Thursday, July 08, 2010

Orwell in Macedonia

The mere thought of challenging the ruling authority is a crime, George Orwell wrote in his famous novel "1984." Macedonia does not have Orwell's Thought Police, but the new law on electronic communications, adopted on 17 June, genuinely scares human rights organisations. They have voiced concerns for civil liberties and the protection of privacy.

The deputy minister for transport did not quell their fears when he said "it is clear which group of citizens is targeted by this law and those are the people who work against the state, its sovereignty and integrity. If some people recognise themselves in this description, that is their problem."

With a majority of only one vote in the ruling conservative VMRO DPMNE party, the Macedonian parliament adopted the controversial law, which states that the internet, mobile and fixed line operators in the country have to respond positively to a request from the Ministry of Interior and give them all data on communications. They are obliged to store this information for 24 months, and to give the ministry 24/7 direct access to their networks, allowing it to take over the data it wants. The ministry can physically locate every internet and mobile user. Internet and mobile phone providers are also obliged to buy technology which is compatible with Interior Ministry's. All hardware or software changes have to be notified.

Last but not least, the ministry has the right to get all the information without a court order - therefore, the ministry is to act without any outside control.

This law is unconstitutional, according to the Directorate for the Protection of Personal Data, a government agency. It says it was not consulted during the work on the law and decided to give its opinion after reading media reports on the topic. "The law violates the constitutional postulates on the freedom and inviolability of all forms of communication," the directorate said.

Even the state prosecutor, a figure who is close to the ruling party, criticised the new law. "The ministry has exclusivity in the monitoring of all communications, but how to proceed if there is a suspicion of crime in the ministry itself? What are our possibilities to detect a potential crime there? Let us be honest - not even they are immune to crime," said Ljupco Svrgovski. He asked that his department be given means to follow the communications of the institutions protected by this legislation.

"This law provides authorities with unacceptable and invasive intrusion into the privacy of citizens and seriously threatens the basic postulates of human rights," the Macedonian branch of Hthe elsinki Committee for Human Rights said, adding that the move is contrary to all existing international standards in the area.

The European Commission has still not reacted. The Skopje government sent them only the first draft of the law, which did not contain the controversial articles. "Macedonia will have to answer some unpleasant questions in Brussels. We tried to make our VMRO DPMNE colleagues in the Parliament understand that they will also be victims of this law. But, they didn't want to hear it," said Jani Makraduli, a member of parliament for the social democrat opposition.

Macedonian human rights fighters and the opposition plan to challenge the law in the Constitutional Court.

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