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Closure of critically oriented outlets leaves Nikola Gruevski's government without its biggest media critics.
Macedonia's Journalists union staged protest march on Monday
Macedonian media that hold critical views of the centre-right government of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski are fast closing, or are under serious threat of closure.
In what some are calling a “Black Friday for Macedonian journalism”, three pro-opposition newspapers Shpic, Vreme, and Koha e Re, owned by detained media tycoon Velija Ramkovski, have all closed at once, ostensibly as a result of their failure to repay back taxes now demanded by the authorities.
Meanwhile, the country’s only critical national TV station, A1, also faces closure for the same reason. It has continued working after courts froze its account six months ago. But the TV station, also owned by Ramkovski, has cut news bulletin and sent most journalists home on paid leave.
In what journalists unions have described as another ominous development, five journalists from the daily Utrinski Vesnik were sacked in the past few days after taking part in a strike against management lay-off plans. The daily, along with two others, is owned by Germany’s WAZ.
Media watchdogs fears the sackings, on top of the spate of closures and threatened closures, are part of a growing crackdown on independent minded journalists and media groups.
“The closures and the taxes demands all appear to be politically motivated,” Nicola Duckworth, Amnesty International’s director for Europe and Central Asia, said this week in a press release.
“This is not an isolated incident but a confrontation with media critical of the government that has been going on for over a year,” she added.
“These closures are looking more and more like an all-out assault on freedom of expression.”
Closures are looking more and more like an all-out assault on media freedom, some observers say
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, has expressed similar concern over the spate of closures.
“This is a very disturbing development that has practically eliminated pluralism and opposition views in the country’s press overnight,” the OSCE representative on media freedom, Dunja Mijatovic, said in Vienna on Monday.
“The media should follow the rules set for all businesses, but these outlets seem to have been targeted by the authorities,” Mijatovic added.
The closures and sackings prompted Macedonia’s Journalists Union and its Journalists Association, two different organizations, to stage a joint protest on Monday.
The goal was to remind state institutions and media owners of repeated and increasingly routine breaches of journalists’ rights.
“No one can expect journalists to abide by principles and codes of conduct when they are faced everyday with the possibility of losing their jobs and when lay-offs are being made without the proper procedure,” Naser Selmani, head of the Journalists Association of Macedonia, said.
All three closed dailies are the property of detained tycoon Velija Ramkovski, a supporter-turned-foe of Prime Minister Gruevski and his ruling VMRO-DPMNE party.
Ramkovski was detained last December after police charged him with tax evasion. He stays in detention as the trial against him is ongoing.
Ramkovski was detained last December
The authorities insist that his media empire must repay 10 million euros’ worth in back taxes, or face closure, and have rejected requests to repay the money in installments. As its financial worries grow, A1 may be the next media outlet to go under.
The threatened closure of Ramkovski’s newspapers earlier this year preceded an opposition walkout of parliament. As a result, the government called a snap election in June. However, the ruling part won the vote, albeit with a reduced majority.
“We fear Gruevski’s government is using its new mandate as an excuse to continue its attempts to isolate, marginalize and silence media critical of the government,” said Duckworth of Amnesty International.
In a sign that A1 is already weakening, this week it announced that it had been forced to send most of its staff temporarily on leave.
A1, Macedonia’s oldest private TV broadcaster and by far the most popular TV in the country, now airs only short news bulletins without accompanying reports, analysis, interviews, debates or panel discussions.
“We refuse to believe this is the end,” Mladen Cadikovski, A1’s editor-in-chief, Mladen Cadikovski, told Balkan Insight.
“We will try to prevent in every way the closure of the first private TV in Macedonia, which has remained a symbol and promoter of democratic processes in the country,” he added.
Many intellectuals and political observers have publicly spoken out against what they see as a sustained campaign of harassment, targeting media that decline to echo the government’s line.
“It is obvious that these media were closed because of a conspiracy of the governing parties,” Biljana Petrova, a communications expert from Skopje, said.
PM Nikola Gruevski denies his involvment in media shut downs
“Their closure is a bad sign; it’s placing Macedonia in a form of [media] darkness, outside the democratic process,” she said.
Vladimir Milcin, executive director of the Open Society Foundation in Macedonia, is one of the loudest critics of the Gruevski government’s media agenda.
In his last column for the now defunct Shpic, Milcin accused the Prime Minister of actively shutting critically oriented media.
“One by one, Gruevski has crushed all the bastions of freedom and democracy. His task was made easier by the fact that all of them [the media] hoped they might survive if they made ‘little’ concessions,” he wrote.
“One by one, columnists who refuse to applaud to Gruevski are vanishing. Some will get new bosses and will obey orders without complaint but those who refuse will be left on the street, at least for some time,” Milcin added.
Mijatovic, from OSCE, said Macedonia’s authorities needed reminding that media pluralism was a prerequisite both in the fight against corruption and in fostering the democratization process.
“Closing critical media never leads to political and economic stabilization, but to stagnation and the loss of trust in governments and politicians,” she warned.
Macedonian journalists have consistently complained of government interference in their work, ranging from being shut out of press conferences to defamation suits and even death threats.
On Monday, several hundred reporters held a protest in Skopje to register their mounting anger over recent events.
Naser Selmani and Tamara Causidis
The protest was on behalf of all those who were “deceived into signing resignation notices when they were employed, who have been laid off overnight… who work for months without pay, who receive little or no social welfare and who are not allowed paid vacations,” Tamara Causidis, head of the Journalist’s Union of Macedonia, said.
It was also a protest against “the direct blackmail and atmosphere of fear that is turning us into scared servants [of the authorities],” she added.
Causidis said they were demonstrating also for those who were too scared to protest themselves. “We’re also marching on their behalf, to declare out loud that we are organized and that they cannot bribe or scare us!”
Natalija Radivojevic, a lawyer representing journalists in courts, said she was becoming increasingly overwhelmed with cases of violations of workers’ rights.
“I used to believe that the tools that journalists posses in creating public opinion and pinpointing social problems would prevent violations of workers’ rights on such a scale,” she said.
In another form of protest, all seven members of the so-called Council of Honour, a wing of the Journalists’ Association tasked with nurturing ethical principles and applying the journalists’ code of conduct, resigned at the weekend.
“The collective resignation is also a sign of protest over the condition of Macedonian journalism,” Ida Protugjer, one of the seven journalists who resigned, told Balkan Insight.
“Instead of serving the public interest and truth, journalism has become hostage to media owners and centres of power, mainly the political parties,” she added.
The 30 or so cases that the council had considered over its seven months of existence had shown that journalists no longer have the strength to fight for professional standards, she maintained.
Macedonian govenrment allocates advertisment money only to selected supportive media outlets,journalist Saso Ordanoski says
Zoran Stefanoski, head of the Broadcasting Council, a national regulatory body, says the party politicization of the media is a general problem in Macedonia and was clearly evident in the coverage of the June 5 early elections.
“A1 positioned itself as supporter of the opposition and as a critic of the government, while Sitel TV [another national private TV] was clearly supporting the government,” he said. The third national private broadcaster, Kanal 5, also backed the government, he added.
Veteran journalist Saso Ordanoski says the government has actively encouraged biased reporting by allocating advertisement money only to selected supportive media outlets.
Domestic and foreign reports in recent years have confirmed that the government spends tens of millions euros a year on advertising projects, ranging from anti-smoking campaigns, to drives to boost national morale, campaigns for tolerance and campaigns urging Macedonians to explore the countryside.
“This has completely distorted the normal functioning of market conditions [in the media] by practically promoting only those media that are close to the government,” Ordanoski noted.
“The government’s aim is to ‘choke’ those who oppose it, and to do so in a perfidious way through the market,” he added.
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