Bardhyl Jashari, a leading civil liberties advocate in Macedonia and editor of Global Voices’ Albanian site, received an unmarked folder last month from the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia. Inside the folder, Bardhyl found a CD containing audio recordings of conversations that he had had by telephone from 2009 to 2013. Though startled at first, he wasn't surprised by what he found: hours and hours of conversations with his co-workers from Metamorphosis Foundation and other stakeholders, government officials, and even his family members.
Over the last six months, the Social Democratic Union, Macedonia's leading opposition political party, has released troves of hard evidence of a broad-based government wiretapping program affecting journalists, NGO workers, and political activists in the southern European nation since at least 2009. The opposition party, known as SDSM, claims to have obtained these records from whistleblowers within the Ministry of Interior. But they are now using them to expose the wrongdoing of the ruling party and, most likely, to draw more supporters into their own ranks.
Others like Bardhyl have had similar discoveries. Violeta Gligoroska, who works for the Open Society Institute, was handed recordings of numerous conversations she had had with journalists applying to the foundation for support.
Xhabir Deralla, who works with a local NGO known as Civil, told local news site Meta.mk that he felt “angry and disappointed” by the tapes, but that it also confirmed his beliefs about the impact his work was having on public life.
…When such a Government wiretaps you, it means that you are on the right track. And I want to thank them for listening. All the time while we thought they didn’t care about our advice and our work, they listened and recorded us. In coordination with my colleagues, we will use all legal measures.
The surveillance program has also hit a nerve within the broader public. Tens of thousands of people in Skopje, Macedonia's capital city, have taken to the streets on multiple occasions over the last seven months to protest new tax measures, school reforms, and most recently, the wiretap program.
While the ethics of the SDSM initiative may seem questionable, the opposition party has done well to illustrate the government's flagrant disregard for its own laws. This is not news to anyone in Macedonia, but the hard evidence has been welcomed by rights advocates who have worked for years to improve transparency and increase public accountability for spending and policymaking by the ruling government.
Government Ignored Constitutional Protections
Macedonia's constitution explicitly protects the right to privacy. But amendments to the Law on Electronic Communications adopted by the Parliament in June 2010 stipulated that telecom operators provide police with direct, unfettered access to all traffic data. NGOs including Open Society Foundation Macedonia, Metamorphosis and Transparency Macedonia contested this before the Constitutional Court, arguing that the government was violating the privacy of personal communications — and they won. The court ruled to strike the amendments in December 2010.
Under Macedonian law, the government must implement and comply with decisions made by the Constitutional Court — in fact, it is illegal for them not to do so. But this did not stop the government from sneaking those same provisions back into the law two years later.
Under more recent reforms, authorities have required telecommunications operators to build “back doors” into their technologies so that the Security and Counterintelligence Service, known as UBK, can listen to the conversations of just about anyone it chooses. Although the Constitution requires that the UBK obtain a court order before doing so, the new policy and practice disregards this requirement altogether.
It seems that the telecom operators have been compliant in this illegal surveillance scheme all along. The majority of its wiretap operations have taken place on the networks of Macedonian Telekom, the country's formerly state-owned leading telecom. The German telco Deutsche Telekom (which also operates in the US as T-Mobile) owns 51 percent of the company, through its Hungarian subsidiary Magyar Telecom. They have announced plans to conduct internal investigations on the matter.
Spy Regime Triggers Scrutiny from EU
These revelations also coincide with Macedonia's ongoing effort to join the European Union. With public discontent and political corruption seemingly at a record high, the European Commission deployed a review committee to visit and interview government officials and independent organizations involved in politics and civic life in Macedonia. In June, the committee reported on its findings [pdf], stating that UBK “can intercept communications directly, autonomously and unimpeded, regardless of whether a court order has or has not been issued in accordance with the Law on Interception of Communications.”
The committee urged that the “considerable gap between legislation and practice [had] to be urgently addressed and overcome,” and concluded that the government needs to implement fundamental reforms to the legal and technical processes by which communications surveillance takes place in the country:
The UBK should have no direct access to the technical equipment allowing mirroring of the communication signal. The proprietary switches should be moved to the premises of the telecommunication providers. The providers should activate and divert signals to the competent law enforcement agencies (Police, Customs Administration and Financial Police) or the security agencies (the Security and Counterintelligence Service (UBK), the Intelligence Agency, and the Ministry of Defence's military security and intelligence service) only upon receipt of the relevant court order, and only for the purposes of lawful interceptions. Under no circumstances should the UBK have the practical capability to capture communications directly.
The report also noted that:
Bodies which in a properly functioning democracy would be among the more important oversight and control bodies, such as the State Election Commission, the Directorate for Personal Data Protection and the Parliamentary oversight committees, appear unwilling to carry out their mandate. By contrast, the Ombudsman's genuine efforts are hampered by other institutions.
The EU Council has since called upon the Macedonian government to implement all recommendations of the Commission, including those concerning fundamental rights and media reform.
It is worth noting that at present, it appears that the only individuals who have faced prosecution as a result of the recordings are those who have been punished for making, obtaining, releasing and publishing the interceptions. Despite the fact that the tapes reveal many levels of political corruption at much deeper levels, only the interceptions themselves seem to be of concern to the current regime.
Alongside other NGOs that were targeted by the wiretapping program, Metamorphosis is working to investigate and once again challenge the government's actions on constitutional grounds. In Macedonia's current political climate, this will be a steep climb.