Truth Under Fire: IRL Macedonia’s Award-Winning Journalism Faces Threats

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Since their beginnings, Investigative Reporting Lab (IRL Macedonia) has drawn the attention of the public because of their bold investigations. This year, the story about a private Macedonian hospital that treated COVID-19 patients received unprecedented attention and won them multiple national and international awards, including the EU Investigative Journalism Award on the national and, for the first time ever, the regional level. The documentary “Bad Blood” (Нечиста крв) sheds light on the activities of Zan Mitrev Clinic and its founder, a once-renowned Macedonian cardio surgeon, who exploited the COVID-19 pandemic in collusion with the government, deceiving patients, their families, and the entire public.

The documentary unravels how the private Zan Mitrev Clinic transgressed numerous regulations, which brought them huge profits. By advocating hemofiltration as a groundbreaking approach to treating the COVID-19 virus, Zan Mitrev Clinic performed several types of medical malpractice, resulting in the deaths of over twenty patients. The documentary culminates in a shocking revelation that patients treated with hemofiltration for COVID-19 at this hospital were unwitting participants in a clinical trial. Adding to the gravity of the situation, this clinical trial went unreported to any institution in North Macedonia.  

Following the release of the documentary, a criminal complaint was filed against the surgeon. Nearly a year after the indictment, Sashka Cvetkovska, editor-in-chief of IRL Macedonia, now shares the latest developments regarding the case:

“The case is still in the process of trial hearings and following it closely we cannot help to suspect the ability and sincerity of both the Public Prosecutor and the judge assigned to the case. The witnesses were not prepared, defense is delaying the trials claiming the doctor was ill, while he was posting heavily on social media from his work meetings. All this goes without having any opposition from the Prosecutor’s office. The first suspicion arose from the fact that Zan Mitrev is being charged with fraud, a crime much harder to prove than negligent treatment, for which they possess the needed evidence. The latest report from the European Commission notes that there is no progress in the justice system, and that serious concern exists about the independence of the judiciary. With all this in mind, we are not very hopeful that our investigation will lead to a verdict favouring the victims and the citizens. According to polls, the trust in the Macedonian prosecution is only 1 percent.“ 

Sashka goes on, adding that Zan Mitrev is a highly connected person with PEPs and has been operating using state funds and defrauding patients for decades. She mentions the pressures and threats she’s been receiving since the case became known to the public.

“I am currently a victim of ongoing online threats and smear campaigns run by powerful mainstream media. The hospital and the high-level officials close to the hospital management are buying interviews, publishing paid fiction articles and defamation articles against the organisation and our lead reporter.

More than 100,000 comments and messages were directed to me including public calls for my dеаth, as well as calls fоr various types of violence against the reporters.” 

Zan Mitrev Clinic. Source: “Bad Blood” (Нечиста крв) documentary, IRL You Tube Channel.

IRL’s investigations usually last from 8 to 22 months, primarily because of the unresponsiveness of the institutions, but they emphasise they are very persistent and don’t take “no” for an answer. Most of the time, when seeking public information, they are denied, and the appeal procedures can last for months.

“In some cases, the appeals and public pressure do not deliver the wanted results, and we are unable to obtain all the information and documents needed. In those cases, we rely on the bravery of whistleblowers from public institutions who, luckily for us and for the citizens who deserve to know the truth, have stepped up lately and shared valuable inside information with us that we cannot obtain through regular procedures.”

IRL Macedonia is now facing another obstacle that threatens to endanger their survival. Following another documentary “Conspiracy against the air” (Заговор против ваздухот), IRL was sued for defamation by a businessman exposed in this investigation. Despite evidence presented in this case, IRL was convicted of defamation in November. The judge claimed that in this case, the right to private information is more important than freedom of speech, adding that IRL newsroom is not a media, and therefore is forbidden from creating any kind of journalistic content. The verdict adds that IRL should be investigated in order to prove they are, in fact, a media outlet. If proven they are not, they are facing shutdown.

Sashka claims that this unprecedented verdict is an open call for media censorship, which can have catastrophic consequences for civil rights in the already highly corrupted political scene in North Macedonia. “It is challenging enough to obtain public information from uncooperative institutions, to deal with corrupt businessmen and corrupt politicians who enjoy the status of “protected species,” to defend ourselves from SLAPPs, and to be targeted daily by orchestrated bot attacks.

The challenges are endless, and this verdict delivered the final punch for investigative journalism in the country. It gave a green light to anyone with money and power, who cannot stand to be criticised or questioned, to be free to execute their shady state-sponsored deals in peace. It sent a message that they are untouchable, and they don’t even have to bother to answer questions from investigative journalists, since the court does not recognize them as such. Additionally, it opened the doors for many more SLAPPs against the critical voices, who weren’t many to begin with.” 

IRL Macedonia, which recently commemorated its sixth anniversary, has been recognised five times this year by various European and global organisations, and yet, their work is facing enormous challenges. Sashka explains that it is hard for Balkan journalists to compete with their peers from more developed countries due to inequality, lack of resources, and hostile media environments—three factors that affect the quality of investigative journalism.

“Organisations like IRL are able to compete, only because they have support from global organisations like OCCRP. Otherwise, it is hard for any good and decent reporter to compete globally in a media environment that doesn’t want them to be good. They are expected to exist only to satisfy the lucrative appetites of media owners, oligarchs, or even political parties.”

“Fight with us, fight for yourself! “- a slogan on IRL You Tube Channel home page.

There has been a concerning decline in enrollment in journalism studies in North Macedonia year after year. Currently, the number has reached around 10 students per year, which speaks a lot about the unfavourable climate for journalists in this country.  Sashka expresses her concern that investigative journalism is on the brink of extinction, and court verdicts like this one further discourage young people and journalists of all ages from engaging in investigative journalism.

A positive example of a way to motivate journalists would definitely be the first place for the regional EU Award for Investigative Journalism, as well as receiving the Global Shining Award. When you work in a country that punishes journalists for speaking the truth, it is of great importance to have reputable international organisations value and recognise your work. North Macedonia is a small country, and when you take into consideration the low number of investments in the potential of talented people, Macedonians rarely get worldwide recognition. Citizens take great pride in seeing the name of our small country on awards such as these, and even though we enjoyed the public’s trust before being awarded, it definitely gave them more reasons to stand with us and join the fight against corruption.

“When the defamation verdict came out, dozens of citizens used their social media to remind the court of IRL’s awards and recognition. One citizen wrote: “While the world praises them for their remarkable work, we punish them for speaking the truth.” 

Sashka concludes that North Macedonia needs urgent and immediate reforms in the judiciary system, especially in the justice system. Over the past 10 years there have been almost no government officials that were held accountable for their crimes, despite the efforts of investigative journalists which revealed mass misconduct.

“Without accountability, our work seems useless for the citizens sometimes. The joint efforts of the journalists and the Anticorruption Commission have borne no fruitful results. We cannot expect our work to have a meaningful impact when the institutions which are supposed to prosecute criminals are being occupied by political parties and well-connected businessmen.”

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