Flash report 5: Macedonia

Flash report 5: Macedonia
New series of flash reports on advertising and media integrity in SEE region: how the current Macedonian government is winning over democracy in the country.
BUYING LOVE WITH PUBLIC MONEYyear after year the Macedonian government is one of the biggest advertisers in the country.
Political influence on editorial policies through the means of government advertising and other politically inspired financial incentives (direct subventions, special project financing, selective coverage of production expenses, selective tolerance of tax evasion etc.) in the Macedonian media market is a well documented affair in the last two decades of Macedonian independence1. However, the real “fine art” of propagandistic manipulations through unprecedented proportions of public funding misuse for party-political purposes in the media came in practice only since 2006, the year when the current autocratic regime of VMRO-DPMNE and its undisputed populist leader Nikola Gruevski came to power in Macedonia. In the following eight years since 2006, Mr. Gruevski and his party successfully “colonized” 90% of the media market in the country. They used various means and methods of submission2: arrests of disobedient media owners and journalists, closing down of defiant media, takeovers of various print and electronic media outlets by companies and businessmen close to the government, or editorial policy “buyouts” of a number of media houses through millions of Euros of public money spent on aggressive propagandistic campaigns by the government or various public and state institutions. Once the Macedonian media scene was ideologically “pacified” and “purified” according to VMRO-DPMNE’s political “taste” in the period of 2009-2011, selective and excessive usage of public money for party influence over the media became the preferred (“civilized”) option by the government. It resulted in repulsively close relations between the Macedonian government and most of the current media proprietors and their editorial teams in the country. Fear, censorship and self-censorship are widespread among the journalistic professionals in the nation. 
As obvious in the official data on the Macedonian media market, year after year the Macedonian government is one of the biggest advertisers in the country, ranking at number 2 in 2013 with 4.99% (and 17,639 aired TV spots) of the market share among advertisers on national TV stations, after Proctor & Gamble (5.4%), and before Coca Cola Company (4.89%)3. In fact, if one combines the advertising budget of the government with similar budgets of the biggest national telecommunication T-home and T-mobile company (2.06% advertising market share) – in which the government holds one third of the shares and has big influence on its overall business policies; and adds the 2.84% of the advertising market share spending on Macedonian national TVs by the political party VMRO-DPMNE (which was number 5 among the biggest advertising spenders in the country in 2013!); and further includes various public enterprises, state funds, municipal authorities and other smaller advertisers on national TVs who are influenced, if not totally controlled, by the government4 – then Mr. Gruevski, through the government and its biggest governing party, is by far the biggest advertising factor on the national TV media market, effectively controlling around 15-20% of total media advertising (TV, radio, print, outdoor, digital etc.) expenditure in the country, estimated at around 40-50 million Euros a year5. Moneywise, this government’s propaganda activity should amount to 1% of the state budget (projected to over 3 billion Euros for 2014), including various and numerous international propaganda and promotional activities frequently conveyed by the government of Mr. Gruevski. 
For many years the official data on how much the government was spending on advertising and propaganda was one of the best kept state secrets. Suddenly, in August this year, as a result of international and domestic pressure regarding the dire state of freedom of media in Macedonia and in the face of the upcoming autumn regular EU Progress Report for 2014, Mr. Gruevski decided to publish some numbers: according to their account6, in 2012, 2013 and the first six months of 2014 the Government spent some 18 million Euros in 27 different media campaigns. No meaningful criteria or method of selecting the subjects of campaigns were elaborated, and a very vague explanation on rating scores and viewership/readership structures of the media outlets in the country – analysis done by whom?7 – were mentioned in the process of deciding where to spend the government’s propaganda money.
In an analytical and unswerving reaction to this data by the Association of Journalists in Macedonia (AJM), the biggest and most influential journalistic organization in the country informed the public that “the government confirmed all our suspicions that government campaigns do not relate to any public interest at all, but are a clear case of political propaganda by the government paid with the citizens’ money”.8 AJM insists that the government should immediately stop all further spending of money for its propagandistic activities until clear rules and criteria are devised for state advertising and public money distribution in the media.
That is the statistical “big picture” of the advertising power of the government in Skopje. But, how does it work and reflect on a smaller scale of influence, among some specific media?  
Assuring pro-government editorial policies and return of investments through government advertising 
A very illustrative case of how state money can “inspire” pro-government editorial policy may be elaborated through the case of the national TV Alfa. Founded in 2008 as an independent satellite TV station – terrestrially disseminating its signal through some of the cable and internet TV operators in Macedonia – Alfa’s editorial policy for several years was closer to the political opposition in the country and critical toward Gruevski’s government. And then in 2012/2013 its ownership changed through several surprising acquisitions of ownership shares by an anonymous off-shore company based in the Netherlands Antilles and owned by a Serbian businessman, a very close acquaintance of the Macedonian government9. With the new owner came a new legal status – already in May 2013 TV Alfa was “promoted” from satellite/cable TV operator to a higher-market-level status of national terrestrial TV concessioner, parallel to a gradual change in its editorial policy from once critical to currently fully fledged support to the policies, values and ideology promoted by Mr. Gruevski. 
Not so surprisingly, this ownership/editorial “salto-mortale” was followed by a sudden marketing success by TV Alfa. Namely, after the full change in ownership in 2013, that year the TV company ended with almost 85% bigger financial revenue compared to the previous year, 2012, although the general annual viewership rating in 2013 would not change an iota compared to 201210. Or, seen through another illustrative statistical figure, with only 3.2% of average viewership rating in 2013, TV Alfa suddenly acquired 14% of overall national TV advertising budgets11 on the market where – as we elaborated earlier – the state is the major advertising factor! Conveniently, in the period of January-September 2014, the Macedonian government advertised 2-3 times more on TV Alfa compared to its advertising presence on any of Alfa’s competitors among the national commercial TV broadcasters. According to available statistics provided by the Skopje based Nielsen Media Research, from January 1 to September 12, 2014, the government bought over 43 hours of advertising time on TV Alfa, followed by the next biggest government advertiser, the cable TV 24 Vesti/News, with only 25 hours of government advertising time for the same period. At the same time Alfa had almost 2,000 insertions of the government’s advertisements in its TV programs, compared to the second best TV Kanal 5 with only half of that number. With this kind of advertising statistics, 2014 should be even more profitable for TV Alfa than the very successful 2013. Of course, part of the explanation for this “invasion” of government advertisements may be found in the marketing pricing policy of TV Alfa. But even enormous discounts (sometimes 90% off the official pricelists) offered by Macedonian media to various TV advertising clients cannot rationally explain, with market or program driven arguments, the striking disproportion in advertising time (read: money) devoted by the government (more precisely: the biggest governing party in the government, VMRO-DPMNE) to TV Alfa. Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that the advertising statistics support the widespread rumors in the public that the real “shadowy” off-shore buyer of TV Alfa is probably somebody very, very close to Mr. Gruevski, using the state “advertising budget” to create an unusually successful return on the previous investment when buying the TV station in 2012/2013.
Similar political speculations were spread when in the same period (2012/2013) the same Serbian businessman entered the print media market in Macedonia and gradually bought the controlling shareholder package of the then three biggest Macedonian dailies – “Dnevnik”, “Utrinski vesnik”, and “Vest” – from the German publishing group WAZ.
What followed in the 2014 elections…
Probably the most obvious examples of VMRO-DPMNE’s modus operandi in the media sphere in the country were demonstrated in the 2014 election campaigns. Namely, the disproportion in election propaganda budgets of the main political contenders in the Macedonian vote is not less than vulgar. According to the official financial reports submitted by the political parties after the regular presidential and early parliamentary elections in April of this year, the governing VMRO-DPMNE spent 1.96 million Euro for parliamentary and presidential advertising campaigns, while the opposition SDSM’s figures are approximately 145,000 Euro, or 13 times less than VMRO-DPMNE’s electoral spending power. Consequently, the quantitative measurement of the frequency of published advertising12 in the six daily newspapers in Macedonian language13 during a total of three weeks of combined 2014 presidential and parliamentary election campaigns show stunning differences when the Macedonian leading governmental and leading opposition parties are compared. In that period, as paid advertising, VMRO-DPMNE published 324 full size pages of advertisements, 96 half pages and 123 banners (mostly on the front pages of dailies), while SDSM published only 23 full pages and 24 banners – the ratio between the government and the opposition advertisements being roughly 16:114, meaning that for every 16 full size newspaper pages of VMRO-DPMNE’s advertisements, SDSM published only 1 page of its own campaign propaganda! 
It goes without saying that the bulk of the print advertisements ordered by VMRO-DPMNE were published in the dailies “Dnevnik”, “Utrinski vesnik” and “Vest”, conveniently and timely acquired by the above mentioned Serbian businessman who is also the proprietor of TV Alfa. Again, as we see, the return on the investment – this time in the print media – proved to be very fruitful. 
As a result of the described – among many others – government media policies, the state of the media industry, media market, journalistic professional standards and freedom of the press and expression in Macedonia are awful, at the very bottom among the European nations. In the last eight years since VMRO-DPMNE has been governing the country, Macedonia has gradually fallen by an unbelievable 87 places on the Reporters Without Borders’ worldwide Index of Press Freedom; currently, Macedonia is occupying 122nd place in the Freedom House press freedom ranking, firmly among the gloomy company of partly free and non-democratic countries in the world. 
Unfortunately, in an elaborated and continuing effort to get a press that it likes and not the one that it deserves, the current Macedonian government is winning over democracy in the country. 
1 There are several detailed studies describing the history and current affairs of various phases of ownership, regulatory and editorial developments in the interplay of the media and politics in Macedonia since its independence in 1991, such as: “Media: Business in the Ethic, Ethics in the Business” (Trpevska S., Avadani J., and Proteasa M., Macedonian Institute for Media, Skopje, 2005), “Hostage Democracy – The Development of the Media Ownership Structure in the Republic of Macedonia” (Ordanoski S., ed., Transparency Macedonia, Skopje, 2012), or “Media Integrity Matters: Macedonia” (Trpevska S., and Micevski I., SEE Media Observatory Project, http://mediaobservatory.net/, 2014). 
2 At a media conference in Istanbul held this May, organized by the Council of Europe, General Secretary of the European Federation of Journalists Ricardo Gutierrez launched a number of accusations toward the government in Skopje and Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski for what he considered “incitement of the language of hatred”. “Supporters of the freedom of press are a constant object of terrible threats backed by the government,” said Gutierrez, according to the Independent Balkan News Agency. (http://www.balkaneu.com/gutierrez-gruevski-backing-hate-instigators-medi...)
3 Annual “Analyses of the Broadcasting Market for 2013”, Agency for Audio and Audiovisual Media Services (the state broadcasting regulator), p. 33, Skopje, July 2014.
4 For instance, hundreds of thousands of Euros are spent every year on advertising by public entities like the state electricity power producer ELEM or by the regulatory body Agency for Electronic Communication (AEK), which are not considered or reported in the government’s advertising budget.  
5 This estimation made by PR and advertising professionals, lacking precise and complete official data on the net spending of media advertisers and all state activities in the area of domestic and foreign propaganda/promotion activities, should be taken with some degree of reserve. For instance, there is no publicly available figure on the price of  the very intensive and multi-year advertising campaign “Timeless Macedonia!” aired by the government on CNN and a number of other international electronic and print media.
7 Since 2008, unofficial TV viewership measurements, accepted by most business advertisers and the media community in the country, are delivered by Nielsen Audience Measurement Macedonia (http://www.agbnielsen.net/whereweare/dynPage.asp?lang=english&country=Ma...), but there are regular disputes by their TV clients on parts of its methodology and published rating scores. 
9 The gentleman in question, Veselin Jevrosimović, has a legitimate IT trading company (ComTrade) in Serbia which – among other business dealings in Macedonia – played an important role in the period of 2008-2010 in obtaining computers for a big government-sponsored project, “A computer for every pupil”, in Macedonian elementary schools. With the project, according to official data (http://vlada.mk/node/310?language=en-gb), 17,818 Personal Computers, 98,710 LCD monitors, 98,710 keyboards and mice and 80,892 thin-clients were provided for elementary and high schools throughout Macedonia. The project was worth several dozens of millions of Euros. 
10 Annual “Analyses of the Broadcasting Market for 2013”, Agency for Audio and Audiovisual Media Services (the state broadcasting regulator), p. 21, Skopje, July 2014.
11 Idem, p. 31
12  I did these quantifications for the purposes of election monitoring in the framework of the “Free Elections 2014” project completed by the Skopje based NGO CIVIL (www.civil.org.mk) and the results are published in the publication “Elections 2014: Democracy Disqualified”, July 2014.
13  The analyzed dailies are “Nova Makedonija”, “Utrinski vesnik”, “Dnevnik”, “Sloboden pecat”, “Vest” and “Večer”. Ethnic Albanian parties did not have any advertising campaigns in print media either in Macedonian or in Albanian language newspapers (dailies “Lajme” and “Koha”). 
14  The ratio is derived when 96 half page advertisements are divided by two, resulting in 48 full pages, plus 324 originally full page advertisements for VMRO-DPMNE, compared to only 23 full page advertisements for SDSM. 
Media Integrity
Media Ownership and Finances