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Macedonian Activists Attempt to Break Media Silence on Corruption Scandal

Media in southeastern Europe have been plagued by censorship and corruption over the past several years, and Macedonia is no exception. In a recent corruption scandal, the majority of Macedonian media failed to even relay a claim by the country's largest opposition party that the prime minister was involved in an alleged illegal banking deal. 

Zoran Zaev, the leader of political party Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), published audio recordings that he claims directly implicate Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, the leader of the VMRO-DPMNE party, in a shady deal to sell now defunct bank Makedonska Banka to a Serbian businessman known as “Gazda Nini” (“Boss Nini”) in 2004. It allegedly involved a cash transaction of 1.5 million euros (about 2.1 million US dollars) under the table, not included in the official purchase sum.

As with other news of this type in Macedonia, the scandal gained almost no attention in international mainstream media, except for the consistent English-language coverage by regional independent outlet Balkan Insight, a piece [ba] by Al Jazeera Balkans in Bosnian, and a German Die Presse article [de].

A standard Reuters pre-election article fails to mention the scandal at all. A snap parliamentary election is set to be held in Macedonia for Sunday, April 27.

That's where social media users stepped in.

The audio recordings were published on April 17, 2014, on the opposition party's YouTube channels, including an English version, and on web news outlet Nova TV [mk]. They received tens of thousands of views [mk] and were discussed by social media users extensively, but the majority of Macedonian citizens were “spared” of learning about the scandal through mainstream information channels.

Satirical meme image with banknotes of EUR 1.5 spread by Macedonia social media users. Author unknown.

A satirical meme with banknotes of 1.5 million euros spread by Macedonia social media users. Widely used on social networks.

According to an article [mk] by seasoned Macedonian journalist Ljubomir Kostovski:

Оние што бројат објавија: веста за постоење на аудио докази за корумпираноста на премиерот од преку 100 телевизии, осум весници и над 100 портали, ја објавиле одвај 10 проценти. Блокадата беше целосна, кај најтиражните и најгледаните, „кај олихарските сопственици и уредничките тајкуни“ (Чомовски)

Those that count published the following: no more than 10 percent of over 100 TV stations, eight newspapers and over 100 news portals published the news. The blockade is absolute, among those with highest circulation and highest viewership, “with oligarchical owners and editorial tycoons” ([quoting former A1 TV editor] Chomovski)

Radio Free Europe in Macedonian documented the silence of newspapers [mk] and the citizens’ lack of awareness [mk] about the problem.

The mostly silent media devoted modest space about this issue only to report the denials from the prime minister, including a defamation lawsuit threat [mk], and from the ruling party, claiming the audio recordings are “a montage”. One crony-owned newspaper buried a short news item on the 12th page.

Moreover, public prosecutor Marko Zvrlevski refused [mk] to start an investigation based on the publicized information because the government “cannot expend resources based on every claim”, so the opposition party filed a formal request several days later. The decision whether an investigation will start is currently pending.

As a reaction to the media blockade, activist Nikola Naumov wrote the following Facebook note [mk]:

Груевски jа прогласи снимката за монтажа и најави тужба за секој медиум што ќе ја објави. Затоа 4 од 5-те национални телевизии, вклучувајќи ја и МТВ, како и поголемиот број на печатените и интернет медиуми, не ја објавија оваа снимка! Затоа, чувствувам потреба да ве информирам за оваа работа пред изборите во недела. За вакви снимки во нашето соседство политичари си даваа оставки и беа гонети од законот, а кај нас поминуваат без никој да ги забележи.

Gruevski said the recording is fake and announced that he'll sue any media that publishes it. Because of that, four out of the five national TV stations, including the public service MTV, as well as most of printed and Internet media did not publish this recording! Therefore I feel the need to inform you about this issue before the Sunday elections. Politicians in our region have resigned and have been under investigation in our region due to similar recordings, while in Macedonia they pass unnoticed.

Naumov called upon other social media users to follow his example and spread the information beyond the Internet, throughout their neighborhoods and personal networks:

Драги комшии, да се информираме!
April 23, 2014 at 8:55am
Драги пријатели,

денеска изрежав 40 ЦД-а со аудио снимката на Груевски, ги дополнив со објаснување на хартија и ги ставив во сите сандачиња во мојата зграда. Решив така да помогнам во ширењето на вистината за невидената корупција во оваа влада.

Досега сите поголеми медиуми ја игнорираа оваа афера, освен Телма. На социјалните медиуми снимката се прошири и ја погледнаа сите, но луѓето кои не користат интернет и не гледаат Телма, веројатно и не се информирани за нејзиното постоење.

Ми требаа не повеќе од 2 саати и 250 денари за да го направам овa. Мислам дека ако секој од нас на социјалните медиуми го направи ова во својот влез/зграда, ќе успееме да ги информираме барем луѓето во градовите за оваа снимка. Затоа ве молам, ве преколнувам, споделете го овој апел со вашите пријатели, изрежете ЦД-а и поделете ги на вашите комшии.

Dear Neighbors, lets get informed
April 23, 2014 at 8:55 a.m.
Dear friends,

I burned 40 CDs with Gruevski's recording today, added an explanation on paper and put them in all mailboxes in my building. I decided to do it to aid spreading the truth about the immense corruption of this government.

Until now, all major media except Telma TV ignored this affair. The recording spread via social media, but people who do not use the Internet and don't watch Telma probably are not informed about its existence.

I needed less than two hours and 250 denars [about 6 euros or 8 US dollars] to do this. I think if every social media user did this for their building, we could at least inform the people in the cities about this recording. Therefore please, I beg you, share this appeal with your friends, burn CDs and share them with your neighbors.

The note was followed by quick instructions on where to download the audio and how to copy it, alongside a short text explaining the issue.

CDs by Nikola Naumov

CDs by Nikola Naumov

Already under duress [mk] due to their professional coverage of the current elections in Macedonia, the noted Telma TV continued to cover this scandal, as well as other allegations of corruption. During the night between April 23 and 24, their website was not accessible [mk]. It is unclear whether it was due to an attack or expired server quotas due to too many visits.

Since Naumov's online plea to the public for sharing of the information on this matter, Serbian daily Blic has picked up the story and published [sr] a short online article on the matter.

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