Clientelism as modus operandi
One single episode of a mid-budget series broadcast on the world’s streaming platforms, like House of the Dragon, costs as much as the entire annual advertising potential of North Macedonia’s companies. The small advertising pie(which does not exceed 20 million € per year), shared by a large number of media outlets, creates a situation in which the media are constantly struggling and resort to clientelism as the only way to survive.
The market is saturated and automatically filtering out ‘weak’ television stations. Over the last ten years, 33 local and satellite television stations have gone out of business. From 77 television stations in 2011, North Macedonia was down to 44 stations in 2022. Therefore ,the media in North Macedonia are constantly looking for other ways to make themselves financially stable.
In hopes of achieving sustainability, the media have first knocked on the door of the state. By 2016, the state was the country’s largest private media advertiser, by broadcasting “public interest” campaigns. The right-wing VMRO-DPMNE government, which was in power from 2006 to 2016, paid “friendly” media over 26 million € to broadcast campaigns on topics such as healthy food, ethics and healthy lifestyles.
The critical public recognized that this dynamic signified a trade of financial viability in exchange for political influence in these media’s editorial policies, leading to these media following the policy of the party in power.
Surveys among journalists in North Macedonia show that low salaries in the media, precarious status and the working conditions of journalists encourage self-censorship. Currently, the average monthly salary for journalists is around 470 €, which is lower than the country's overall average income of 600 €.
A Change in Law, No Change in Practice
The practice of pouring state money into the media changed in 2017. The government, now led by the left-wing Social Democrats, SDSM, introduced a ban on broadcasting public interest campaigns in the Law on Audio and Audiovisual Media Services. Since then, national, satellite, cable and regional television stations have been demanding this ban to be lifted and for state advertising to return.
In 2023, a new law is in parliamentary procedure, according to which money to finance these advertising campaigns would come from the state budget. The proposed amount is to be capped at 0.1 % of realized total revenues, i.e. between 3 and 4 million € per year.
If the amendments pass, starting next year broadcasters will be paid to host at least one and at most four public awareness campaigns per year at both central and local levels.
The procedure will begin in parliament with the establishment of a commission of six MPs, three from the ruling majority and three from the opposition. A similar model will be used at the municipal level.
The commission will be tasked with identifying potential public interest campaigns; the government will then issue a public call for the development of such campaigns and an average broadcasting price will be established, with three price categories depending on when the ads would be aired.
The five private national television stations – Sitel, Kanal 5, Telma, Alfa, and Alsat M – will receive 65 percent of the funds annually, while satellite television and radio will receive 25 percent. Ten percent of the funds, on the other hand, will go to the accounts of regional and local television stations.
Meanwhile, under the amendments to the Election Law in 2018, it became possible for each party that participates in the elections to receive a certain amount from the state budget for media representation. The amount depends on the party’s results in the previous elections. In 2020, more than 3 million € were allocated to the media for parliamentary election campaigns. For the local elections in 2021, more than 5 million € from the state budget went to private media for election advertising.
Direct or Indirect, all Media rely on the State
The public broadcasting service, MRT, is also financially dependent on the state, as it is mostly financed from the state budget. According to the Law on Audio and Audiovisual Media Services, the state allocates 0.5 % of total annual revenues to finance the public broadcaster.
Every year, subsidies are also given to print media in order to cover their printing costs. Over five years, the state has paid a total of 2.7 million euros, with the highest support going to the daily newspapers "Sloboden Pechat," "Vecer," "Nova Makedonija," and "Koha" due to their larger circulation and expenses. In addition, newspapers also receive state money from advertising, because all state institutions and municipalities are legally obliged to publish all their job vacancies, other announcements and other types of information in one print medium in Macedonian and one in Albanian language.
Similarly to television and newspapers, digital media, i.e. web portals, are requesting financial assistance from the state. Their main argument for this is the fact that the audience in the country is increasingly informed online.
Currently they can apply to the State Election Commission to register for political advertising and receive money from the state budget for media representation of parties. The legal limit is 15,000 € ($15,800) per online media. Some of them try to double or triple their election earnings by operating multiple addresses in parallel.
The current scenario reveals that the majority of media outlets in North Macedonia heavily depend on specific funding sources, such as government subsidies, and insist on maintaining the status quo in order for that relationship to continue.
Inevitably, this compromises their role as a check on government power and a platform for public debate. This reliance frequently results in neglecting diverse perspectives and essential societal issues, leading to a narrow focus and limited coverage of crucial topics for the public. Clientelism becomes their modus operandi, prioritizing content alignment with the perspectives of their funders.