Open letter from the Agency for Audio and Audiovisual Media Services

Skopje, 14.10.2016 – After the Agency published its reports on the third period of monitoring that it had conducted based on its obligations under the Electoral Code, items have appeared in some of the media presenting certain theses the untruthfulness of which needs to be unmasked.

One of the theses has been that monitoring should be limited only to the parties and topics related to the elections, or that one should monitor the pre-election campaign. This thesis is wrong in its core. The notion of pre-election campaign does not exist. If they refer to an election campaign, then it should be known that this is a period that may last only 20 days before the Election Day, which means that there will be monitoring of an election campaign only during those 20 days before the elections. At this moment, the elections in Macedonia have not been called yet, which means that the electoral process has not even started. During all debates and meetings on the eve of the monitoring, the Agency indicated quite clearly that what would be monitored is the manner in which broadcasters report on the overall social and political life and all daily events (with the exception of the sports events and the world news), i.e. that what would be analyzed is the manner in which they report on all entities in the state.

Currently, monitoring is conducted in the same way as it was conducted in the period April-May this year, and it implements the same Methodology that was applied then. However, even if it had been conducted according to the Methodology that had to be abandoned, the aspects that are being disputed these days (about the tone and the framing) would be the same. Namely, what is being followed is how much broadcasters respect the principles of professionalism, particularly the one where they should ensure equal treatment of the diverse viewpoints and stances and should let the public form their opinion freely on all events and participants in these events. Hence, the monitoring reports describe any use of explicit assessments, negative or positive tone or framing concerning any entity (party, institution, organization). And, this time, the reports of the regulatory body must stop at the point where they do stop – i.e. give an as complete description of the manner in which a certain media outlet reports as possible, due to the fact that the amendments to the Electoral Code have stripped the Agency of its legal obligation to detect violations and propose measures. Therefore, any report on one and the same media outlet points out both the segments contrary to the programme principles and the positive examples of commentaries and reviews in which these principles have been observed, as well as those items in which the media outlet has not restrained itself to the critical attitude towards a certain entity when presenting facts for which this entity should be called to responsibility, but has resorted to negative framing. As if the audience is not capable of building its own stance – based precisely on the facts presented – about what exactly this entity should be called to responsibility for.

The Agency is not even allowed to say if balanced reporting has been achieved, because the assessments regarding balance and the proposals for measures are now being given by the Ad Hoc Committee. It is a well-known fact that, in the period before the start of the campaign, there is no criterion for making such assessments. Consequently, without any intention of “imposing an attitude” or jeopardizing the independence of the Ad Hoc Committee, the Agency wishes to indicate that, when making assessments the focus should be placed on the reporting about the ruling and the opposition parties and the public office holders from their ranks. What the approach implemented by the Ad Hoc Committee is can be answered solely by its members.

As regards the second thesis – that there is selectiveness in analyzing the coverage of the government’s activities, because the items aired by some media on a certain event are pointed out, whereas those by others are not, or because in some of them the item has been aired live – this thesis, too, has a flaw in its core. What is being analyzed here is not if an information has been aired on the event or not, but the way in which each of the media outlets have reported about it (if having reported at all). Thus, it is totally irrelevant which media outlets have covered a certain event, as the reports note those items that relate the activities, projects and results of the government’s policies to a certain political party participating in the government (no matter which party it is). And none of the items singled out so far refers to events aired live. Let us also remind that, based on the experience gained from the previous monitoring cycles, the Agency deemed that a measure for this kind of misdemeanor should be imposed for no less than ten such items aired in one reporting period. However, due to the demands of the media and the expert public, this was later on turned into a double criterion: a measure should be imposed if there are at least ten such items in the first three ten-day reporting periods and, in the subsequent periods, if there are at least five. However, none of these criteria applies now, as this methodology had to be abandoned. Therefore, the answer to the question what criterion is applied to establish this kind of misdemeanor on the media’s part lies solely with the Ad Hoc Committee.

There has been yet another thesis, that the Agency takes sides in its reports or that it exerts influence on the Ad Hoc Committee. As regards the first claim, had the regulatory body been prepared to take sides, it would not have been exposed to criticism from all sides. After all, the Ad Hoc Committee was formed precisely as a result of all that criticism against the Agency. As regards its alleged influence on the Ad Hoc Committee, in the past two months, the entire public has heard enough statements from various sources, including members of the Ad Hoc Committee, in which every communication has been labeled as pressure, so the fact that, now, even the reports are interpreted as pressure is not surprising at all. But, isn’t the truth quite the opposite? Perhaps the problem lies in the expectations that the Agency should cease doing its job now that the Ad Hoc Committee has been formed.

The professional rules of play in the Macedonian broadcasting space require equal treatment for all. And broadcasters should respect this. Regardless of the practice in the US media which some of the broadcasters have been referring to lately.

In the end, let us repeat once more: it is enough that media tell the audience what to think about every day, through the unavoidable role of those who choose what to inform them about (the gatekeepers). They should not be telling them how and what to think about these events, imposing their own standpoints and opinions. The latter does not constitute a critical attitude.