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investigation 16 Jan 13

Macedonia’s Costly Media Campaigns Raise Suspicions

While the government says the 20 million euro it spent in five years on various info-awareness campaigns has educated people, critics are deeply sceptical of their value.

Valentina Stojancevska
BIRN
Skopje
 

Data show Macedonia’s centre-right government has spent up to 20 million euro in the past five years on around 40 public awareness campaigns.

Topics range from promoting ethnic tolerance, family values and patriotism to fanfaring the city-wide makeover known as Skopje 2014.

The problem is that while ministers say the campaigns educate people in important social issues, experts and opposition politicians say their primary purpose is to trumpet the government’s own achievements and buy the media’s favour.

They also question whether all the money earmarked for these campaigns actually reaches its intended purpose.

While sums involved are significant, the money flow is complex and hard to monitor. From the government that commissions the commercials, the cash then flows through the marketing agencies that make them to the media that broadcast them.

As it is difficult to separate out all the various campaigns, it is equally difficult to calculate the exact sums being spent.

Official data from the Public Procurement Bureau and the State Audit Office show 20 million euro have gone in five years on campaigns that on average cost 500,000 euro.

The campaigns are implemented by marketing agencies contracted by the government whose contracts lie in the public domain.

As the government pays all the money to the marketing agencies, which then allocate money to media outlets to buy advertising space, no one knows how much ends up in the media’s hands, however.

Experts say the lack of transparency in the division of the money raises corruption concerns.

Dragan Malinovski, a former member of the State Commission for the Prevention of Corruption, describes the campaigns as a “serious form of corruption”.

He says too much budget money is being thrown at “a completely unnecessary luxury, the media outlets broadcasting these campaigns”, which he says are then “corrupted by the government buying their affection and making them dependent.

“In the end, I’m convinced that no relevant research into the effects of these campaigns justifies their existence,” he continues.

The trend towards commissioning the awareness campaigns began in 2007, when, according to a State Audit Office report, published in 2008, the government of Nikola Gruevski spent 7.7 million euro on media campaigns that year.

A business campaign, “Invest in Macedonia”, which promoted Macedonia as a business destination in newspapers in 35 countries around the world, cost 3.3 million euro.

The other 4.4 million went on campaigns against corruption in education and on the promotion of Macedonian products.

Starting from 2008, calculating the sums spent on these campaigns became easier as state institutions were now obliged to publish all their tenders on the website of the Public Procurement Bureau.

Thus, in the middle of the year, a new campaign on increasing people's mutual respect and tolerance cost 544,000 euro.

In 2009, ten campaigns were commissioned with a total cost of 5.6 million euro. Eight contracts with agencies were signed by the General Secretariat of the Government on one day alone, March 17, 2009.

Some 325,000 euro went on five videos promoting Macedonia, while a similar campaign, “Explore Macedonia”, costing 590,000 euro, was also launched.

The other campaigns commissioned in 2009 were “Fight Smoking”, which cost 690,000 euro, “Fight Alcoholism”, which cost 600,000 euro, “Fight Corruption”, which cost 413,000 euro, “Campaign against Abortion,” which cost 588,000 euro, “Campaign for Optimism and Respect for Good Values,”, which cost 588,000 euro, “Campaign for Ethics and Ethical Behaviour,” which cost 590,000 euro, “Campaign for Public Hygiene and Waste Removal,” which cost 597,000 euro and a campaign encouraging people to read books, which cost 595,000 euro.

The latter featured a video of a family whose apartment had caught fire but who made a point of rescuing their books from the blaze.

The government has also spent ad money on solving the problem of declining birth rate in the country with a campaign urging people to have more children.

In one advert they urge people to ponder what would have happened if the parents of Mozart and Beethoven had opted for abortions instead of children. In another, a young couple is shown deciding to invest in baby cot instead of a car. These adds are still aired.

The volume of campaigns fell in 2010, when officially only one campaign was commissioned, again on promoting Macedonia, costing 388,000 euro.

But in 2011 the government returned to its old habits, and paid 3.8 million euro for nine new campaigns.

The campaign that attracted most attention, designed to encourage Macedonians to be good hosts and attract more tourists, struck some as negative, because it depicted the Macedonian people as an endemic species that should have died out a long time ago.

For 580,000 euro, people also received a lesson on how to develop a more entrepreneurial spirit and become successful independent businessmen and women.

In 2011, “Explore Macedonia 2” was also made, which advertised more natural beauties of the country for the sum of 556,000 euro.

The government presented new medical equipment in a video worth 300,000 euro. Judicial reforms were promoted for 590,000 euro, while those advertising reforms in the public administration cost a modest 21,000 euro.

A campaign about agricultural subsidies cost 150,000 euro and another for legalizing informal settlements 513,000 euro. A campaign advertising simplified procedures for obtaining building permits, which followed, cost 143,000 euro.

All were commissioned by the General Secretariat of the Government, including a campaign advertising real estate purchases, “Buy a House, Buy a Flat,” for which the Ministry of Finance paid 305,000 euro.

In 2012 despite the criticisms, Gruevski’s government continued commissioning public information campaigns in the media costing several hundred thousands euro.

In January 2012 the General Secretariat again decided pay for an ad campaign encouraging an innovative spirit among citizens and urging them to start businesses. The deal involving several marketing agencies was costed at 590,000 euro.

For 233,000 euro, a campaign was also commissioned to advertise the latest monuments, bridges, and buildings built within the remit of the Skopje 2014 project.


In January 2012, the second round of the “Buy a House, Buy a Flat” campaign was also launched by the Ministry of Finance, costing 306,000 euro.
The last August 2012 campaign, whose production was agreed at the end of the summer, costing 374,000 euro, promoted the value of interethnic and interreligious coexistence.

Many people clearly believe the government-paid advertisements corrupt media outlets, according to a poll commissioned by the OSCE, the Anti-Corruption Commission and Transparency International and carried out last month by the Rating Agency among 1,080 respondents in 84 municipalities.

Responding to the question, “Do you think that there is high, moderate, low or no corruption in the allocation of funds to the media for governmental campaigns?” 44.3 per cent of respondents answered “high” and 29.3 per cent “moderate”. Only 9.3 per cent answered “low” and 10.4 per cent “no” corruption.

Former State Anti-Corruption Commission member Malinovski says the commission long ago failed in its duty to thoroughly examine the tenders for the development of the media campaigns.

“The Commission has persistently turned a blind eye. Experts urged them to deal with the campaigns countless times but it never happened,” Malinovski said.

The watchdog organisation Transparency Macedonia also criticized these campaigns as open to corruption.

“We have often expressed suspicions that the marketing agencies are used for money laundering. It is a high time for a wake-up call,” Ana Janevska Deleva, director of Transparency Macedonia, said.

The main opposition Social Democrats, meanwhile, told Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski that people don’t need a campaign to encourage them to start their own businesses.

They already have the idea but lack the money to do so because of high poverty and unemployment levels, the party said in November 2012.

The vice-president of the opposition Social Democrats, Gordan Georgiev, noted that Macedonia did not need expensive media campaigns on improving ethnic relations, but specific moves by the government parties in power.

“If the government really wants to invest in stable ethnic relations, the coalition partners need to come up with a common solution to the problems that they themselves created, which have damaged interethnic relations,” Georgiev said.

The government defends the campaigns, responding that citizens need the information in them and the message of encouragement they contain.

“Each campaign carries a different message illustrating the goal that should be achieved,” a government spokesman, Muhamed Hoxha, said.

“The last campaign was developed to improve interethnic and interreligious coexistence in Macedonia, which is crucial for the country,” he added.

“And for the message to reach all citizens, the campaigns have to be produced and broadcast in several languages.”

The government adds that while the effects of the campaigns have been measured, the results have not been publicly presented.

But this latter point feeds opposition complaints that their justification remains an open question.

This article is funded under the BICCED project, supported by the Swiss Cultural Programme.

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