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Obituary 29 Mar 13

Nikola Mladenov, Free Speech Pioneer in Macedonia

Macedonia has paid tribute to one of its most prominent and fearless journalists, whose untimely death has shocked the nation.

Sinisa Jakov Marusic
BIRN
Skopje
people lit candles for Mladenov in central Skopje | Photo by: Darko Duridanski

Friends, colleagues and readers flocked to Skopje’s central square on Wednesday evening to light candles for Nikola Mladenov following the sudden news of his death in a car crash near the capital.

Police found his body on Wednesday in an overturned car that had landed in a ditch near the highway at entrance to Skopje.

Colleagues and loved-ones recalled him with long rounds of applause at a commemorative session on Thursday.

Mladenov, 49, will be remembered as a prominent journalist who built a reputation as a principled critic of the political class that has led Macedonia since independence.

A staunch critic of mediocrity, he stayed true to his oft-spoken pledge that journalists should “act as constant opposition to whoever is in power”.

Mladenov was the founder and owner of the most popular political weekly in the country, Fokus, and of the daily newspaper with the same name.

He was born on March 10, 1964 in Skopje.

His career as a journalist started in the turbulent late-1980s and 1990s, as the former Yugoslavia dissolved and a new Macedonian state was formed.

After starting out as a promising actor, he shifted his interest towards journalism and in mid-1980s became a reporter for the state-run newspaper, Mlad Borec. He soon became junior editor and later editor-in-chief.

Under his leadership, the newspaper became the first in Macedonia to introduce pluralist principles, giving a voice to views that previously had been blacklisted by the political elite.

"Mlad Borec was a herald of Macedonia’s journalistic spring. His colleagues used to say that he was the creator of the Macedonian spring,” journalists from Fokus wrote.

In 1990, Mladenov took the risk of being the first editor in Macedonia to publish the political platform of a new rightist party, the Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity, DPMNE, which later served as basis for the formation of VMRO DPMNE, currently the dominant political force in Macedonia.

The DPMNE was formed that year in Stockholm under the leadership of the political dissident Dragan Bogdanovski, standing in total opposition to the well-established Communist party, which, however, dissolved quickly afterwards.

Nikola Mladenov | Photo by: Fokus

After Mlad Borec, Mladenov formed Libertas radio station and in 1995 he formed Fokus, the weekly that remains his most notable professional achievement.

Under the provocative slogan “the weekly of the internal and also the external enemy,” the newspaper established itself as one of the pillars of the young Macedonian democracy in which new political options and media outlets were popping up by the day.

Mladenov devoted some 20 years to building the Fokus brand, insisting on “freedom of speech, no matter what!”

But he met many obstacles along the way.

Suspicion of Foul Play
The scarce police report about the car crash and other circumstances left many details about Mladenov’s violent death still unanswered, causing many to suspect possible foul play.

On Wednesday the police kept journalists’ teams from reaching closer to the site of the accident. The investigation at the site lasted for five hours.

In the short police report stands only that Mladenov’s vehicle “crashed into the metal fence, and then veered off the road and overturned”, as well as that his body was given an autopsy.

From unofficial talks with forensic experts the public found out that the accident probably happened on Wednesday before dawn around 4 in the morning and that the death most probably accrued from a massive chest trauma he received from the steering wheel.
 
The police launched a search and found his car in a ditch at the highway entrance to Skopje after his family reported him missing.

The last time Mladenov talked on the phone with his wife was on Tuesday evening. She reported him missing the same night after midnight when she could not get him on his phone. She was upset because as she said it was atypical of him not to answer or not to tell her where he was going.

On the other hand, the former head of the Counter Intelligence Agency, Kire Naumov confirmed for NOVA TV that they had an agreed meeting that evening around 7. He said that he tried to reach him by phone at that time but that when Mladenov did not answer, he assumed that he had some other more urgent job.

It remains a mystery for now, where Mladenov was that evening and who was the person that he last saw or talked to.

The investigation announced they will investigate Mladenov’s car for more clues but they did not mention anything about checking the highway cameras that are located on the highway near the crash site.

In 2006, he lost a major legal battle with the then President, now opposition leader, Branko Crvenkovski, and a banker, Hari Kostov. Both sued him for slander after Fokus published documents saying they had secret bank accounts in Switzerland.

At the end of the case, Mladenov had to pay tens of thousands of euros to both. However, he never publicly retracted the offending article.

“What is life without mistakes? You mustn’t let those mistakes knock you down and prevent you from rising again! I am happy that with 'Fokus' we created a space that allows us to say what everyone is thinking but keeps silent about for whatever reason,” Mladenov said in one interview.

As Macedonia completed its first decade and a half of pluralism, another serious test for freedom of speech arose.

Journalists and human rights activists began warning that freedom of speech in Macedonia was in steep decline, largely blaming the government of Nikola Gruevski and accusing him of muzzling the media.

Maldenov was once more at the forefront of the fightback.

At a time when critically-inclined media outlets were closing across the country, and in an atmosphere where many media were taken over by businessman with political affiliations, Fokus survived based only on economic principles, financing its production from commercials and circulation.

“As a media owner, Mladenov waged one of the toughest battles in journalism that is almost impossible to win in Macedonia, to have your own newspaper, to be always critically inclined to the government and the financial centres of power, and to survive,” said Erol Rizaov, seasoned editor of Utrinski Vesnik.

Against the odds, in 2011 Mladenov achieved another of his dreams, to start a daily newspaper with the same name, Fokus. This soon found its own readers.

But the existence of both the weekly and the daily are now in question, as both operated under constant financial pressures and threats of expensive lawsuits.

Mladenov recently criticized the reform of Macedonian libel laws, which decriminalized libel but introduced tough fines for journalists in civil procedures.

Last month, he said that for the first time Fokus felt forced to employ self-censorship, due to these reforms, because they simply did not have money to risk more lawsuits.

"Mladenov was not only a pioneer of Macedonian pluralism and supporter of the freedom of expression. He was a pillar of freedom,” the Independent Union of Macedonian Journalists wrote in a tribute.

He was buried on Thursday at Skopje’s central cemetery.

“We want a society of free people and they want a bunch of spineless goons. There can be no compromise between the two!” Mladenov once said, speaking about the principles that motivated him.

He is survived by his wife and two children.

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