AIM: start



MEDIA IN TRANSITION

Macedonia:

BETWEEN AMATEURISM AND PURE BUSINESS

Kim MEHMETI

Soon after it had become independent, Macedonia became one big "NGO" in which foreign donations for many spheres of the society meant "to be or to disappear". In such an "NGO" with destroyed economy, unconsolidated state institutions (which are to a large extent still that), and faced with various social problems, the media for a long time continued operating as before by the force of inertia. In other words, they survived with the prefix "state-", spending the money of tax-payers, and acting like instruments of propaganda of the parties in power. The "single-colour" information structure inherited from the former social system has now become "two-coloured" - divided along ethnic (language) lines with prefixes of two predominant ethnic groups - Macedonian and Albanian. Such an information "standard" was promoted by two "giant" media also inherited from the past - Nova Makedonija Newspaper and Publishing Company which published all daily and other publications in Macedonian, Albanian and Turkish language, and Macedonian Radio-Television (MTV) with its multilingual editorial teams on two TV channels and three radio channels.

In the beginning of the nineties all the attempts of local enthusiasts to change this "two-coloured" information scene failed. This is due primarily to the simple reason that their enthusiasm was not supported by the needed financial possibilities, but also due to the fact that powerful "pillars" of truth-holders supported by the parties in power hindered all initiatives in a "democratic" way but by "socialist" methods. More precisely, such initiatives were often accompanied by known judgments that they were "dubious enemies of democracy" or else by blocking their access to readers, a signal was sent to others not even to attempt dreaming about being capable to step in the strictly controlled information space of Macedonia. Therefore, the "polyphony" was supposed to consist of two scores and two-part singing - in Macedonian and in Albanian - under the direction of decision-makers when it comes to the distribution of the money from the budget, the money that went to two mentioned major media outlets.

The failure of those who tried to change the "information map" of the media scene just intensified the self-confidence and the arrogance of both monopolies to the truth - Nova Makedonija and Macedonian RTV - which did not even bother to change the form in which they informed the public, least of all to introduce anything that might be a reflection of democratic changes. In fact everything went on as before and the most highly estimated value was obedience to those who provided the money. Paid to be obedient, Nova Makedonija and Macedonian RTV successfully coped with financially feeble initial attempts for enriching the information space with new printed or electronic media outlets. Newspapers were not even given the opportunity to appear in the market - Nova Makedonija Printing and Publishing Company has until recently also been the only distributor of printed media in Macedonia, while electronic media were faced with the fact that the law on distribution of channels and obtaining operating licences does not exist.

The Open Society of Macedonia (better known as the Soros Foundation) was the first that started supporting the media in Macedonia, especially electronic ones. The closeness of George Soros with the government at the time enabled him to take action that had no legal foundation. His Foundation sent a "signal" to those who wished to have their TV and radio stations that "the air was liberated". This "signal" was received with great enthusiasm and all of a sudden the air was filled with uncontrolled TV and radio broadcasts. Nobody was too concerned because of such "competition" for a very simple reason that this abundance of electronic media had very few journalists. They all came down to broadcasting music in order to "entertain the people" accompanied by greetings and good wishes with photographs of beloved ones.

Unlike electronic media which were suddenly all over the place, the press remained where "Titoism" has left them - all within Nova Makedonija Newspaper and Publishing Company. The reason for that was probably the space taken by Belgrade press which was still predominant and the non-existence of a "school for journalists" in Macedonia unlike other centres of former Yugoslavia which all had a nucleus of professional journalists who were capable of taking the challenge of the time. When one adds to this the small linguistic territory - the state of two million inhabitants 60% of whom are ethnic Macedonians and 40% members of other language groups - fear of uncertainty becomes understandable, or at least of the possibility of failure if a newspaper with high circulation would be founded, as well as unlikeliness that somebody would enter the competition with editions of Nova Makedonija company whose survival has never depended on circulation but on the extent of obedience to the authorities.

Out of the abundance of electronic media created at the time when everybody wished to have his own radio and television station, when the Law on Broadcasting was passed - and due to keeping up with the competition - about fifty local and three national TV stations remained in the field along with a hundred odd local and four national radio stations. The right to the status of a national station (coverage of the entire state territory), along with state MTV, was won by TV A1 and TV Sitel. Among radio stations that joined Macedonian Radio, the best known is Kanal 77 which managed to interconnect its network of transmitters in the whole state. Almost all these electronic media received donations from foreign donors. The owner of TV A1, Ramkovski, the known businessman from Skopje - in fact managed (almost completely) with the money belonging to somebody else - with Soros's dollars, to become the owner of the nowadays perhaps the most influential electronic media in Macedonia. With such financial aid to back him, and with his receptive ear to the party of Branko Crvenkovski, he ensured priority for his television station with foreign financiers. Apart from donations, this opened him every possibility to get credits on favourable conditions. When speaking of credits, TV A1 is still engaged in a law suit with an American foundation because of a credit of more than a million dollars it has not paid back. There are speculations that the money was donated for starting a program in Albanian language which has not been done to this day.

The steps TV A1 took along the way that connects the dream on creation of a powerful TV station and reality that this dream may come true is a typical example how foreign donations were used to help the media in Macedonia. TV A1 nowadays not only has no need for additional financing, but it is a company that makes money, which is undoubtedly a success. Of course, the success was achieved thanks to journalists' professionalism as well, which has always been higher than in state TV and resulted in its present status - information program of TV A1 is still believed to have the highest rating in Macedonia. In this sense TV A1 has for a long time been attractive to powerful political circles which apart from influence raises its "price". In fact, electronic media operating without licences for years were convenient for power wielders who could turn them off or on depending on their assessment of their editorial policies. The illusion that an abundance of electronic media meant an abundance of information was no more than that - an illusion. Strengthening of some of these media such as TV A1 and Sitel, especially their financial independence, enabled them, if nothing else, to choose their own "masters", and not to be chosen.

Once prepared to stimulate the private media outlets, foreign donors seem to have realized that the results are far from the expected. Indeed, in Macedonia they have helped increase the number of colours on TV screens, but Macedonia does not have a public electronic information service any more that would serve its citizens. Neglect of the former - and present - electronic giant media financed by the state - Macedonian RTV - brought this media outlet to the situation in which almost everybody who was of any value has left it. Moreover, at this moment this media has the equipment which would be interesting only for museums which tell the story of technological development of electronic media. Macedonian RTV which is heavily indebted and which is partly financed from monthly subscription fee paid by the citizens is undergoing transformation that directly depends on foreign financiers and on when a law will be passed that will define the status of this media outlet which is still a vague mixture of a "state" and a "public" information service. This is the result of the fact that the management is not chosen by public competition but depends on the number of votes of the members of parliament.

Apart from donors' money which helped in the creation and strengthening of the media, the state also took care about their survival. In Macedonia, there is an annual budget for financial aid to the media which was mostly distributed not according to quality, but according to who is closest to the circles in power. Since as the saying goes one's man loss is another man's gain, the media also reflect the power of two most influential parties - the media close to the Social Democratic Alliance and the ones close to VMRO-DPMNE. In the Albanian-speaking sphere, such division does not exist, so that nowadays the media are still controlled by the Albanian party that participated in the government of VMRO-DPMNE - the Democratic Party of the Albanians (DPA).

Unlike electronic media, printed media were for a long time considered to be a dream and wishful thinking of dreamers. Failure of the first newspaper publishers discouraged even the most persistent opponents of the monopoly of Nova Makedonija. Soros Foundation stepped out on the scene once again and supported the initiative to create a new daily - Dnevnik. The appearance of this daily in Macedonian language meant according to many parameters a "new approach" to journalism and this "business". The puzzling low price at the time (a copy cost as much as an egg - five denars) attracted readers and sounded the alarm in Nova Makedonija that it was necessary to do something against the "insolent newly-born" that upset the established rules of obedience to the older brother. The price, of course, was not the only reason why this newspaper quickly became the most broadly read and reached the previously unimaginable circulation of 20 thousand sold copies. Its objective approach and even the initial multiethnic editorial team (with one ethnic Albanian editor) became attractive "bait" for donors who loosened purse strings and generously awarded the "brave" ones for having introduced a new spirit into the information space of Macedonia. This reminded others about the successful formula how to get donations, so that the era after the foundation of Dnevnik daily can be called the renaissance of printed media in Macedonia. The same "bait" was always used that attracted donors: a long known "multi-culti-"draft project which as a rule ends up as a media outlet with firm single-ethnic stands. This, in fact, reminded of the formula often applied during socialism: describe paradise in a draft project, and build hell in practice. This became very clear during the mini-war in Macedonia when the daily newspaper with the highest donations in Macedonia - Dnevnik, took sides with the belligerent and often carried articles that stirred up violence instead to strive to pacify the situation.

Dnevnik has become the demarcation line between the times when the power of Nova Makedonija Newspaper and Publishing Company has started to fade and when daily and other private printed media, all recipients of foreign donations, started to multiply. Dnevnik has opened the "hunting" season for donations that were successfully used by some to create a sound foundation for survival to his day. Among them are the daily newspaper in Albanian Fakti and another one of the same sort called Flaka published by Nova Makedonija. Fakti has similarly to its "blood-brother" Dnevnik started with a civil concept and ended up under the umbrella of Democratic Party of Albanians. More precisely, fed by donations in the beginning it realized in good time that the future was uncertain if you were not under the auspices of some wealthy party. So it became a party bulletin of DPA which generously gave it money while it was still in power disregarding the fact that this money also included the money of tax-payers who were not members of this party.

Dnevnik has in a most convincing way and literally proved the rule that courage is profitable. Those who had started on foreign donations, ended up as masters of the most powerful daily. And when the time came - when on its Balkan tour WAZ arrived to put under its wing the most influential newspapers in Macedonia - Dnevnik got the highest offer which brought a big profit to its owners. This once more raises the already put question: what were the donors actually helping - to break down a monopoly or create a new one? If one adds to this the assessment that the former "multi-culti" Dnevnik ended up as a strongly "Macedonian" daily newspaper, the key question that is inevitable is: have the donors helped cultivate multicultural informing of the public or a newspaper that contains strictly recognizable single-ethnic propaganda - Macedonian.

There is no doubt that the abundance of the media in Macedonia has contributed to the creation of a new "school of journalists" in this state which practically did not exist in the former system. These media have enabled the truth not to be the monopoly of only some centres. Nevertheless, the information scene in Macedonia has not managed to overcome what donors at least declaratively were interested in - the single-ethnic approach. The first barrier was language. While ethnic Albanians almost without exception seek information from the media in Macedonian language, not just the ones in Albanian, citizens with Macedonian ethnic prefix, because they do not speak the language, practically do not even know that the media in Albanian language exist in their country.

From the ethnic point of view, the media in Albanian have used the smallest portion of the donors' money that has arrived to Macedonia. There are many reasons for that, but the most obvious is the lack of professional cadre. And this lack was due to the fact that in both information monopolists - Nova Makedonija and Macedonian RTV - nobody expected professionalism from ethnic Albanians, just obedience. That is why the cadre that left MRTV founded and developed almost all electronic media in Macedonia among which the best illustration is TV A1, and on the other hand, not a single radio and television station in Albanian language has managed to become anything more than a local TV or radio station watched in a very small area. This is still true and that is why western donors are interested in supporting one private TV station with Albanian ethnic prefix which could be watched on the whole territory of the state, but it still does not exist.

Whether the media in Macedonia have successfully passed the road from amateurism to professional journalism, time will show. But that the donors have invested a lot into this country for the purpose of objective informing of the citizens, without having received practically anything in return is still obvious. If for no other reason, it is because in Macedonia there are two dominant parallel information worlds - one in Macedonian and one in Albanian language - that do not differ just according to professional standards, but also according to who will use how much of the money that is arriving from the West in donations, along with the money Government is distributing in support of private media in Macedonia. From the ethnic point of view, the media in Macedonia still present dual linguistic truth which reflects the inability of this country to come out of the mire of interethnic misunderstandings.