Reform or formality: The functionality of the MRT Ethics Commission
At a time when information has become a weapon and the media landscape is occupied with the interests of the business and political lobby, the necessity for professional and ethical standards is growing. It is that when the public service should show its highest performance and defend the interests of the citizens. But there is hardly any analysis or research on the domestic public service broadcasting that has shown no serious lack of objectivity, bias, honesty or truth in MRTV’s news coverage over the last two decades.
In order to mitigate the damage and start improving the standards, a public service Ethics Commission was created four years ago to act on violations of the then-newly created Code of Ethics. The code, good or bad, consists of ethical rules for reporting and employment rules not only for journalists but for all public service employees.
So far the outcome of this reform has been one suspension and one resignation. The commission, which is composed of two members of the Macedonian Television, two of the Macedonian Radio, one member of the MRT Directorate and one more of the MRT administration and MTV Syndicate, also received other complaints. But no one can be sure of how many complaints there are, where they are, or what is happening to them, because the commission currently does not have a president. On November 17th, 2019, at the request of the Ethics Committee, the president he was relieved of his duties. To date, the commission has not met to elect a new president, so there is no one to receive the commission’s mail.
“The fact is that in the MTV the situation is difficult, especially with staff. And I am telling you, both cases were investigated by all standards and the public found out it. Nothing serious happened that was not investigated and followed up. There are colleagues who are also trying to exercise this right against other colleagues for the sake of promotion or personal interests,” says Marjan Cvetkovski, director of MRTV.
Asked if he thinks the members of the commission were appropriately selected because there are no journalists but primarily of people from the technical service or people close to the directors, he says everything is in line with the Code, “but it should definitely improve performance”.
“At the beginning this reform was done only on paper. We were rushing to deliver at least a small success that there is hope for change in the public service. We had good intentions. However, could have it been done better, yes.”, he says.
However, the possibility of complaints is only in the hands of the Commission, while the citizens who pay and who are founders of the public service cannot do so. The explanation is usually that there is no rule for this. But the public broadcaster can tailor it itself, as the general ethical frameworks for any media outlet require journalists to consider the complaints of the audience in their work. How we got here and how after four years of work of the Ethics Commission, rather than higher standard, MRTV’s status remains the same.
Attempts for change
During 2014, SONK dissatisfied with MRT reporting on their activities will launch the first of a series of public uprisings against MTV. This will loudly raise the awareness that the media is a public good and that MTV belongs to the citizens, is funded by them and has a legal obligation to report ethically, professionally and impartially, for the benefit of and only for the public interest. In the next two years, a series of protests by civil society organizations, politicians, journalists and other dissatisfied movements will be organized in front of the public service building, which in the occupied public service do not see an ally in the interests of the citizens.
After that numerous scandals from financial to political follow MRTV. But the dimension of political pressure is manifested through two key events: the so-called black Monday when the opposition that opposed the budget adoption with journalists was forcibly ejected from the session by the police on December 24, 2012 and the beatings of the opposition and journalists when a group of protesters stormed and attempted to assassinate several officials, including SDSM leader Zoran Zaev, in order to prevent the change of the constitution in the Assembly. MTV did not report on these events.
“Things at MTV were so bad that they became the subject of the Przhino Treaty, first with the appointment of a technical editor-in-chief before the election, and in November a Code of Ethics was also announced at MTV where AJM worked with facilitator Peter Vanhoutte and the MTV leadership”, says former AJM president Naser Selmani.
Serviced and subscribers
“They must be kidding!”, This will be the reaction of longtime journalist and editor Zoran Dimitriovski when it is announced in 2015 that MTV has decided to adopt a Code of Ethics and establish an Ethics Commission.
“Do we really have to trust them now that if they adopt the code and post it on the MTV bulletin board, they will get rid of the party chains? They think that they have done their job only by stating in Article 4 of that letter that they have an obligation – “to promote the public interest and to respect the public interest” and “to contribute to the respect and promotion of fundamental human rights”, freedoms and democratic values and promoting the culture of public dialogue”!? So who was preventing them of doing it before, with or without a code?”, Dimitriovski will write in a column.
With the adoption of the Code of Ethics, another novelty was introduced, namely the establishment of the Ethical Commission at MTV, before which proceedings could be initiated for unethical and unprofessional reporting. But few are aware of this, and among the uninformed are public service employees.
“Hi, we’d like to know more about the work of the Ethics Commission, and report a case you might be able to tell us how to do it,” we asked by telephone at MTV after failing to find any data or form on their website. “Do what?”, The Public Information Officer retorted in amazement.
After explaining what an ethics committee is and what we actually want to do, the person on the other end of the phone sighed “Oh, that.” He did not know who was on the Ethics Committee nor how exactly he was reporting.
“Write on a piece of paper what you think and bring it to the Central Office, and we’ll see what to do,” he said. “And can’t we apply online,” we asked, after what a laughter was heard on the other side of the phone.
“We have no option for such a thing, maybe by email, but who knows if anyone will read it,” the Public Information Officer replied.
We asked who the members were in order to talk to them. The Public Information Officer told us that he would need more time to find out this information and asked us to send a Public Information Request for any questions we have.
Until the day this story was published, this and other questions we sent about whether and how many complaints they received were unanswered. With again, an explanation that the Commission has no sitting president.
What has the Ethics Commission done until now
“We know the Code was created, only because of political pressure and nothing else, but that was all. No one has ever told us who is a member of that committee, nor do we know that it was formed. Nor did anyone consult us regarding the Code. At least most of us have no idea. The intentions were certainly not to expose television to grievances but to pretend that there something was fulfilled by the leadership. This place is still as miserable as it was when I first got employed, and that was a long time ago. You ask me why you can’t find the Code of Ethics on the website, and our website sometimes doesn’t even work, there is no online newsroom, and when there are weeks of vacations there is no news on it,” says the journalist who preferred to remain anonymous.
We wanted to know more about the Ethics Commission and how it works. We spoke with at least 10 people working in the public service. All of our sources first heard from us about this body. The colleagues we contacted offered to inquire more about the existence of that commission. Some less, some more successful, but all contributed with some knowledge. Everyone one of them suggested that this commission only existed on paper, and no one cared whether the citizens cold submit a complaint.
“There have been two cases in which the Ethics Commission has met, if it is the same thing we are talking about. Once when a public service journalist appeared drunk on live news and once when another journalist spread ethnic and religious hatred on social media.”, said our interlocutor and suggested that other cases may exist, “but usually such things are quickly spread in the newsroom and immediately spoken of as in any larger company”.
Asked if he thinks MRTV is reporting ethically and professionally, our interlocutor says that things have improved slightly, but not significantly.
“By inertia it is still thought that if you are reporting for government it should be positively, as if it is the state and that is what the journalists at MTV do even if that have not been asked, I think it is their culture, subordinate. Unlike three years ago when the news were full of propaganda from anonymous portals, now things are a little more decent. But this is not yet a public service for the citizens,” says the journalist.
The Association of Journalists strongly opposed the adoption of the Code of Ethics in a hurry, in December 2015. The public accused them of not only copying it from the Croatian Public Broadcasting Code of Ethics, but also misrepresenting it.
The Code is too general, confusing and has serious flaws. One such example is the special chapter prohibiting hidden advertising, the provisions refer only to goods and services, and not to covert political advertising. And criticism from media organizations will be particularly focused on the fact that the Code of Ethics never mentions a ban on political advertising, especially since it is precisely political influence that has been evaluated for years as the source of all public service disasters and as a problem that requires urgent resolution.
One of few examples
“Greek Analyst: Gruevski ousted from Soros for failing to serve Western media”, “VMRO-DPMNE: Soros’s manipulations easily recognizable” or “Orban: EU and Soros guilty of refugee crisis” – these and similar headlines flood public service news after the change of power in 2017. The public accused that the public service was used as an instrument for these attacks.
Russian impact research project in the Balkans by the Corruption and Organized Crime Reporting Project will enlist the Macedonian public service in the media as part of a global anti-Soros campaign for which was revealed that is part of an organized effort to destabilize the country involving Russia and right-wing conservatives from the United States.
The commission has met for the second time since the public in 2018 began to exert strong pressure on them over their journalist spreading ethnic and religious hatred.
“Association of Journalists of Macedonia (AJM) and Council of Media Ethics of Macedonia (CMEM) condemn what they say is an inappropriate address by an MRTV journalist who posted a call to mobilize during holiday Ilinden’s celebration on Mechkin Kamen.”, the associations will announce in a joint statement.
Only after that will follow the decision of the program editor to report the case to the Ethics Commission, which will give a resignation in the case of journalist Marija Kotovska, who has been secretly showing her party affiliation for years and was visible in her work on MTV.
The Dutch public service RTL is constantly receiving complaints from citizens. In their internal documents, they urge journalists to take into account the complaints of the public in their work. Complaints can be sent online through their website or by mail, and the public service responds to all of them. The pressure to be accurate, responsible and professional is immense, and for RTL News transparency is so important that journalists must attach their documents and other evidence and facts so that the citizen can understand how the news and articles were prepared.
If our public service responds to pressure and demands from citizens, standards will begin to rise. But for that to happen, MRTV has to offer this option in a transparent and innovative way.
An indignation that citizens are increasingly interested in the ethics in media is the number of complaints by citizens to the Ethics Council of Macedonia that it is growing year by year.
“I agree that MRTV Ethics Commission is not visible enough, and that is very important. The public service is extremely important in all countries with high standards in the field of media and journalism, and despite the control of existing guilds, it should also have its own mechanism for monitoring compliance with the Code of Journalists,” says the President of the Ethics Council. Katarina Sinadinovska.
This publication has been produced with the support of the European Endowment for Democracy (EED). Its contents do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of EED. Responsibility for the information and views expressed in this publication lies entirely with the author(s).
Author: David Ilievski
Photo: Tomislav Georgiev