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News 25 Nov 16

Macedonia Ruling Party Smears Rivals Using Fake News Sites

As election day looms in December, new news websites linked to Macedonia's ruling party have recently started producing false news reports designed to discredit the opposition.

Sinisa Jakov Marusic
BIRN
Skopje
Photo: shutterstock

With domestic media outlets coming under increased monitoring for the approaching general elections, Macedonia's ruling parties are resorting to new tactics for the campaign, including opening "news" sites registered in neighbouring countries that spread demonstrably false or completely unproven information.

Two such news sites, "saznajemo.rs" and "alo.com.hr", recently registered in neighbouring Serbia and Croatia, an investigation by NOVA TV news portal has shown.

Both sites were registered on November 15, just before the start of the campaign for the December 11 elections.

Both have also published identical and misleading news packages concerning Macedonia's main opposition party.

The NOVA TV probe uncovered that both sites were opened by the company New Media Enterprise, which is registered in Skopje and owned by Gjorgi Pop-Gjorgiev, a marketing employee of the pro-government news portal Plus 24.

But the news portal also displayed what it claims are property documents that show that the first owner of that company was Filip Petrovski, a member of the ruling VMRO DPMNE party and head of Macedonia's National Archive.

Petrovski reputedly plays an important role in managing the party's election campaign on social media as well.

The first news items that the two websites published claimed that the opposition Social Democrat leader Zoran Zaev negotiated with Albanian groups in Switzerland to divide the country along ethnic lines in return for a whopping bribe of 10 million euros.

Darko Buldioski, an online media expert from Skopje, told NOVA TV that the scheme echoed the sites issuing fake news about US President-elect Donald Trump, which were hosted by people living in Macedonia.

However, he said there was aso a big difference. "In the US case, the motivation of the creators [of the fake news sites] was profit. In this situation, the motivation is completely political," Buldioski said.

"Can a local audience be fooled by these fake sites? Yes it absolutely can. We witnessed this in the past few years with the appearance of spoof news sites that ... often fooled [readers] into thinking it was genuine news," Buldioski explained.

Amid a prolonged political crisis in Macedonia and serious concerns about media freedom, a EU-mediated political party crisis agreement reached this summer envisaged tighter control over local media outlets' election coverage.

Agreed measures to ensure a degree of fairness included formation of an ad-hoc body to monitor the media for the elections and the appointment of a new head of the national broadcaster, MRTV.

However, the reforms have not persuaded all media experts that the situation is about to change for the better.

An EU progress report on Macedonia issued last month identified the problem in the media as ongoing.

“Overall, democracy and the rule of law continue to be challenged, in particular due to the capture of institutions such as judicial bodies, regulatory agencies and media outlets,” the report noted.

Speaking about freedom of expression, the report also said that there had been “no progress in this area over most of the past year”, in Macedonia.

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