationship with and improve its image and be professional.
What about those media which will not be on that list of relevant media, how will they continue to function?
We cannot be banned from having an on-line media, the right to be named a journalist or media worker cannot be banned. But it is up to the public to judge whether these online media outlets are playing the role of media or not. Are they behind political centers or economic centers that want to misuse the role of the media, or are they really honest journalists who want to help our Macedonian public have credible information? This cannot be legally limited, but the public needs to be critical enough, and professional media sufficiently solid to give us a chance to prioritize and focus on professional information and professional media and marginal ones to be left aside.