The Control Room: Political interference in the news production of Macedonia

This investigation reveals how the ruling party controls the news; how particular journalists are assigned to do this dirty work; how the party sends videos, statements and even whole written stories to editors; how censorship became so embedded in the media that journalists censor their own work, despite the best interests of the profession and fail to prevent a so far unseen massacre of freedom of speech in the country.

by Saska Cvetkovska, 27/10/2016

“Our beloved Prime Minister did another amazing thing today to keep us from all the evil that is lurking outside the borders”. Well, it does sound reminiscent of North Korea, but this is how we might interpret the headlines and the news in Macedonia every day. It all starts with the man who has held office for almost 10 years. And it did not stop when he left office this January, as a temporary solution before elections that was meant to heal the severe political crises that affect this small Balkan state. The news is again all about him, although now he is president of the powerful ruling party, VMRO DPMNE.

His critics are not so lucky with the media and do not get much positive attention. The ruling party controls most of the media landscape and almost all of the mainstream media. This means that critical voices in Macedonia, including NGOs, investigative reporters, professors, the opposition parties and anyone who disagrees with the politics of the ruling party, can feature in the news, but they appear in – as Macedonian people call them – slots known as “crime at prime-time”. When the news has finished praising Mr. Gruevski and his fellow party members, the massacre of the critics starts: traitors that are working for Western powers or for the Greeks, or for the Albanians, persons that hate Macedonia and the country’s successes under the leadership of VMRO DPMNE, or communists and other unpleasant labels made in a manner that is against every journalistic principle of ethics and professionalism.

The recent analysis of the Macedonian organization MODEM, which involved the monitoring of TV news, concluded that the major TV stations ALFA, Kanal 5, SITEL, as well as the public broadcaster, had 371 positive stories on Mr. Gruevski between 12 March and 8 April. They also broadcasted 510 positive articles on the government in total, over just 28 days. On the other hand, during the same period, the opposition and their activities were included in 72 articles and it is questionable whether they could be regarded as positive. The Special Prosecution for example, a newly formed team that supposedly investigates allegations of government corruption, was featured in more than 200 negative articles.

But who makes the news? And why is the news the same on several TV stations? The same stories are presented in the same order – every night on several news channels. It does not even matter on which station you watch the news, because the stories are identical.

This investigation reveals how the ruling party controls the news; how particular journalists are assigned to do this dirty work; how the party sends videos, statements and even whole written stories to editors; how censorship became so embedded in the media that journalists censor their own work, despite the best interests of the profession and fail to prevent a so far unseen massacre of freedom of speech in the country.

One man in the news all the time

Not everybody working in the government-controlled media agrees with what the ruling party and their journalist colleagues are doing. But fear often prevails. Our investigation confirmed what we knew before: the ownership structure in most of the media is shady, which suggests that owners are either very closely linked to government officials, or sometimes, directly involved.1

For example, Sitel TV, the biggest TV station in Macedonia is owned by Goran Ivanov. He is the son of the coalition partner of the ruling party VMRO DPMNE, Mr. Ljubisav Ivanov, from the Socialist Party. The other major TV station, Chanel 5, used to be owned by former minister and MP, Mr. Boris Stojmenov, who was also part of the government coalition. When a law in 2012 forbade elected officials to own media, Stojmenov transferred ownership to one of his associates, but he is still considered to be the true owner of the TV station.

This makes it even harder for a journalist to speak up in their newsrooms. However, one person agreed to talk about this matter, as long as we kept his anonymity. This journalist, an employee of one of the largest TV stations, shared emails and documents with us, confirming his testimonials and our suspicions: that a party center controls every word that ends up on air or in newspapers.

“In the last year, the situation has gone so far from reality that the ruling party VMRO DPMNE is sending video statements from Gruevski or other ministers. They are already cut and edited, so they are choosing the points from speeches he gave and which our team has already attended. But the journalist who was present during the statement is just a decoration. He or she then comes in the newsroom and waits for the party to sent the videos and the text and they just read that. Sometimes, one article on Gruevski might go on for as much as seven minutes in the prime-time news because the party concluded that those seven minutes are essential. Seven minutes for him in 30 minutes of news. Imagine that,” says our source.

But the propaganda of the ruling party is built up with government money, as they have been for years (until 2015) the biggest advertiser in the country.2 “Slaughtering” the critics is a major part of the propaganda.

Prime-time crime

Zoran Dimitrovski, former Editor in Chief in the daily newspaper “Nova Makedonija,” who was fired after he wrote a critical comment about the prime minister,3 explains how the so-called black articles are made.

“I can tell you that 90% of editors are receiving text messages with a list of news items and what should be in them. There is also a hierarchy regarding white propaganda and black propaganda. The black propaganda against government critics is always made by their online media like “Kurir” and “Netpres”. Then, we get a text in which they say take this from Kurir and publish it, so it appears like we are quoting some revelation from other media outlets,” says Dimitrovski.

We conducted an analysis of the main news of AlfaTV, Sitel TV, Kanal 5 and MTV, as well as of the newspapers Dnevnik, Večer and Nova Makedonija between 12 September to 30 October). The analysis revealed that there was not a single day without newspapers and TV stations publishing defamatory articles about their critics (journalists, union leaders, doctors, professors, civil activists, opposition leaders). Almost a third of those articles/pieces also promoted violence and hate speech.4

The order was the same every day. Around noon, one of the online media with a shady ownership structure would publish the defamatory article without naming an author. In the afternoons and evenings, the TV stations would pick up the article and republish it. The next day, the newspapers would do the same.

The online media that do this are connected with politicians and shady businessman, many of whom have anonymous ownerships hidden in offshore zones. Fighting the allegations in court is not a viable option, since the ruling party is believed to be controlling the judiciary system.5

The website and weekly newspaper Republika was owned by an anonymous company registered in Belize, a well-known tax haven, up until two months ago, when the ownership was transferred to the director of the outlet. Netpres, another website linked to government propaganda is owned by a company named Finzi. Finzi is undergoing an investigation by the special prosecution concerning four interior ministry and counter intelligence officials for allegedly defrauding the state of hundreds of thousands of dollars in a deal to buy surveillance equipment. The company that owns Finzi is registered in another offshore haven: Cyprus. This company was part of another scandal: their former director was found dead in April this year after he agreed to be a protected witness in another case against very high officials in the Ministry of Interior, including the former Chief of Secret Police and Nikola Gruevski’s first cousin, Saso Miajlkov. His death was found to be a suicide.

“There is an extensive number of media outlets that are doing this,” the editor of the Fact Checking Section in the organization Metamorphosis explained to us. “It is extensive and scary.”
“Sometimes, every article in the TV evening news come from particular online media that are written in one center and distributed throughout the media,” says journalist Vladimir Petrevski, who has been working on a project which includes this type of monitoring of the media and fact checking.“Can you imagine? All the news from propaganda and TV stations are quoting anonymous portals for all of their content, during the whole news magazine,” says Petreski.

Branko Gerovski is a senior journalist and editor-in-chief of the pro-opposition daily newspaper “Free Press”. He is often a victim of malicious press prosecution and propaganda.

“With a pretty large degree of confidence, I can say that these articles are cooked up by the ruling party. There is a huge amount of lies, half-truths, spins and labels. The strategy is to dominate everything, on the internet, TV, radio, print, everywhere. And they are doing it,” says Gerovski.

Among the content we analyzed, in an article dated November 2015, the online outlet “Kurir” accused Gerovski of wanting to federalize the country and collaborating with the opposition, the Albanians and the foreign embassies to do so.

This is a paragraph from one story that mentions unidentified experts.

“According to experts, the last column of Gerovski is a direct attack against the Macedonian constitution and another example of the current conditions in the opposition. The main media strategist of the opposition is putting himself on the side of the Albanian radicals.”

In fact, one cannot find any column in which Gerovskicalls for federalization. The article is not just out of context, but it features conclusions that have nothing to do with Gerovski’s column. In the evening, the same article was published on Sitel TV, Alfa TV, and Kanal 5.

After that, the online media republished social-media comments in which people called Gerovski a “traitor”, “scumbag”, “idiot”, a “coward that should leave the country immediately or he risks losing parts of his body if the patriots catch him”(click here or here for an example, or check the original article in Kurir, here).

The real editors

Is this all a coincidence? Does every TV station in the country just come up with the same news, in the same order, and using the exact same words in each of their articles, taking the same content from portals? Sometimes with the same vox pop comments?

Many editors-in-chief in the mainstream media have been circulating from one media to another whenever the propaganda empire expanded from takeovers or opening new media. Our investigations showed that some are even editors in more than one media – in TV or online.

Dragan Pavlovic Latas from Sitel TV, Lidija Bogatinova from Kanal 5, Goran Petreski from the daily newspaper Vest, Darko Janevski from the daily Dnevnik, Kole Casule from Alfa TV and many others – these are the people that are editing the leading media in the country. But the question is – are they?

“The editor-in-chief is just listening to what the people in charge say. All the interviews and all the experts in our articles are dictated and arranged by the party center. For a long time, the main guy for the media has been Ilija Dimovski, the former Director of the Center for Communication of VMRO DPMNE. So, unless this guy or his associates call, the editor-in-chief has no idea what the day is going to look like or what we’ll have in the news. Sometimes, this literally happens at the last minute. Once, I remember, that around five in the afternoon, just 30 minutes before the central TV news started, Prime Minister Gruevski appeared and said that he was going to have an interview. They gave the editor a list of questions, entered the studio and the interview happened,” says our source who works at a pro-government TV station.

The source also offered explains how vox pops are made. The source showed a series of emails sent from persons in the ruling party’s center of communication to their TV director. These emails were then re-sent by the directors to editors and journalists, including editors from other TV stations.

Our source offered these emails for our review to confirm the authenticity of the claims. Due to laws that protect privacy and the anonymity of our source, we choose not to publicly display these emails.

We also noticed that, sometimes, directors in other TV stations were included in the correspondence, so that the party person could create a whole strategy for the news by using a minimum of four TV stations.

“If there is an order for a vox pop on some subject that is important for the party, we don’t actually make a real vox pop. We show up somewhere in the city where the party person in charge has already gathered some of their members and they have all instructions about what to say on the vox pop. Sometimes, they repeat things over and over again if they have not said things correctly. That is it. We are just holding the microphone and simulating a journalistic activity,” the source explains.

A day in the newsroom

Our monitoring of the news showed another trend: that there is a special reporter for every different subject. Those reporters are mainly from online media; or some were circulating from one media to another, depending of the current needs of the party. This was confirmed by our inside source. Those persons and names are usually unknown, young journalists (between 24 and 30) and they all serve different tasks. For example, Julijana Nikolovska Kimovska is the only one person reading articles on Chanel 5 that are in the area of the so-called black propaganda. Another journalist from Alfa TV, Marina Dokovska, only does positive interviews with the ruling party members.

For example, in this interview with the minister for transport and infrastructure Vlado Misajlovski, just two questions were asked in five minutes: what are the minister’s plans for the future year, and what is it that they do. This meant that the interview was all about the promotion of the government’s alleged successes.

Take this interview with the minister of finance where he talked about the capital investments that would come with the budget in the following year, at the time that the opposition was boycotting the plenary sessions for voting on the budget and accusing the government of overspending on baroque buildings and monuments while cutting health and education. In such a tense atmosphere, which later resulted in the political crises that Macedonia still endures, the journalist’s first question was: “There are so many capital investments in the new budget proposal. Are you going to realize them all?” The second question was: “the salaries and pensions will rise. Right?” The minister was left to talk and present the new budget as he wished. Two days after this interview, opposition MPs were thrown out of parliament by force (some MPs were beaten by police) so that the ruling party could vote on the budget. Media representatives were thrown out 10 minutes before the MPs, so that no one could witness this.

Many of these journalists have day jobs in TV stations or newspapers, and have their own radio show or write for online media and take honoraries from many sides. Most of those media are dependent on government ads.

“Some of these journalists I know, but many I don’t. They cannot legitimate themselves as a media community, they are frauds and servants,” says Zoran Dimitrovski.

Opinion under control

Besides their own journalists, the party has their own experts, our source explains. Based on the e-mails that we obtained, which are sent to editors or directors of media outlets, it is clear that the ruling party is explicitly recommending “appropriate” experts for the media to be consulted. Sometimes, they are even using their own cameras to record their statements, before sending them to the TV stations with instructions on what context to use them in, the material that we obtained confirms.

Aleksandar Pandov, Oliver Andonov, Tatiana Karakamiseva and Aleksandar Dastevski are university professors who are always in line with the ruling party. They are mentioned in the email correspondence and are also found in our analysis. They not only strongly defend the ruling party, but they also include black propaganda. Their rewards come through promotions and side jobs, like being members of management boards in state-owned companies.

Professor Tatiana Karakamiseva is on TV almost every other day. Whenever she appears in one media outlet, several other media pick up her quotes in articles that are the same. For example, last year she was a guest on the public broadcaster, where she said that the president of the opposition party, SDSM, works for foreign secret services, and has ambitions to destroy the country. Similar accusations are heard almost every day. She has no facts to back such arguments up, but soon after the show, this quote entered the headlines (for examples, see the list here).

In the last year, Karakamiseva has become a member of the board of the Macedonian Post, and Macedonian representative in the Venice Commission. Critical media have been accusing the government of giving her this as a reward for loyal service as their propaganda expert (for more, see the articles here).

She has also had her own radio show for two years at Radio Free Macedonia, a station owned by a company called NVSP (more information on the company is available here). NVSP’s owner is Vladislav Stajkovic, whose brother is a member of the board of the Macedonian Telecom and is a government representative working for the police. NVSP is part of an ongoing investigation by the Macedonian Special Prosecution in a case concerning bribe and abuse of power.6

Editors at Sitel TV, Alfa TV and Kanal 5 also have their own shows on the same radio outlet.

“All of this is a systematic and organized occupation of the media, and this has been happening for many years. It is a premeditated crime with significant financial logistics. I have no qualms about saying this”, claims journalist Zoran Bojarovski, clearly summarizing this story on the deeply corrupted state of democracy in Macedonia.

Note: the video story, in Macedonian language was originally published by Nova TV.

This article is the author’s adaptation of the story for the SEE Media Observatory website.

The article was originally published by South East European Media Observatory

1 More information at the database of media ownership Mediapedia: http://mediapedia.mk/en-uk/
2 See, for example, the EU report from 2016: http://ec.europa.eu/enlargement/news_corner/news/news-files/20150619_rec… pp.16 and 19.

3 This was interpreted as clear evidence of the government grip over the media and pressure on critical voices. See, for example: http://novatv.mk/nova-makedonija-dimitrovski-nametnuval-lichni-stavovi/. Also: http://balkans.aljazeera.net/vijesti/o-makedonskom-novinarstvu-sve-najbolje.
4 See, for example, the report on program-monitoring of a show broadcast by Kanal 5 in January and February 2016: http://www.avmu.mk/images/Izvestaj_KANAL__DOOEL_Skopje.pdf, which confirms the presence of hate speech based on sexual orientation.
5 See: http://ec.europa.eu/enlargement/news_corner/news/news-files/20150619_rec…, pp.16 and 19.

6 In this case the company NVSP is brought in connection with the former Chief of the Secret Police Saso Mijalkov, under the accusation of taking bribe in order to make a deal with an Israeli company from which the Macedonian police wanted to buy a surveillance equipment. Kosta Krpac, former director of NVSP died this summer in a suicide after roomers spread that he was witness for the Special Prosecution. The Prosecution did not denie that they\ve talked several times with him, but did not want to comment if he was a witness. More at: http://novatv.mk/pomiluvani-gazdite-na-netpres-i-vmeshanite-vo-sluchajot…

This article has been produced with the financial assistance of the South East European Media Observatory project, supported by the European Union. The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of the author and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union.

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