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Economics and politics deliver a one-two punch to the country’s newsrooms.by Zaklina Hadzi-Zafirova 27 July 2011
SKOPJE | Long under financial pressure, and often used as mouthpieces for clashing political factions, Macedonia’s media are now simply struggling to survive.
More than 100 journalists in the past six months have lost their jobs, and the future of an additional 300 employees of one media company looks grim. Earlier this month, three daily newspapers from that company shut down, and their sister television station has dramatically cut back its news operation.
The casualties have been attributed to the continuing economic crisis or an inevitable trimming down of a bloated media market. But most of the outlets to fall under the ax have been critical of the government, and journalists inside the country and domestic and international press freedom groups are sounding the alarm about the death of independent reporting in Macedonia.
“We have been at the bottom for a long time, and probably we can’t go any farther down, except maybe if they beat us or hunt us down on the streets,” Tamara Causidis, director of the national journalists union, said.
Concerns about electronic media are escalating as well. Last week, the government passed a measure to increase the number of board members at the country’s broadcast regulator. The new members would represent the president, local governments, and federal agencies. The ruling VMRO–DPMNE party says the additions will make the board’s workings more open, but opponents suspect an attempt to take control of the board.
The OSCE’s media freedom representative has asked Skopje to review the changes and complained that they had not been subjected to adequate public debate.
The president of the broadcast council, Zoran Stefanovski, interrupted a trip to China to return home, saying the body had not been consulted about the changes.
But the crisis that culminated in a journalists’ march in central Skopje earlier this month had its beginnings eight months ago. On 25 November, police raided the headquarters of A1 Television and the three newspapers that have recently shut, Spic, Vreme, and Koha e Re, all of which have been critical of the government.
The police raid was broadcast live on A1 while politicians and other public figures appeared on the same news program defending the station. Journalists from A1 called for the interior minister, tax officials, or the country’s president to explain why the station had, in their words, come under siege.
Later, police said they were assisting tax inspectors to check financial records of firms registered at the address of the media properties. For two months afterward, A1 broadcast its news programs from in front of the government building, with Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski as a guest on one occasion.
Journalists who work for Ramkovski say tax officials have repeatedly quoted differing amounts for the tax debt allegedly owed by A1 Television, a charge that tax officials deny. The tax bill stands at more than 9 million euros.
Ramkovski’s newspapers were published for the last time on 2 July.
The previous day, the members of a national journalists’ ethics council had resigned in “protest of the situation in which Macedonian journalism has found itself, which has become hostage to the interests of media owners and other centers of power, mainly the political parties, instead of serving the public and the truth. … We see no possibility under current circumstances to defend the dignity and the principles of journalism,” according to a statement.
On the same day, which has come to be known as Black Friday by some journalists, two reporters from another critical newspaper, Utrinski Vesnik, were fired. A week earlier, they had announced a one-day work stoppage to protest plans by the paper’s owner, German media conglomerate WAZ, to lay off 10 employees there in a cost-cutting move.
Further, an undisclosed number of journalists at the Alsat-M television station, where Causidis, of the journalists union, works, were fired for reasons that remain unclear.
International organizations have begun to weigh in on the thinning ranks of Macedonia’s independent media. Gruevski can now “count on friendly coverage of events from the majority of national printed and electronic media,” said Oliver Vujovic, general secretary of the Vienna-based Southeast Europe Media Organization, in a statement. He appealed to the prime minister and state institutions to guarantee freedom of the media and to avoid pressuring critical media.
He cited specifically the recent media closures, tax investigations of critical media, and government-sponsored advertisements in friendly media.
“You cannot build democracy with obedient media and an uninformed public,” Vujovic said.
In its most recent report on Macedonia’s progress toward the standards required for EU membership, the European Commission wrote, “The media remain divided along ethnic and political lines and self-censorship is widespread. … Ownership of the printed media is still not transparent and highly concentrated. There is no self-regulation mechanism for monitoring professional standards which should be upheld. … Intimidation of journalists, who face political pressure and threats, is a serious concern.”
In its annual Nations in Transit report, released in June, Freedom House said Macedonia’s media are losing their ability to act as a watchdog. The think tank, which monitors the level of freedom in countries around the world, said journalists were “jittery” about the record number of defamation lawsuits brought against the media in 2010 and feared that self-censorship is on the rise.
In an October assessment by Reporters Without Borders, Macedonia fell from 34th to 68th place for press freedom around the world.
It’s not clear if anyone in Skopje is listening. Some pro-government media published an open letter urging the government not to bow to pressure from the European Commission, the OSCE, or Amnesty International, and not to allow Ramkovski’s media group to pay its alleged tax debt in installments.
Reporters are “victimized in two ways,” Causidis said. “We’re the victims of the owners and the politicians, who punish us through the owners.”
Even some journalists who are still working can hardly be considered lucky, she said.
She said some journalists are working on a freelance basis or have been left to pay their own contributions to national health and pension funds. Reporters for smaller media outlets are paid as little as 2.50 euros per story, and some journalists have seen bank transfers from media outlets later recalled, Causidis said.
Analyst Snezana Trpevska said the Macedonian media market has deteriorated since she worked on an international survey seven years ago about media ownership structures and their influence on coverage.
She said she identified four structural problems: too many media in such a small market, the links between the most influential media and big business and politics, the small pool of money available for advertising, and the tabloidization and commercialization of the media.
“Now we have many more media than ever, which creates unhealthy competition, a pure struggle for survival of the owners, a lack of investment into quality and new programs, and a catastrophic socio-economic situation for journalists,” Trpevska said.
Macedonia has eight daily newspapers, not counting the three now shuttered, for a population of about 2 million people. That puts it in the middle rank of countries around the world, in terms of newspapers per 1 million inhabitants, but ahead of Slovenia, another former Yugoslav republic with a similar–size population.
In 2008, Trpevska said, owners who were criticized for misusing their media for business and political purposes had their broadcasting permits renewed. In addition, licenses were given to other powerful business people with links to prominent politicians. The concentration of media ownership, specifically Ramkovski’s holding of three daily newspapers and a television station, has exacerbated the problem, she said.
Throw into the mix the government’s stepped-up advertising, targeted at certain media, and you have the makings of a critical situation for independent media. “It’s a lot of money, and it caused an imbalance in the market. It has also seriously undermined the independence of the media because the media owners compete among themselves for the favor of the government in order to get the state advertising contracts,” Trpevska said.
Freedom House estimates that the government spent 10 million euros in 2009 on advertisements in friendly media.
Dusko Arsovski, a former journalist for the now-shuttered BBC Macedonian Service, said not all of the blame for the media’s exploitation lies with the exploiters.
“It is generally known that media are under the influence of business and political elites. Macedonia has a tradition that media owners are political leaders at the same time, ministers or members of parliament,” Arsovski said. “The problem is with the journalists who have allowed something like this to happen and to be divided into two camps, so that one journalist belongs to the first camp and the second to the second political option.”
Meri Jordanovska, a reporter for A1 Television, also said journalists have their share of blame. “I think that journalism is facing its biggest crisis ever, mainly because we’ve been silent for years and there was no solidarity among journalists.”
Jordanovska said A1 reporters have not denied that there could be “irregularities” in the company’s tax payments that needed to be cleared up, but she said the process of doing so has been politically charged, with journalists as its victims.
Journalists from A1 and its sister newspapers had been on paid leave until yesterday, when a court decided to open insolvency proceedings against the media company. According to an insolvency administrator, the company has debts of 30 million euros, including the outstanding tax bill, but only 900,000 euros in the bank. About 235 of the 300 employees are expected to lose their jobs in the insolvency.