Attacks on the Press 2001: Macedonia

Fighting between the Macedonian government and ethnic Albanian rebels seeking increased civil liberties escalated throughout the year, pushing the country to the edge of civil war. Unprofessional reporting and outright hate speech by both ethnic Macedonian and ethnic Albanian journalists played a central role in radicalizing their respective communities and polarizing the political atmosphere.

Several weeks before the initial outbreak of fighting in February, a scandal branded the “Macedonian Watergate” shook the country’s political establishment. Branko Crvenkovski, leader of the country’s largest opposition party, accused Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski of illegally wiretapping the conversations of top government officials and other prominent figures, including some 25 journalists. Crvenkovski produced 140 pages of transcripts in which several journalists recognized their telephone conversations with politicians.

Journalists began avoiding using their phones, particularly mobile phones, for work-related conversations, according to local media analyst Vesna Sopar.

Also in February, Macedonian authorities withdrew a proposed Law on Public Information after local journalists and international press freedom groups criticized it. The draft legislation would have required all media outlets to seek government accreditation, provided inadequate access to official information, and codified standards for ethical journalism.

Later that month, ethnic Albanian rebels calling themselves the National Liberation Army (NLA) began occupying swathes of territory in northern and western Macedonia. On February 16, NLA rebels detained and questioned a television crew from the independent station A1. The rebels also confiscated the journalists’ equipment. Interior Ministry forces, meanwhile, harassed journalists and limited their ability to travel to NLA-controlled territory.

On March 14, protesters beat up Sitel Television cameraman Dusan Kardalevski and A1 reporter Atanas Sokolovski, who were covering an ethnic Albanian rally in the western city of Tetevo, Sitel Television reported.

Government officials took steps to censor certain Western news organizations whose coverage of the conflict displeased them. On March 11, the director of state-run Macedonian Radio, Antoan Sereci, announced that the station would no longer air BBC news bulletins in the Macedonian and Albanian languages, The Associated Press reported.

Macedonian authorities also targeted ethnic Albanian publications. On March 22, Interior Ministry officials at Skopje’s Petrovec International Airport confiscated the international edition of Fakti, a nationalistic, Albanian-language daily newspaper, as it was about to be shipped to Switzerland, according to local news reports. An Interior Ministry spokesman said the edition was confiscated because it contained an article calling on ethnic Albanians émigrés to join the rebels. Later, in an effort to downplay the incident, ministry officials described the confiscation as unlawful and mistaken.

As the conflict intensified, Macedonian government officials struggled to retain editorial and political control over increasingly pro-NLA Albanian-language news programs on state-run Macedonian Television. On April 30, Macedonian Television suspended its late-night Albanian-language news program because of its “ethnic intolerance” and anti-state broadcasts, Deutsche Press Agentur reported. Daytime news programs in Albanian were suspended for three weeks in August when NATO troops were entering Macedonia to disarm the NLA, according to one CPJ source.

As Western officials became more involved in mediating the conflict and pressuring the government to grant ethnic Albanians broader civil rights, foreign correspondents became convenient targets for angry Macedonian Slavs. On the evening of June 25, after the European Union brokered a cease-fire that allowed rebels to leave a town just outside the capital, Skopje, without disarming, a massive riot erupted in protest. Some 5,000 Macedonian Slavs marched through Skopje firing guns. The protesters occupied the parliament building for a few hours and beat up several foreigners, including two BBC journalists.

In some cases, police were barely able to protect journalists. On August 12, an angry mob in a northern village surrounded and assaulted three Danish journalists and their ethnic Albanian driver. When the police pulled them to safety, the crowd pulled the journalists out and continued beating them. Police officers were eventually able to return the journalists to Skopje, but the fate of the driver was not known.

The conflict also resulted in the death of one foreign correspondent. On March 29, the Macedonian Army launched a mini-offensive against the NLA in northern Macedonia. Just across the border in Kosovo, meanwhile, NATO-led peacekeepers tried to prevent Albanian guerrillas from crossing into Macedonia.

Kerem Lawton, 30, a British national and producer for Associated Press Television News, was killed when a mortar shell struck his vehicle in the Kosovo village of Krivenik as he was arriving to cover the NATO operation. Both Macedonian military officials and ethnic Albanian insurgents denied responsibility. CPJ protested Lawton’s death, but at the end of the year it still remained unclear where the shell came from and whether the attack was deliberate.

In the later stages of the conflict, there were also reports that the government harassed Macedonian-language media outlets in retaliation for their reporting. On June 2, the state-run Nova Makedonija publishing company dismissed the editor-in-chief of the pro-government Skopje daily Nova Makedonija after one of his articles proposed resolving the conflict by exchanging territory and populations with neighboring countries, the SAFAX news agency reported.

While fighting between the NLA and government forces subsided after a peace accord was signed on August 13, one of the conflict’s gravest casualties remained journalistic professionalism and impartiality. A1 Television director Aco Kabranov said, “What is difficult is the polarization of the media space–the Albanian propaganda on one side and the regime’s on the other pushed by Macedonian national television,” Agence France-Presse reported.

By the end of the summer, even the popular, independent A1 Television gave in to pressure and started supporting the government. “The media, like everything else in Macedonia, is divided into two camps, broken along ethnic lines,” Dejar Georgievski, a Skopje-based media analyst, told The Christian Science Monitor.