Metamorphosis Foundation is navigating North Macedonia’s complicated disinformation landscape

Apr 2, 2024 in Combating Mis- and Disinformation
Statue of a man on a horse in Skopje, North Macedonia

For two decades, Metamorphosis Foundation has played a prominent role in countering false narratives and leading digital literacy campaigns in North Macedonia, a country where mis- and disinformation run rampant. 

Based in the capital of Skopje, Metamorphosis’ mandate is wide-ranging. The organization houses three media outlets, including the country’s first ever fact-checking service. Metamorphosis works as a government transparency watchdog, administers training workshops for young journalists, and counters false narratives across the country’s media ecosystem. 

An ICFJ partner, the Metamorphosis Foundation has been the target of an ongoing smear campaign that began when anti-vaxxers on Facebook falsely posted allegations against Truthmeter, the Foundation's fact-checking media outlet, that it was censoring content on the social media platform. The campaign quickly escalated into personal attacks against Metamorphosis employees. 

We spoke with investigative journalist Goran Rizaov, media program manager at Metamorphosis, first to learn more about the organization’s work, and the media environment in North Macedonia. In a second part to this interview, to be published at a later date, Rizaov discusses the nature of the online attacks he and his team are experiencing.

In addition to his programmatic work, Rizaov has more than 10 years of experience as a journalist, specializing in investigative reporting. In 2015 he was part of a team that received the Nikola Mladenov award for investigative reporting.

Here’s the first part of our interview:

How would you describe the current media environment in North Macedonia?

Unfortunately, the media environment in North Macedonia in recent years has become increasingly unpleasant and unwelcoming for professional journalism. To be completely honest, while in general the levels of freedom of speech have increased, the level of professionalism in the media has plummeted. 

There are hundreds of small newsrooms with two, three or four people in total that fail to serve the truth and the public interest. Media outlets are fragmented and economically weak, so while the number of media rises, the number of young professional journalists decreases year by year. For many people, journalism has become an unwanted profession, and journalists are not a respectful part of society. For many people, the image of the journalist in North Macedonia is an image of someone who is corrupt, easily bought and ready to succumb to pressure by any center of power. 

This has led to a situation where online media are prepared to publish anything to get more page views. Hence, there is large space for disinformation to enter the mainstream, a low level of professionalism, and disregard for journalistic standards. Some important topics like youth policies, higher education, gender equality, gender-based violence, actual debunking of disinformation, financial literacy, mental health, are rarely entering the mainstream. Mostly, what you can read in the media is news without any context about daily political issues.

What are some common examples of mis- and disinformation?

When we talk about the most common disinformation narratives spread in North Macedonia, these include the spread of аnti-vaxxing propaganda, as well as disinformation that vaccines cause different diseases, especially in children. All of this occurs during a period when the country, and the entire region, is struggling with an epidemic of whooping cough – a disease that was practically nonexistent in the last decades due to regular inoculation. 

Other disinformation narratives that are widely shared are regarding the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine that started two years ago. The main narrative being that Russia is fighting Nazism in Ukraine, and that the war is fought not between Russia and Ukraine, but between Russia and NATO or the U.S. 

If we look at domestic disinformation, it is predominantly shared by political troll farms on social media like Facebook and X, but also on Instagram and TikTok. These include disinformation narratives that suggest that by following the strategic goal of Euro-Atlantic integration, Macedonians are losing their identity, language and traditions, which would lead to the disappearance of the nation. North Macedonia has been a member of NATO since 2020, but still hasn’t fully started the negotiations for EU membership. 

What does everybody need to know about Metamorphosis Foundation’s work?

Metamorphosis Foundation has been around for 20 years. It is one of the largest civil society organizations in the Western Balkans. Our vision is to help create a society where citizens exercise their civic rights and responsibilities and hold their government to account. 

We have four programs or fields of work: Human Rights Online, Education for Innovation, Social Accountability, and Media for Democracy, which includes three media outlets.

How long has the organization been working to combat mis- and disinformation? Do you have any key highlights to share?

More than a decade ago, Metamorphosis started its Media for Democracy program to create a culture of respect for media freedom and professional journalism, and founded [the program’s] first media outlet, Truthmeter. In fact, this is the first fact-checking service in North Macedonia. Metamorphosis back then recognized the potential threat that disinformation posed to the development of the democracies in the Balkans, Europe and around the world. 

In 2019, Metamorphosis and Truthmeter became signatories of the code of principles of the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN). These principles include commitment to non-partisanship and fairness, transparency of sources, funding, methodology, and open and honest corrections policy. Since then, both became members of the IFCN. Metamorphosis was also one of the founders of the European Fact-Checking Standards Network in 2022.

Metamorphosis’ Media for Democracy program includes two other media outlets – “Meta” in the Macedonian language and “Portalb” in Albanian. All three [Metamorphosis] media outlets together won the prestigious Roberto Beličanec Award in 2019 for promoting journalism as a public good. The three outlets have jointly committed to debunking misinformation not only from North Macedonia but also from the Western Balkans region. We have also created a regional network of organizations that work together on countering disinformation in the Western Balkans. In April 2020, Metamorphosis and eight other organizations formed the Anti-Disinformation Network for the Balkans (ADN-Balkans). 

The founding members issued a declaration that reaffirms the freedom of expression in its various forms, stressing that the situation in the Balkans requires an added focus on countering the problem of disinformation at a regional level. We also noted that media in the region should prioritize empowerment of citizens through education.

This article is the first in a two-part series. The interview has been edited for clarity.

Photo by Tamas Marton via Pexels.