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Investigation 25 Jan 13

Secretive Takeover Leaves Macedonian TV’s Fate in Dark

Journalists at Alfa TV fear layoffs and two current affairs shows have been axed since the station - previously critical of the government - was sold in circumstances, and under terms, that remain unclear.

Sase Dimovski
BIRN
Skopje

Macedonia’s Journalists Union is worried that experienced and senior journalists will lose their jobs following the sale of the Alfa TV station.

Since the changeover, two political shows have been axed and the new management is staying silent about the now-expired contracts of experienced journalists.

At the same time, without notice, eight new journalists, mostly rookies, have been brought in from the public broadcaster Macedonian Radio and Television, from Sitel TV, and from the newspapers Dnevnik and Vecer, all strong supporters of Nikola Gruevski’s government.

Some of them have not concealed their unhappiness about being transferred from the media outlets where they previously worked on “orders” of the management.

The two political-debate shows pulled from January 1 were “Win-Win”, by Olivera Trajkovska, and “Word by Word”, anchored by Zoran Ivanov, both of them prominent senior editors.  

Ivanov, a veteran journalist and the station’s former editor-in-chief, resigned in early January after it became clear that Alfa was preparing to change the station’s editorial policy.

In October, Balkan Insight revealed that Fersped, from Skopje, had sold its majority stake in Alfa skop, the owner of Alfa TV, to a Serbian company. However the new owners did not take any steps in the TV station until January.

CHS Invest Group, founded by Com Trade of Serbia and owned by Veselin Jevrosimovic, took over the stake in Alfa, one of six broadcasters with national concessions in Macedonia.

According to documents obtained by Balkan Insight, CHS Invest paid only 150,000 euro in June 2012 for a majority stake in Alfa whose real value was closer to 2.5 million euro, according to a Balkan Insight investigation.

The sale was concealed from both the Macedonian public and the station’s own staff for four months.

CHS Invest is part of Com Trade Corporation, owned by a company registered in the Dutch Antilles and run by Jevrosimovic.

The other shareholders in Alfa, three Macedonian companies, Evropa, Makoshped and Tehnometal, had refused to buy out the shares of Fersped’s director, Sterjo Nakov.

After they signed affidavits that they were not interested in buying the controlling stake, the company was offered to the Serbian firm.

On its purchase of 56.90 per cent of Alfa, CHS Invest became the largest shareholder and, under the terms of the contract, can make key decisions alone.

While investigating Alfa’s sale in October, Balkan Insight attempted to reach Fersped’s director, Nakov, and his deputy, Kiraca Trajkovska, to find out why their stake had been sold for only a fraction of estimated its value.

We received no explanation. Alfa Skop’s director, Melpomeni Korneti, said: “The position of the company is not to reveal in public any details about the sale of the TV station.”

CHS’s representative in Macedonia, Simonida Kazic, who was listed in the sale documents as director of Alfa TV - her second bid for the post -visited the TV station in January and told the staff that she will not act as a director but will represent the interests of the Serbian owner, CHS.

She had been expected to obtain the director’s post two years ago, when Fersped tried to sell his Alfa stake to Pink TV, owned by Zeljko Mitrovic.

That deal with Pink fell through, following a dispute over planned payments by installment. Kazic did not reply to queries from Balkan Insight on the sale of the television and the company’s future plans.

Questionable sale:

The sale of Alfa took place after a Skopje court ruled that the privatization of Fersped broke the law.

The owner of Fersped has been seen as an opposition supporter, and the sale came amid a court probe into the privatization of his company.

Since news of the sale of Alfa was released, there have been allegations that Fersped’s owner was blackmailed into selling his stake in Alfa on the cheap in return for the dismissal of the lawsuit seeking to annul the privatization of Fersped.

After a Skopje court initially deemed the privatization of Fersped, which a problematic, an Appeal court cleared the sale in late November 2012, after the TV station was sold.

Jevrosimovic, who bought the TV station, has been present in Macedonia since 2007 through his company, CT Computers, which has sold computers worth $15 million to the Ministry of Information.

A few months earlier, Jevrosimovic’s company bought 50 per cent of Media Print Makedonija, MPM, which publishes three Macedonian newspapers, Dnevnik, Vest and Utrinski, alongside several weekly magazines that were formerly part of the WAZ media group.

“It’s true that MPM owns several newspapers in Macedonia, but our interest lies solely in the direction of spreading the digital media,” Jevrosimovic told Belgrade’s B92 outlet after the purchase of MPM.

Late in August 2012 it was announced that, following the model of the Serbia’s telegraf.rs portal, a special newsroom, telegraf.mk, would be set up in Macedonia, employing 50 journalists. But the project has not started.

Jevrosimovic later sold part of his shares in MPM, and now owns 33 per cent of the company.

Macedonia’s Broadcasting Council in November started a procedure to determine whether an undue concentration of power in the media had taken place in Jevrosimovic’s case, on the grounds that he owned a TV station and a third of a major publishing company. This week, the Broadcasting Council ruled that no law had been broken.

“We followed the case with Alfa TV and we took all necessary steps provided by the law to secure transparent ownership and prevent media concentration. In this procedure we did not confirm any irregularities,” the Broadcasting Council said on January 21.

Editorial shift:

Alfa TV, once known for its critical stance towards government policies, has markedly softened its reporting since the change of ownership.

Although sold months ago, most of the editorial changes took place following a short visit by Jevrosimovic on December 23. He did not meet staff but just toured the TV station on a Sunday afternoon.  

In January, Simonida Kazic, who had been appointed executive manager of Com Trade’s branch in Skopje, came into Alfa TV and also met the editors.

“The meeting was short and she told us that she won’t be in Skopje often and the work would be coordinated by the current managers who represent the minority shareholders,” a source at the meeting told Balkan Insight.

Trajkovska, meanwhile, says she was not informed about the axing of her show and only read about it on the internet.

“After I read about it, I called Alfa to ask if the show was going to be broadcasted. ‘Win-Win’ was an outside project and because of that, was easiest to cancel, but at the same time that explains the reasons for buying this TV station,” Trajkovska said.

“It is unthinkable that some people from Belgrade at such short notice succeeded in finding those journalists whose names we are still learning - and we ask ourselves, Who are those people?” she said, of the newcomers.

“The government has a lot of media that already know their ‘job’. The motive [for the sale] was probably to silence any other voices,” Trajkovska added.

Several formerly prominent and critically oriented media outlets have closed in recent years. Meanwhile, the centre-right government of Nikola Gruevski has increased its leverage over the remaining media through the means of targeted state advertising.

A union representative told Balkan Insight that they had asked for a meeting with the new editors of Alfa, to find out what was happening both with the journalists and with the old editorial policy. “They promised us that Alfa TV would stay critical, for now,” the union official said.

The union said it had also sought guarantees for the existing reporters at Alfa, but no guarantees were possible as their contracts had ended on December 31 and no new contracts have as yet been offered to anyone.

“The union is following developments at Alfa closely, and will support its members employed in Alfa with all of its resources,” a letter from the union to Alfa’s management said, demanding notification in case of any changes to the status of the employees.

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

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