NGOs, human rights groups and the media have demanded changes to a draft Law on Civil Liability for Defamation, arguing that it will introduce extensive censorship on the internet.Critics united in a joint front against the draft say that if the law is enacted without change, the internet in Macedonia may soon resemble that in North Korea or Iran, where internet providers block or filter certain web sites and censor journalists’ texts and readers’ comments. The draft law has passed the first reading in Macedonia’s parliament.
“We are focused on the demand to take the whole process back to the beginning… to ensure debate will be available to stakeholders which is not the case now,” said Biljana Bejkova of the NGO Info-Centre, which is part of the“Front for Freedom of Expression.”
In June the government announced it would remove defamation from the penal code as part of an agreement with the Journalist’s Association, ZNM. The decision, which was put forward as a response to long standing calls by local journalists, was greeted by the European Union as a step in the right direction.
But the draft law that came as a result now worries many who fear that under the cover of legislation passed as part of Macedonia’s path towards the EU, the government is trying to impose a new, more severe mechanism of censorship and control over media and public space.
One key controversial element of the draft law is that the “online service provider is responsible, along with the author, for compensating for damage arising from providing access to offensive or defamatory information.”
“This will lead to elimination of public communication over the internet, in forums, websites, etc.,” said Filip Stojanovski from Metamorphosis, a Skopje-based foundation for the development of civil society in internet.
Critics say that the law will allow blogs and websites to be taken down based on a complaint- and without a court order- leaving room for widespread misuse.
“Given that the envisaged penalties for libel and insult reach 27,000 euros, it will lead to a situation in which portals, blogs and internet forums would censor content published by their users,” Stojanovski warns.
Lawmakers from the ruling VMRO DPMNE party have said they are prepared to amend the law, but critics remain concerned. Ilija Dimovski, a legislator from VMRO DPMNE, said his group has taken the objections into consideration and insisted they are ready to accept amendments.
“This is a new area and we have no experience in it. We should move towards just provisions in this area that are accepted by all,” he said for Dnevnik daily.
On Tuesday several prominent news portals joined a coordinated blackout of their sites in protest against the draft.
“This is what the internet will look like if the law passes,” the sites wrote on their blackened front pages.
In a press release this week, Macedonia’s biggest communications provider, Macedonian Telecom, also asked that the draft be revised, insisting that providers should not be held responsible for libelous content that is published online.
“This law refers directly to the freedom of expression,” said Uranija Pirovska, head of the Macedonian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, which joined the front against the law.
Last month the Union of Macedonian Journalists and Media Workers, SSNM, also shunned the draft, saying it may lead to direct censorship of journalists.
Members of the front say they will contest the law before the Constitutional Court if it passes in its current form.