The publishing of a critical EU report on Macedonia coincided with the spectacular arrest of several Macedonian judges and an over-dramatic reaction to an alleged case of Ebola in the small country, and some speculated that the timing was no accident.
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. In the case of Macedonia, the report noted significant backsliding in the areas of freedom of expression, media, and the independence of the judicial system, apart from the ongoing country name issue, as summed up by Enlargement Commissioner Füle in this video:
As previously reported, both local and international political analysts did not express optimism regarding the response of the Macedonian government:
— LSEE-Research on SEE (@LSEE_LSE) October 9, 2014
However, on the same day, Macedonian authorities staged a massive police action leading to the arrest of 14 judges and 11 officers of the Skopje Basic Court, in front of several television cameras. The apprehended judges stand accused of delaying implementation of sanctions against perpetrators of misdemeanors. In some media, this action overshadowed the conclusions of the EU report, which was given much less attention. Several television stations also decided to devote more time in the evening news to traffic accidents and local political squabbles, with reporters claiming that the Macedonian public was uninterested in the EU report. (While the latest IRI survey found out that 72 percent of the population support Macedonia becoming a member of the EU.)
The next day, another media blitz followed: the death of a British national in a Skopje hotel was suspected to have been caused by the Ebola virus. Skopje authorities sealed off the hotel and neighborhood with heavy police forces, imposing strict quarantine to dozens of guests trapped inside. Media buzzed with warnings about the disease, even though its existence remained unconfirmed by any evidence at all.
The alleged Ebola case put Macedonia on the map of world news organizations, thanks to speedy and meticulous Reuters news service's continuous coverage. UK media in particular picked up the story, but also many in the US and elsewhere around the world.
- Ebola outbreak fears spread as Briton with symptoms dies
- Ebola crisis: ‘British man dies of disease in Macedonia’
- Ebola: British victim suspected of dying from killer virus in Macedonia named
- Hotel In Macedonia Quarantined After Death Of British Man With Ebola-Like Symptoms
- Suspected Ebola Case Investigated In Macedonia
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, who allegedly served as an adviser to the prime minister, his ties to the national government, and its efforts to attract foreign investors, among other details.
— Andreja Bogdanovski (@BogdanovskiA) October 9, 2014
Macedonia health authorities sent samples to a competent laboratory in Hamburg, Germany, which after three days confirmed that the Ebola virus was not cause of death of the unfortunate British national. Foreign follow up coverage was far less spectacular than it was to the initial reports.
- Ebola: Briton who died in Macedonia did not have deadly virus, officials say
- Alcohol, not Ebola, possible cause of Briton's death in Macedonia
- British ‘Ebola victim’ in Macedonia did NOT have the disease and died after massive drinking binge, health officials say
Even before the official results of the German lab were made public, Macedonian social media users expressed doubts about the propaganda being used around the whole case. As early as October 9, one Twitter user pointed out that the victim seemed to have suffered from chronic alcoholism.
Странските новинари не дознале дека кај нас свински/птичји грип, #ебола обично напаѓа после извештај од ЕК. Али ќе се прошетаат бар.
— марјанот (@MarjanIvanovski) October 10, 2014
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.
— Dimitar Azeski (@DimitarAzeski) October 9, 2014
Is the harsh criticism by the EU a reason for the “occurrence” of ebola in Macedonia?
— Џетроу (@i_taka_toa) October 9, 2014
Everybody used to talk about the Report, now everybody talk about ebola.
– The Prime Minister likes this.
Вечер на Сител: Македонија со најголем економски раст од сите земји погодени со ебола.
— Igor Trajkovski (@mkrobot) October 10, 2014
Tonight on Sitel: Macedonia with largest economic growth of all ebola-affected countries.
Seasoned journalist Erol Rizaov expressed his outrage in a column titled “There is no Ebola, but there are plenty of idiots”:
Да се пушти непроверена вест во провладина телевизија дека во државата, најверојатно, умрел човек болен од заразна болест од која се плаши цел свет е невозможна мисија без амин од власта. А, да се пласира три дена и три ноќи ударно како да удрил страшен земјотрес со епицентар меѓу градскиот стадион, Арената „Филип Втори“ и зградата на Владата и тоа без асистенција и логистика на политиката е незамисливо. На некого страшно му требаше „ебола во Македонија“, па макар ја ставил во карантин целата земја како што кај нас се стави хотелот на „ужасот“. Држава со болен од ебола е како епидемија на чума по која херметички се затвораат сите врати кон и од Македонија. Ете ваков голем подвиг направија високите професионалци. Им ја замрзнаа крвта на граѓаните откривајќи ни ја лагата на годината дека Британецот што починал во хотел ги имал симптомите на ебола.
Некому многу му се брзаше да ги оддалечи луѓето од вистинската драматична вест за иднината на земјата која е доведена во прашање според оценките на европската влада од Брисел. По веста за апсење на цел еден суд, подметнувањето на еболата дојде како вишна врз шлагот за пренасочување на вниманието на јавноста.
It would be mission impossible for a pro-government television channel to air 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 primetime 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.