Media freedom under attack in Macedonia
A closed down TV station, three closed downed independent newspapers, as well as prospects of more restrictive legislation, cause worry of the situation of media freedom in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. “Regardless of whether the tax evasion cases raised against the media outlets and their owner are well-founded, Macedonian authorities should avoid silencing independent media critical of the government”, said Norwegian Helsinki Committee Advisor Ole B. Lilleås. “The amounts demanded and the conditions of payments seem to be designed to silence critical media.”
Closure of leading TV station critical of the government
The independent TV station A1 went black on Saturday 30 July 2011, following tax evasion charges raised earlier in the year. According to Borjan Jovanski, a former A1 journalist and editor, the “station spent 18 years advocating a European Macedonia that would be able to embrace its differences. Its enforced closure sends a depressing message about those values’ future in Macedonia.” Read article in Balkan Insight here.
A1 was the most popular national TV station in the country, owned by Velija Ramkovski who has been targeted by prosecutors for alleged tax evasion. He has been in custody for more than six months. Skopje’s Agency for electronic Communications withdraw A1’s broadcasting license, following a court ruling against it in a bankruptcy procedure.
A1’s troubles started late 2010, when police and tax inspectors raided the station’s premises. Its accounts were frozen by Macedonian officials on 27 January 2011, and several A1 vehicles were confiscated by the tax office.
Also three newspapers – Shpic, Vreme and Koha e re – owned by Ramkovski, had to close down in early July due to unpaid taxes demanded by the government.
Together, the news outlets had been ordered to pay more than €10 million in back taxes. An installment payment plan was rejected by the Public Revenue Office.
Criticism of authorities for undermining pluralism
Criticism has been pointing to Skopje authorities moving against Ramkovski’s media and other businesses because of his stance against Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski.
The Independent Trade Union of Journalists and Media Professionals and the Association of Journalists of Macedonia said the closure posed a threat to the media in the country as a whole.
Amnesty International criticized the closure of the newspapers, stating that “[t]hese closures, the amounts demanded, and the conditions of payment, appear to be politically motivated”. Read Amnesty International’s statement here.
The European Commission, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, freedom House and the Vienna-based South East Europe Media Organization have also expressed concern. According to the OSCE Representative, “[t]his is a very disturbing development that has practically eliminated pluralism and opposition views in the country’s press overnight… While media should follow rules set for all businesses, these outlets seem to have been targeted by the authorities in this case”. Read OSCE Representative statement here.
Prime Minister Gruevsky has responded that media freedom and tax payments have nothing in common. Tax officials have only been doing their job.
“Macedonia, a candidate country for EU membership, has undertaken international obligations to respect freedom of expression and media freedom”, said Ole B. Lilleås. “By not applying a more flexible and transparent approach to the tax evasion issues, and by targeting media outlets owned by Ramkovski, Macedonian authorities cause serious concern for the future of media pluralism in the country.”
Concern for government control over state media
In addition to the cases of media outlets having to close down, there are consistent allegations from Macedonian journalists that the government interfere in their work, “ranging from being shut out of press conferences, to defamation suits, to death threats” (Amnesty International statement, see link above).
In its June-July 2011 human rights monitoring report, the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Macedonia, expressed concerns that amendments to the Law on Broadcasting that changed the structure and the number of members in the Broadcasting Council (BC) from 9 to 15 would "open the door for direct influence on the work of the media by the authorities".
The Law was adopted in spite of expressed concern by the Association of Journalists of Macedonia, the Macedonian Institute
for Media and the Independent Trade Union of Journalists and Media Professionals. Read more on Amnesty Internationals web-page here.