Monday, October 13, 2014

Ebola Scare as Distraction from Unflattering EU Report on Macedonia

Issuing of critical EU report on Macedonia coincided with other government activities that drew the public attention: massive spectacular arrest of judges, and over the top reaction to alleged case of ebola. On October 8, 2014, the European Commission (EC) issued its annual Progress Reports, delineating the progress of countries participating in the process of joining the European Union (EU). In case of Macedonia, the report noted significant backsliding in the areas of freedom of expression, media and the independence of the judiciary, apart from the ongoing name issue, as summed up by Enlargement Commissioner Füle in the following video:

Subtitled statement by Füle via 24vesti

Foreign political analysts did not express optimism regarding the Macedonian government's response:
However, on the same day, the Macedonian authorities staged a massive police action leading to arrest of 14 judges and 11 officers of the Skopje Basic Court, in front of the cameras of Sitel TV, which is most influential in the country. The judges stand accused of delaying implementation of sanctions against perpetrators of misdemeanors, resulting in lack of fines. In some media, this occurrence overshadowed the conclusions of the EU report. The second most influential TV station, Kanal 5, decided to devote more time in the evening news to traffic accidents and local political squabbles, with a reporter claiming that the Macedonian public was uninterested in the EU report. The next day, another media blitz followed: a British national who died in a Skopje hotel was suspected of ebola. The authorities sealed the hotel (and the neighborhood) with a heavy police force, imposing strict quarantine to dozens of guests trapped inside. Media buzzed with warnings about the disease, even though its existence was not confirmed at all. The ebola case put Macedonia on the map of world news organizations, thanks to speedy and continuous Reuters coverage. UK media in particular picket up the story, but also many in the US and elsewhere.
In Macedonia, a continuous stream of news items about the case flooded the media, "revealing" various aspects such as the role of the British businessman, his ties with the government and its efforts to attract foreign investors, etc.
Macedonia health authorities sent samples to a relevant laboratory in Hamburg, Germany, which after three days confirmed that the ebola was not cause of death. Foreign follow up coverage was far less spectacular than with the initial news, even though new details had sensationalist potential.
Even before the official results were out, Macedonian social media users expressed doubts about the propaganda use of the whole case. As early on October 9, one twitter user pointed out that the victim suffered from chronic alcoholism.
Foreign journalists did not know that Swine Flu, Bird Flu, or ebola usually attack Macedonia after each EC Report. No matter, at least they'll enjoy a bit of traveling.
Is the harsh criticism by the EU a reason for "occurence" of ebola in Macedonia?
Everybody used to talk about the Report, now everybody talk about ebola. - The Prime Minister likes this.
Tonight on Sitel: Macedonia with largest economic growth of all ebola-affected countries.
Seasoned journalist Erol Rizaov expressed his outrage in a column entitled "There's no ebola, but there are plenty of idiots:"
It would be mission impossible for a pro-government television to air an unconfirmed news that a man suffering from infectious disease that scares the whole world died in this country, without a blessing from the government. It is unthinkable to continue propagating the same news as prime time for three days and three nights, as if a catastrophic earthquake hit somewhere between the Phillip the Second Arena [the seat of Sitel TV] and the Government building, without political assistance and logistical aid. Somebody sorely needed "ebola in Macedonia," even if that would quarantine the whole country, as they quarantined the "hotel of horror." If a real ebola patient exists in a country, than the procedure is akin to plague epidemics, with hermetic closing of all doors in and out of Macedonia. This is the big accomplishment of these high professionals. They froze the blood of our citizens by spreading the lie of the year, that the Brit who died in a hotel had ebola symptoms. Someone was in a real big hurry to distance the people from the real dramatic news affecting the country's future. This future is jeopardized, according to the European authorities from Brussels. After the news of wholesale arrest of an entire court of law, planting the ebola story came as a cherry on a cake for redirecting the public attention.
"Ebola" graffiti on a wall in Caen, France. Photo by F. S., CC-BY.
"Ebola" graffiti on a wall in Caen, France. Photo by F. Stojanovski, CC-BY.