The committee argued that the closure of two Albanian-language periodicals seriously limits the access of the Albanian population to information, especially ahead of the important local elections in March (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 4 and 11 February 2005). This is especially true for many Albanian women, who often do not speak Macedonian. Moreover, the "information blockade" facilitates the spread of disinformation among the Albanian population via the rumor mill. The whole situation adds up to a serious breach of human rights, the Helsinki Committee wrote.
But the big controversy ensued when the committee indirectly accused the governing ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (BDI) of being responsible for the problems of "Lobi" and "Koha ditore:" "If one keeps in mind that both periodicals that suspended their publication in January 2005...were critical of the representatives of the Albanian component in the government... the signal is clear: whoever dares to speak out against those who are in power will be destroyed," the press release said.
The Helsinki Report thus repeated allegations made by "Lobi" itself in January. Iso Rusi, who is the owner and editor in chief of "Lobi," had warned that the print edition of "Lobi" might close down, adding, however, that he hopes that the weekly's Internet edition will continue to appear. Rusi said his newspaper faces massive financial problems because no state-owned company advertises in "Lobi," allegedly because of "Lobi's" critical coverage of the BDI.
In the 7 February Internet edition of "Lobi," Rusi endorsed the Helsinki Committee's assessment, at the same time leveling a number of additional accusations against the BDI. Rusi blamed the BDI for the demise of the Albanian-language daily "Flaka." "Flaka" was part of the Nova Makedonija publishing house, which folded in late 2003 (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 31 October 2003 and 12 March 2004). In addition, Rusi argued, the BDI failed to replace the old system of state subsidies for the media with a more modern one, which would especially help the minority-language publications.
BDI spokeswoman Ermira Mehmeti slammed those allegations as "ridiculous," adding that her party has never exerted any pressure on the media.
Interestingly, Nebi Murseli, the editor in chief of "Koha ditore," told "Utrinski vesnik" on 7 February that his publication could not appear for technical reasons. But Murseli, too, said that big Macedonian companies never place ads in the Albanian-language media. Murseli said he was not consulted by the Helsinki Committee prior to the publication of their critical press release. He also denied having problems with the BDI. "We are not in opposition to the BDI," Murseli said. "On the contrary, we have good relations with the party leaders."
Daut Dauti, who is an ethnic Albanian member of the Helsinki Committee's board, also criticized the press release. In an open letter published in "Dnevnik" on 8 February, Dauti distanced himself from the statement, saying he opposes the remarks about the BDI. Dauti said the "destruction" of "Lobi" and "Koha ditore" cannot be ascribed to the government's behavior, but rather to economic factors. Against this background, Dauti recalled the demise of other minority publications such as "Flaka" or the Turkish-language daily "Birlik," which also belonged to the Nova Makedonija publishing house.
The absence of "Lobi" and "Koha ditore" from the newsstands clearly affects media diversity, regardless of whether they suspended publication for political or economic reasons. The field is now left open to "Fakti," which is said to be closely affiliated with the opposition Democratic Party of the Albanians (PDSH).
[First published on 18 February 2005.]