SBS World News refuses to stop using offensive descriptor “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”

4 April 2016

On 7 March 2016 the AMHRC lodged a complaint with SBS World News in relation to that news service’s continued use of the offensive descriptor “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”, when reporting on the refugee crisis on the Macedonian-Greek border.

The complaint indicated that Macedonians in Australia and world-wide consider the UN descriptor to be a direct attack on their identity, language and culture and stressed that over 140 countries including the USA, Great Britain, Russia and China have recognised Macedonia under its rightful name. Furthermore, it indicated that as an independent statutory authority SBS was not bound to follow the Australian government’s practice of referring to the Republic of Macedonia as Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and asked whether its use was the result of an Australian government directive or a decision of the SBS board. The complaint requested that if SBS could not refer to the country as the Republic of Macedonia that it should use Macedonia on all occasions.

On 30 March 2016 a reply to the complaint was received from the Executive Producer of SBS World News. In this reply the producer stated that the SBS Style Guide on the naming of countries indicated that “ SBS will generally use the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (but not FYROM) in the first reference, and may then continue with that term or refer to the Republic of Macedonia or Macedonia thereafter in that item.” He also indicated that SBS had generally been referring to the Greek-Macedonian border in most stories concerning the European refugee crisis and had only occasionally used the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, but then referred to the country as Macedonia. He also indicated that there was an “opposing view” to the use of the name Macedonia and “we have to take both sides into consideration”. Furthermore, he also noted that the Department of Foreign Affairs refers to Macedonia as The Former Yugoslav Republic Of Macedonia intimating that SBS was following DFAT practice in this matter. In conclusion the producer stressed that our feedback would be raised with senior editorial leaders at SBS, however he indicated that SBS World News would continue with the “current use which I believe is pretty limited”.

The AMHRC replied to the producer's response on 31 March 2016. In its reply the AMHRC expressed its dissatisfaction at SBS World News’s decision to continue with its current practice. It pointed out that its policy on the name of Macedonia was not a satisfactory “compromise” and that the uninformed viewer would think that Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia was the country’s official name, given that it was mentioned first in all news items. The AMHRC also indicated that there was no moral equivalence between the Macedonian and Greek positions, in that the citizens of the Republic of Macedonia were asserting their internationally recognised right to freely choose the name of their state.

Furthermore, it was strongly underscored that the offensive and racist descriptor was adopted by the UN as a temporary reference for administrative purposes under Greek pressure in April 1993 and it was not incumbent on any country or institution to use it when referring to the Republic of Macedonia, either at the UN or in their bilateral relations. In addition the reply stressed that the fact that the Australian Government chooses to recognise the Republic of Macedonia under the UN temporary reference does not mean that the Macedonian community in Australia takes any less offence at the use of this term by an institution such as SBS which is founded on respect for multiculturalism, diversity and self-chosen identification.

Finally the AMHRC stated that there was no legislative reason for SBS to follow Australian government policy on this issue and that as the ABC and all other commercial TV stations in Australia refer to the country as Macedonia, as do the BBC and CNN, it was time for SBS TV and Radio to do the same.

The SBS news producer replied that same day and stated that the AMHRC had the right to make a formal complaint to the SBS Ombudsman so that this matter could be investigated. He also committed to raising the issue with SBS Management.

While the AMHRC is pleased that the issue will be raised with SBS Management, the reply indicates that the Executive Producer is not prepared to consider any change at present to SBS World News policy regarding the way it describes the Republic of Macedonia. The insulting UN descriptor will continue to be used by SBS World News, with no regard to the feelings of Australia’s Macedonian community which rightly views its use by an organisation ostensibly committed to the policy of multiculturalism and diversity as an affront and a direct attack on its identity. The AMHRC has very little confidence that SBS Management, given its record of lack of respect for the Macedonian community in the past, will change its policy.