Critical press silenced by Macedonia government

Journalists protest against libel suits. Skopje, 2012. [Reuters]

Hundreds of Macedonian journalists protested in Skopje yesterday (4 July) after several media organisations critical of the government closed down at the weekend and others announced possible closure and layoffs, the press in the region reported.

The protest march, organised by the Journalist's Union, was held at five minutes to noon, indicating that media freedom is seriously under threat in Macedonia, reported Balkan Insight, a quality press media project that benefits from Western support.

"We are against all attempts at making our protest political. This is a protest of solidarity for all of our colleagues whose workers rights are being violated," Naser Selmani, the head of Macedonia's Journalists' Association, was quoted as saying.

Three Macedonian newspapers known for their criticism of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski published their last issues on Saturday (2 July) as they were shut down for alleged tax violations.

Opposition-minded newspapers Spic, Vreme, and Koha E Re (the latter in the Albanian language) have terminated publication, forcing about 100 journalists to take unpaid leave after the accounts of their publishing firms were frozen for alleged debts, reported the Bulgarian website Novinite. The website of the daily Spic is inactive, while Vreme is publishing a blank page with the text 'Vreme (Time) is extinct'.

The company's owner, Velija Ramkovski, a local oligarch, has been in jail since 2010 on accusations of financial and tax crimes.

Ramkovski is also the owner of Macedonian TV station A1, whose bank accounts were seized for owing the state nine million euros in taxes, making it very likely that A1 will share the fate of the three newspapers, the Skopje correspondent of Bulgarian national radio reported.

Shutting down the opposition newspapers has led many to raise the alarm about press freedom in Macedonia.

"The Cabinet of Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski wants to destroy our three newspapers and television A1 because we are critical of his government," Macedonian journalist Branko Gerovski told Bulgarian agnecy BGNES.

'Mugabe' standards of freedom

He claimed that the Macedonian tax authorities' accusations against the three newspapers and the A1 TV station were fake, and that they initially demanded four million euros but subsequently requested a higher sum – 10 million euros, including one million euros allegedly owed to the Macedonian state by the three newspapers and nine million by A1 TV.

He further accused Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski of staging an all-out operation to make sure that all media in Macedonia were under his control.

"There is no freedom of speech in our country. The authorities are trying to create another reality with some kind of patriotic rhetoric. And the reality is that Macedonia is at the bottom of all rankings in freedom of media, according to NGOs such as Freedom House and Reporters without Borders," Gerovski said. 

"There is no democracy without media freedom. We are no longer part of Europe. We have descended to the level of the most terrible African dictatorships, such as Robert Mugabe's in Zimbabwe," he stated.

Reportedly, most of the journalists at A1 TV are on forced unpaid leave.

Recently, the Brussels correspondent of A1 TV, Tanja Milevska, wrote with EURACTIV that Gruevski was also targeting social media, such as protest groups on Facebook.

Crackdown on other critical voices

Macedonia's main journalists' union on Friday urged members to protest following news that two journalists were sacked from the Utrinski Vesnik daily after having taken part in a protest strike last week against announced staff lay-offs.

This is "a terrifying message" showing that "any attempt to show discontent or just speak out publicly can result in a swift reaction," said the head of the union, Tamara Causidis.

Last Sunday, the daily newspaper, owned by Germany's WAZ, came out with a slimmed-down edition after 40 journalists down tools, opposing announced lay-offs.

The daily is one of three in the country owned by WAZ and is the only one of the three with a critical political attitude.

Macedonia first appeared as a country at international level in 1991 after declaring independence from the dissolving Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

In official EU documents, Macedonia is referred to as "the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia" due to a dispute over the country's name, which is identical to that of a Greek province.

Macedonia is an ethnic mosaic. Slavic Macedonians represent the largest group (64% of the population). Ethnic Albanians are the second biggest minority (25%), with Turks (3%) and Roma (1.9%) also present.

Ever since the country's independence, integrating the ethnic Albanians has proved a cumbersome process, and the country has come close to civil war.

The August 2001 Ohrid Framework Agreement, brokered by Western powers, halted the brinkmanship between the Kosovar-Albanian communities in northern Macedonia (organised militarily in the National Liberation Army) and Macedonian forces.

Nikola Gruevski, born in 1970, has been prime minister of Macedonia since 27 August 2006. Since 2003, he has been leader of VMRO-DPMNE, historically a nationalist party but now affiliated to the centre-right European People's Party. Gruevski’s party won snap elections on 5 June but falls short of a majority in parliament.

As recently revealed by EURACTIV, US cables clearly state that the government of Nikola Gruevski has a well-established tradition of using the state's judicial and repressive apparatus to quell dissent.

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