In North Macedonia, it has become the norm for pro-Russian politicians to attack activists, human rights defenders and journalists with outrageous online behaviour, bullying and threats to our lives. My case, as the President of the human rights organisation CIVIL, is not an exception, but certainly is one of the most illustrative ones.
Working as a human rights defender in North Macedonia
I am a human rights activist, journalist and writer, working for almost 22 years for CIVIL, a North Macedonia human rights organisation. I have written and edited thousands of articles. I have written and published a dozen books, half of them poetry. I have also written many lyrics for rock bands and for my experimental audio projects. I am a parent, friend, husband, middle-aged person, and of mixed race: Albanian, Turkish, Croat and other “bloods”: an ideal target for hate.
My colleagues, friends, family and I have faced multiple threats and risks every day of our lives for years; particularly since 2018, the year in which the Macedonian-Greek name dispute was resolved and the Euro-Atlantic integration processes began.
I have received public and direct death threats for years. Public figures such as party leaders and well-known politicians are among those who spread death threats, vulgar cursing and calls to arms against pro-EU politicians, activists and journalists.
North Macedonia TV and Internet media close to nationalist and anti-Western structures call me the most insulting and pejorative names, which are replicated on social media by partisan journalists and trolls alike.
CIVIL as an organisation and its staff are the frequent target of such threats. We recently received a death threat phone call to CIVIL offices, with the caller ID visible. Recently, a close friend and fellow colleague and activist, Petrit Saracini, was threatened in comments on Facebook with having his fingers cut off and being beheaded.
My colleagues are called traitors, mercenaries, spies, Xhabirists (whatever that means). People call for the execution, public incineration, imprisonment, public trial and severe punishment of the members of our organisation.
This is our reward for promoting European values, antinationalism and human rights in our country, even though the current government is sincerely dedicated to EU integration and promoting equality and justice in the country.
Delegitimising human rights work is becoming the norm
That is not a single article, informative or opinion; they are not isolated events.
Threats are widespread and unhidden because aggressors are not just anonymous trolls. They are members of the most notorious nationalist political parties, highly ranked officials in political parties of the opposition, members of the police force and highly organised groups of party trolls. We at CIVIL have identified several groups which manage dozens of anonymous social media profiles, and spread disinformation and hate speech on an hourly basis.
The propaganda centres do their best to diminish and discredit individuals and organisations who work on the promotion of European values, antinationalism, justice, equality and human rights. My work is in direct opposition to everything they represent. That is the reason for this enormous multi-year dark campaigning against those who stand for human rights.
I am one of those who have merely given up seeking protection, justice and/or compensation for the damage caused by the hate attacks on social networks and in media. Almost no one confronts the online violence. On the contrary, there are walls of silence all around it. The institutions remain silent, too.
The public, civil society organisations and media are mostly silent because many of them fear retaliation from authoritarian political forces, should they return to power. There are also longstanding corruptive ties between the former authoritarian government and the media.
Justice and compensation seem to be lost causes. Lawsuits are slow, expensive and with an unpredictable outcome. Our attempts to seek justice and compensation are accompanied by even fiercer online hate threats and bullying. Living with this kind of pressure is difficult, especially knowing that disinformation and hate propaganda are produced by powerful structures, openly supported by Russia.
Despite current decisive reforms, impunity remains a challenge for society and the state. The competent institutions are slow and lack capacity and understanding of these issues, whilst the justice system is still suffering from the aftermath of the previous authoritarian rule that has held the state in captivity for a decade.
All of this makes the architects and disseminators of disinformation and hate propaganda practically untouchable. They openly oppose the Euro-Atlantic aspirations and all democratic and reforms processes in the country, particularly in the areas of rule of law, justice and inter-ethnic relations.
My plea to the international community
The international community and the EU institutions should stand in solidarity with, and openly support and protect, human rights defenders against constant attempts to delegitimise and criminalise our work. They should bring visibility to the work of human rights defenders. Visibility and public recognition would help to deter aggressors from carrying out the threats they voice in public.
The international community should encourage our government and institutions, primarily the judiciary, but also the Ministry of the Interior to investigate and prevent the deterioration of the security situation. All institutions need to pursue their obligations and protect human rights defenders – to put an end to impunity.
The international community should also encourage the North Macedonia's institutions to take legal action against those who create and distribute disinformation and hate.
Institutions need to protect and safeguard the welfare of all citizens; reforms in the process of EU accession need to be monitored, and benchmarks met, to secure the implementation of laws on the ground.
It is very important that Members the European Parliament, particularly those of the European People’s Party, talk to their partners from the VMRO-DPMNE party. They should ask them to shut the online propaganda factories down and appeal for a change of vocabulary among their members and supporters. Naturally, the leadership must lead by example.
As for the radicals in the Levica party, the authorities need to act now, before their neo-fascist propaganda takes on serious proportions.
The international donor community should consider channelling more substantial support to human rights defenders and organisations which counter disinformation and hate campaigns.
EU governments should also consider setting up protective programmes to harbour human rights defenders who are under attack, particularly if these political structures come to power at local or national level.
On World Press Freedom Day, this is my plea to the international community.