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Macedonia: News Media Under Fire For Poor Reporting, Government Manipulation

Today is World Press Freedom Day, and in Macedonia, a number of broadcast journalists are staging a five-minute work stoppage, reportedly in protest at government interference. Many Western diplomats and Macedonian analysts agree, saying the news media in the country is often manipulated by the government for its own purposes. Meanwhile, public trust in the country's media outlets is low.

Skopje, 3 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Macedonian news media recently reported that an Albanian gunman had been killed and two others injured in a shootout with Macedonian forces near the country's border with Kosovo.

The source was an army spokesman who said the gunmen had been in a truck trying to cross the border illegally into Macedonia and had opened fire on a border patrol, after which a second group of gunmen on the Kosovo side of the border opened fire. There were no outside witnesses, and the Macedonian forces claimed to have dispersed the alleged gunmen.

It was the latest in a series of unverifiable reports about Macedonia's security forces over the past several months that invariably place the government in a positive light and justify the deployment of security forces along the border with Kosovo. Western diplomats and Macedonian analysts, however, express skepticism about the veracity of such reports and the way they are disseminated in the local news media.

Over the last two months, Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski has publicized a variety of incidents in such a way that -- in the view of his critics -- they constitute attempts to manipulate the news media.

More than 10 years after Macedonia declared independence amid the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia, the country still has not enacted a law on public information. As one senior Western diplomat in Skopje put it, "The level of journalism in Macedonia is of very poor and of uneven quality."

Biased and inaccurate media reportage was a contributing factor in the wars throughout the former Yugoslavia. Macedonia was no exception. The ethnic Albanian insurgency resulted in a government crackdown on Albanian-language programs on public TV and radio, including suspension of their broadcasts for several days.

Public trust in the media is minimal. According to a recent Swedish study, barely 15 percent of Macedonians and less than 8 percent of ethnic Albanians believe Macedonia's mass media are independent. More than four-fifths of each nationality believe the media are influenced by powerful people and organizations.

Parliamentary elections are due to be held on 15 September, and polls suggest the ruling Macedonian nationalist party (VMRO-DPMNE), which is in coalition with the Democratic Party of Albanians (PDSH), is likely to lose to the opposition Social Democrats (SDSM).

Some Western diplomats and political analysts believe Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski and Interior Minister Boskovski are eager to provoke some sort of a resumption of last year's conflict between Albanian rebels and Macedonian security forces to improve their chances of re-election. The conflict ended with the signing last August at Ohrid of a U.S. and European Union-brokered framework agreement granting Albanians greater civil rights. But VMRO-DPMNE has dragged its heels in implementing the accord.

One of the most glaring incidents occurred on 2 March, when Macedonian security forces north of Skopje shot seven men, apparently of South Asian origin, who were said to be wearing uniforms of the disbanded ethnic Albanian National Liberation Army (UCK).

Interior Ministry officials and some in the media speculated that the men were somehow affiliated with the Al-Qaeda terrorist network, though no proof beyond their dark skin was proffered.

Shortly after the shootings, Interior Minister Boskovski told reporters the seven men were armed and had opened fire after police had told them to surrender. "This group was eliminated. That means the seven were killed. In all likelihood, they were foreigners. The autopsies will show this."

Western diplomats who saw the bodies at the morgue and visited the site of the police ambush say the shooting appears to have been a massacre. They suspect the seven may have been illegal migrants who were duped by Macedonian security forces into dressing in military fatigues, only to be slaughtered for propaganda purposes.

Several weeks after the shooting, the Macedonian news media reported that only one of the seven had been positively identified as a Pakistani citizen. Diplomats say that information was leaked by Boskovski to a single reporter without attribution and was never officially confirmed by the Interior Ministry. The identities of the other six remain a mystery.

Boskovski has not responded to repeated requests for an interview.

On 25 March, the fledgling Coordinating Council of Albanians in Macedonia, which groups the three main Albanian parties with commanders of the disbanded UCK, was attacked in the Tetovo suburb of Mala Recica. Several news media, quoting police sources, reported an attack the same evening on the former UCK's headquarters in Sipkovica. In fact, Western diplomats and monitors insist there was no shooting of any kind in Sipkovica that day.

Saso Colakovski edits the domestic politics pages of the independent daily "Utrinski Vesnik." Colakovski says it is up to journalists to resist government attempts at manipulation: "It's up to the journalist or the media outlets how they receive those efforts of some ministers of the government to force any information to be published. [Concerning] Ljube Boskovski trying to force his truth about any events is not such a threat. One TV station nationwide, not television as a whole, but just one or two journalists, are under his control."

Former Interior Minister Pavle Trajanov says the news media's weakness -- that is, its frequent inability to avoid being manipulated -- is part of the widespread corruption and organized crime that he says pervade state structures: "What's true is that Macedonia is unstable, that there's shooting, that there are paramilitary formations, that there are huge quantities of weapons. More than 200,000 illegally held firearms are at large in Macedonia. The whole state of affairs is marked by turbulence. It all depends on whom you pay for information, [and on] who gives you the information."

But Magdalena Cizbanovska, a news editor at Kanal 5, a private TV station, insists Macedonian reporters have sought to present all sides of last year's conflict and its aftermath: "There hasn't been a single case when Macedonian journalists have provided a twisted picture of what's been going on in the field. They're reporting as required about the army, and they are not under pressure from the government."

Vladimir Milcin, who heads the Open Society Institute in Macedonia, offers a more skeptical view. He says it is difficult for the public to have well-informed opinions about the issues given the partial information available in most of the country's media: "If one wants to come to the facts, then he has to watch more than one TV station, he has to read more than one daily. Basically, you have parts of the truth and you have to put together pieces and you have to eliminate the false news or you have to become aware that some things have been ignored by some of the media."

Milcin says the primary cause of this situation is the opaque way the news media is financed in Macedonia, which he says is related to the nontransparent funding of political parties. Political parties in the government influence the media, Milcin says, by allocating advertising and ensuring income for some media and none for others.

"The other issue which is influencing [the media] is that there are threats, there is violence used against journalists and also there have been issues of wiretapping a number of journalists. So it is a combination of factors. Some of the journalists are bribed -- it's obvious -- because you have cases where suddenly overnight you have a complete change of position by some journalists."

Milcin says editors often inject their own political views into TV news programming, so that on one station on one day, the news will have a pro-reform, pro-peace-with-the-Albanians slant. The next day, as Milcin puts it, "You have completely the opposite -- xenophobic reporting that is opposed to the Ohrid framework peace agreement."

Journalists are also subject to bribes, he says, mainly by political parties: "When I'm saying 'bribed,' then you have cases. It's known, for example, some journalists are directly paid by particular political leaders on both sides (Macedonian and Albanian parties). So basically, I do see these as a piece of the problem called 'corruption,' 'organized crime,' politicians involved in corruption and the lack of the rule of law in this country."

Presidential adviser Ljubomir Frckovski alleges that private Macedonian news broadcasters have shown greater responsibility than the Albanian-language media: "[The independent Macedonian-language TV stations] more or less keep a line in relatively objective information. And we avoid a situation like in the Albanian camp where the media are completely, 100 percent, covered by the parties' influence -- PDSH, the Democratic Party of Albanians, and so on."

The ethnic Albanian coalition partner, the PDSH, which was already controlling the daily "Flaka," is alleged to have gained control over the private Albanian-language newspaper "Fakti," too, leaving the Albanian minority with no independent daily.

But "Fakti" editor Arben Vratkovci denies this. He insists "Fakti" remains independent while "trying as much as possible to promote unity among the Albanian political parties."

The chairman of the Coordinating Council of Albanians in Macedonia, the amnestied political commander of the disbanded UCK, Ali Ahmeti, says some media, particularly in the Macedonian language, are encouraging groups to damage what has been achieved until now.

Nevertheless, he says, modest progress is being made, though much still remains to be done.