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'Free Speech' Row In Macedonia After Police Raid TV Channel

  • RFE/RL

Police seal off A1 television on November 25.

Police seal off A1 television on November 25.

The government in Macedonia has been accused of cracking down on free speech after police raided the country's biggest private television channel, ostensibly on financial grounds.

A large contingent of riot police accompanied tax inspectors to the headquarters of the A1 channel in Skopje on the evening of November 25, insisting they were investigating alleged fraud.

Macedonian police spokesman Ivo Kotevski said the investigation was not aimed at the TV channel itself, but at other companies registered in the same building.

"The Interior Ministry is acting upon an assistance request sent by the financial police and the public revenues office in regard to the financial affairs of several companies registered at the same address," Kotevski said.

"Television A1, as you know, and I would like to stress this, is not among the companies that the financial police is controlling, namely, a court order has not been issued for acquiring adequate documentation for further control of the financial affairs of this organization."

However, journalists at the channel -- which has been critical of the ruling nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party -- complained they were prevented from doing their work as police officers barred entrance to and from the building and subjected them to identity checks.

Opposition Protests

A1 broadcast the raid live. As news spread, an estimated crowd of 1,000 opposition leaders, activists, and supporters gathered outside the building to protest.

A1's editor in chief, Mladen Cadikovski, says officers sealed off some of the channel's equipment, placing restrictions on broadcasts.

"A part of our services can't work, the computer center has been sealed, which means that we can find ourselves in a pretty unpleasant situation in view of broadcasts," Cadikovski says. "We will continue with our work. We'll see what will happen during the day."

The opposition Social Democrats (SDSM) accused the government of trying to pressure the channel and warned that the move heralded the "introduction to a totalitarian regime."

In response, government spokesman Ilija Dimovski accused the SDSM of "blocking tax inspectors" and claimed there was "a trend to hide murky businesses behind media." He added, "Media and political parties should not front for any murky dealings."

Pressure On Media

Macedonia, which broke away from the former Yugoslavia in 1991, is seeking membership in the European Union. Human rights reforms, including guaranteed press freedom, remain important to the application process and EU officials have criticized "political interference" in the country's news media.

A1, owned by businessman Velija Rankovski, has been a regular critic of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski's government and is renowned as the most popular opposition media outlet in Macedonia.

Zoran Kuka, the head of RFE/RL's Macedonian subunit, believes the raid represents a government clampdown on media freedom.

He describes this as a "clear case of pressure on journalists" because it was a special police force and this is "not normal."

Kuka says that when the police sealed off A1 and limited access to the station, this was because A1 "has been criticizing government policy in Macedonia."

written by Robert Tait, with contributions from RFE/RL's Balkan Service
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