Media donations to political parties, and ownership structures as a potential source of corruption in the Macedonian media

Media donations to political parties, and ownership structures as a potential source of corruption in the Macedonian media
Naser Selmani, president of the Association of Journalists of Macedonia, has claimed that political propaganda towards the media in Macedonia costs the government 20 million euros per year, as much as the Ministry of Defense’s budget.
Written by: Team of journalists led by Sase Dimovski
“It’s deplorable. Macedonia spends 20 million euros annually on advertising and media. These ads are not at all in the public interest of the citizens. Those funds are simply used as buy-outs, for corrupting the media in order to then stop criticizing government policies,"  Selmani emphasized.
These claims were made by Selmani in December 2013, at a public forum on the topic of ‘Freedom of expression – a challenge for Macedonia’.
Control of the media
Money, in smaller or greater amounts, has been spent by the government on ads in newspapers, on television, radio or internet portals, and thus provides a space in which the media reports on the daily activities of governmental and party representatives in a positive context.
This approach, taken by the Macedonian government which has been in power since 2006, has been deemed by many relevant international and national organizations in Macedonia as a serious corruption of the media.
According to Germany’s Bertelsmann Foundation: “The ruling parties in Macedonia have strengthened control over numerous democratic institutions in the country, including the NGOs, the media, universities and research institutes. Media ownership in the country is very much concentrated on, and related to politics. Editors and reporters are subject to increasing political pressure and threats, resulting in widespread self-censorship. The government chooses to advertise only via the public broadcasting service and pro-government oriented media, thus increasing their financial power at the expense of pro-opposition media.”
The Bertelsmann Foundation assessed the values of the political and economic transformation in the 2012–2013 period and the report was presented at the beginning of January 2014 in Germany.
Nevertheless, when asking for official information on how much money the government of Macedonia spends annually on advertising in the media, there is no response, even though the Law on Free Access to Information obliges it to reveal the sums. However, recent data brought to light by the Macedonian government’s political opposition, confirmed suspicions that the government spends millions of euros on various media campaigns that are close to the ruling party, which means that the broadcast of pro-government ads during election campaigns is virtually free (with discounts of as much as 90 percent). Following the elections, the discounted or free party political advertising is listed under donations for the party.
The data obtained from the final financial statements of the media and the political parties submitted to the State Election Commission, the State Commission for the Prevention of Corruption and the State Audit Office, during the elections held between 2006 and 2013 show that the media are the biggest donors to political parties, but only to those parties which comprise the government. The other political parties were charged according to price lists which were applicable to other commercial companies.
In Macedonia, general elections were held in 2006, 2008 and 2011. Local elections took place in 2009 and 2013. The next elections will be held in March 2014.
Public money: the greatest secret 
The General Secretariat of the Macedonian government, who outsources the media campaigns, refuses to respond to questions on how much money is spent on media and argues that it is "a secret". Not even the publicly declared information by the President of the Association of Journalists of Macedonia has been denied, that the government gives 20 million euros per year to media that support its work.
As part of the efforts to improve freedom of expression and media independence, the European Commission requested data from the Macedonian government regarding how much money is spent on advertising, but Fatmir Besimi, Deputy Prime Minister in charge of European Integration, has not disclosed the amounts, not being allowed to do so by the government General Secretariat.
At the request of the media in Skopje, the amount was not disclosed even to official Brussels representatives, who stated that "authorization for this was not given by the Macedonian government”.
Previously, in their annual reports dedicated to the media barometer in the Balkans, the European Commission concluded, in its annual report on the Macedonian media, that: "the [Macedonian] government is one of the biggest advertisers and there are concerns that funds are directed straight to the TV channels that support the government. Ownership of the media is kept obscure, highly concentrated and with very strong political connections.”
According to the European Commission, editors and journalists are faced with major political pressures and threats. Threats to journalists and self-censorship remain a cause for concern.
Whether the government corrupts the media in this way, and keeps them under its control, is one of the questions to which many journalists, with their associations, unions, media organizations and deputies, would like to see an answer in time.
“The sole purpose of advertising by the Government in the media is to put them under its control,” says Muhamed Zeqiri, editor of Alsat-M Television, which broadcasts in the Albanian and Macedonian language.
"There are authorities, such as we have in Macedonia, attempting to grab a hold over every media in the roughest way; in some places they succeeded, but in others, fortunately, they still have not and we hope they never will. Where the government has achieved their objective, we hope that they will get out of the clutches of the rulers. We have a new way of stigmatizing journalists and colleagues by their peers, some journalists or media which I call the phantoms. These are various news portals concerned only with the work of other journalists and do not deal with the business of journalism," says Zeqiri.
Who may be a journalist?
The issue of corruption in the media was being increasingly mentioned at the end of 2013 and in January 2014, when at the proposal of the government, new laws were adopted in the area of broadcasting and media, and amendments were made to the electoral law. The Association of Journalists of Macedonia (AJM) opposed the adoption of a law whose provisions are unfavorable and limit the scope of work of journalists, although the government demonstrated that the law was adopted with the specific consent of the AJM.
The government under this Law shall restrict the work of many journalists, by not acknowledging journalists working for internet media and other electronic publications and who are not contracted to work with a particular media. In this way, all the journalists who work as freelancers, as occasional correspondents or in online media will not be able to access state institutions, nor be accredited as journalists. In this way, their participation in professional associations and trade unions will be limited.
The amendments to the election law made in late January 2014 still permit the possibility media to donate funds to political parties when elections are being held, albeit limiting the amount of the donation to 50,000 euros. The current practice has shown that the media has presented donations "weighing" over a million euros.
Therefore, donations by the media to political parties, media ownership and advertising by the government and state institutions in the media are the principle points of interest that have been highlighted as a source of corruption for the media.
Our research confirmed the suspicion that the media donates funds during the election campaign to the party in power, and then expects the money to be repaid through ads that will be aired later, by order and at the expense of the government.
The case of Macedonia is one of the few instances where you cannot distinguish which is the agenda implemented by the government, and which is the agenda of the ruling party (in this case, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO DPMNE) since the representatives of the government are simultaneously the highest officials of the party, on whose behalf they attend events and functions during working hours.
Advertisements only for well-behaved media 
Media that criticize the government and fail to donate money to the party during an election campaign do not receive government-funded advertising. The money for these ads is paid from the state budget of the Republic of Macedonia.
During discussions on election legislation in July 2013, the government rejected the opposition's proposal to insert a provision in the bill that would prohibit the media from being donors to political parties.
“It was clear for us that you would not accept the amendment because even small children know that the government of Macedonia wishes to control the entire media space. First you ask for donations, and then buy them out with government campaigns paid with public money. Is it not symptomatic to you that during an election campaign, the media is biased? I maintain this is not done voluntarily, to give a donation to VMRO DPMNE worth more than a million euros,” stated Emilijan Stankovic, representative of the SDSM opposition party in front of representatives from the ruling VMRO DPMNE at the debate in Parliament on August 22, 2013.
Stankovic called for a law by which campaigns funded from the state budget should be broadcast on all media, according to the rating each media holds, and thus there would be no governmental favoritism between the media.
The Minister of Information Society and Administration Ivo Ivanovski, whose jurisdiction   includes the adoption of laws on media, rejected this proposal.
On May 7, 2013, Stole Naumov, member of the Broadcasting Council (the body that issues licenses for the operation of the electronic media and controls their work), posed the question of whether the media should be donors to political parties, but his initiative was of no interest to other members of this body.
“I am aware that for this issue to be included in the Electoral Code, it shall require a consensus of all political parties. If you disable broadcasters from being donors, as is now the case, then they will be free from political influence,” Naumov said.
Due to violations of election rules during the 2013 elections in Macedonia, the Broadcasting Council filed lawsuits against 13 radio and television stations. Their cases are yet to be deliberated upon by the competent court in Skopje.
The ban on party political donations by the media was called for as early as 2012 by professional journalism associations and organizations, but even then, the government showed no interest in addressing this issue, which was categorically pointed out by all as a major source of corruption in the Macedonian media.
On October 12, 2012, the Association of Journalists of Macedonia, the Union of Journalists and the Macedonian Institute for Media announced that: “With the possibility to donate up to 5% of annual turnover in election campaigns at discounted prices offered by broadcasters and printed media for political advertising offered to campaign participants, which are calculated as donations expressed in monetary value, the media are directly bribed and misused for partisan purposes. Instead, we ask for a law prohibiting media from being donors to a political party.” 
Freelance journalists 
In January 2014, the main opposition party (Social Democratic Union of Macedonia - SDSM) revealed two major corruption scandals, in which the government has transferred thousands of euros to the largest media in Macedonia; just one month later, these television stations and the political party VMRO DPMNE showed in their financial statements that the media had donated huge sums of money to the campaign of the ruling VMRO DPMNE party.
The second example concerns the uncovered business transactions of the editor-in-chief of the daily newspaper Vecer and deputy editor of the national private Sitel TV, Ivona Talevska, who through the company she had founded, and later transferred to her mother, won a government contract bid worth a million euros from the Ministry of Health for the purchase of medical equipment for several clinics. This, as well as several other advertising, marketing and consultancy companies were founded by Ivona Talevska and Dragan Pavlovic-Latas, editor-in-chief of Sitel TV, and are registered at the same address as this TV station, at the City Stadium.
“One million euros for the family company of Ivona Talevska, for their medical equipment business. This is how the taxpayers' money is used to create multi-million tariffs for corrupting the media and creating a false reality for those same citizens,” claimed representatives of the opposition at a series of press conferences, where the evidence was presented.
“How did Ivona Talevska, who is listed as the contact person for the Visaris company suddenly, overnight, become an expert in health equipment worth a million euros?” were among the questions posed by MPs to the Minister of Health after uncovering a scandal whereby an editor of two media had received a government contract for the procurement of medical materials. This same journalist has conducted a number of interviews with both the Minister of Health and the President of the Government, according to opposition representatives, who also asked the Minister of Health to publish all bidding documents.
The Vice President of the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), Radmila Sekerinska, provided official documents from several clinics reporting to the Ministry of Health that they did not wish to purchase the equipment distributed by the family company of the journalist Ivona Talevska, who is editor of the two media, because they were already in possession of such equipment.
The Minister of Health, Nikola Todorov, claimed that he did not know the owner of the company who had won this public procurement and had bid a million euros, was the journalist Ivona Talevska and later her mother. Instead, Todorov pleaded that the tender procedure was legal, although there were a few "unethical moments" within the entire procedure.
Money in the run-up to elections 
Critics of the system questioned whether VMRO DPMNE had financed their campaign and bought the favors of journalists with money from the state budget, or through the media.
According to Peter Shilegov, spokesperson for the opposition SDSM party, “a million euros were transferred by the Government of Nikola Gruevski to Sitel TV, to aid the 2013 campaign. Along with the transfer of 450,000 euros, made 20 days before the local elections in 2013, the government transferred to the account of Sitel TV over a million euros! In transactions made over seven days in 2013, the TV station received over a million euros of public money.”
The owner of Sitel Television is Goran Ivanovski; meanwhile his father, Ljubisav Ivanov Dzingo, is a leader of the Socialist Party of Macedonia, which is in coalition with the ruling VMRO DPMNE government. 
Ljubisav Ivanov had been a continuous representative in parliament since the independence of Macedonia in 1991, but stepped down in September 2012, when the laws led him to choose between staying in parliament, or his son having to sell Sitel TV. The Broadcasting Act and legislation for the prevention of conflicts of interest do not allow MPs, ministers and officials, or their close relatives to be the founders and owners of media.
Ljubisav Ivanov Zingo resigned as MP, but remained leader of the political party which is a coalition partner of the ruling party, with a minister and other officials at various government positions. His son remained owner of the television station.
Under Article 11 of the Broadcasting Act, public officials and members of their immediate families may not perform any broadcasting activities (political parties, government bodies, public administration entities, public enterprises, local governments, public officials and members of their families, cannot perform broadcasting activity or be founders or co-founders or gain share in the ownership of broadcasting media).
The headquarters of Sitel TV is at the City Stadium (Skopje football arena). Therefore, the scandal of transferring a million euros a few days prior to the election in 2013 from the government’s account to Sitel TV was named by the opposition party "media metastasis n.n. for the Government of Nikola Gruevski, with its main headquarters at City Stadium n.n."
The documents presented by the opposition party uncovered a dozen companies which had been established by major TV journalists who fully support and openly advocate the policy of the government and all have the same address, that of the headquarters of Sitel TV.
This has been the only case denied by the government, but it did not deny the transfer of over a million euros to the account of Sitel TV. Instead, it further clarified that advertising money had been transferred to the following TV stations: Telma, Kanal 5 , Alfa and Alsat-M, all based on contracts signed with them for government advertising broadcasting.
Telma – we are not all equal 
The government failed on this occasion to announce how much money the television stations were paid, or why this happened a few days before the 2013 elections. There is also no answer to the question of how these media, who had millions of euros in transfers a few days before the elections, turned out to be the largest donors to VMRO DPMNE, the party whose representatives formed the government.
Party leader Nikola Gruevski is also President of the Government of Macedonia at the same time.
The government explanation for the distribution of money to the media received a reaction only from Telma Television, which accused the government of trying to "pull them into the debate about the close relationship between the government and some television stations and the funds set aside for them in advertising campaigns.”
“Telma Television is appalled by the transparent attempt of the government to involve all other TV stations in the same group as Sitel TV for being awarded funds for television campaigns,” stated Telma TV managers.
Telma made public that in 2013, they received 77,000 euros based on 14 contracts for government advertisements.
"The amount of 77,000 euros received by Telma TV is light years away from deals that were made with other broadcasters" the outlet stated, referring to the more than 1 million euros  paid to Sitel TV in several payments during 2013.
At the same time, Telma television, which had often been criticized by the government for its critical stand on its policies, affirmed: "It is purely business and marketing services, which has nothing to do with, and will never have any influence on, the editorial policy of Telma TV".
Buying reporters
Corruption in the media became a major topic in Macedonia in January 2014. The subject was first broached with the reports of financial scandals when money was transferred to television stations and private businesses owned by senior media journalists who support the government getting public procurement contracts for various institutions; later, this expanded to laws adopted by the government concerning the operation of the media.
MP Biljana Kazandziska, during a debate in parliament, claimed that “up to now, we have had a situation where the media sponsored the government, but the day comes when the bill should be paid, and now we have a situation where the government returns to the media. How? First, the government pays for an editor-in-chief; you can buy one for a million euros, such as Ivona Talevska, for example. After you choose the editor-in-chief, you buy an entire outlet, Sitel TV, the media of your coalition partner.”
“How many millions does free speech in the country cost,” asked MP Biljana Kazandziska on January 22, 2014 in the Republic of Macedonia Assembly.
The second TV station which is close to the government is Kanal 5 television. Its founder, Boris Stojmenov, who was a member of the ruling VMRO DPMNE, decided to stay in parliament, while his son Emil Stojmenov, who headed the TV station, sold it to another person, thus avoiding any conflict of interest, which was forbidden by law.
The buyer of Kanal 5 was Vanya Gavrilovski, a man trusted by the Stojmenov family, after previously appearing in other joint businesses and other companies that they owned together. Although it was claimed that the sale was "formal", the Broadcasting Council could not establish that they are related and allowed the sale to go ahead.
In January 2014, the Internet portal Nova TV revealed that the current owner of Kanal 5, Vanja Gavrilovski owns a company in Panama, in an offshore area registered in 1999, along with Marian Stojmenov, second son of MP Boris Stojmenov (then Minister of Finance in the Government of Macedonia). These relations have reopened the question of who owns the Kanal 5. Is Vanja Gavrilovski only a "formal" buyer, while Boris Stoimenov current MP for VMRO DPMNE and former finance minister, and his immediate family still stand at the helm of the TV station?
“Another one of your coalition partners and representative to this very day in Parliament of the Republic of Macedonia, then Minister of Finance, started a company in Panama, which was registered on September 9, 1999, when Boris Stoimenov, then owner of Kanal 5, was Finance Minister and part of the Government,” said MP Biljana Kazandiska.
“This same Boris Stojmenov sold his TV station to Vanja Gavrilovski to avoid a conflict of interest. Anything that can’t be bought with a little money must be bought with a lot of money. Nobody can say how many millions this company of your coalition partner, Member of Parliament, former owner of Kanal 5 TV, costs. And through it, he is still indirectly the owner of the television station,” said Kazandziska at a session of Parliament in January 2014.
Offshore companies
Apart from the two TV stations that we mentioned, there are peculiarities in the ownership structure of Media Print Macedonia, a large media corporation which publishes the daily newspapers Dnevnik, Vest and Utrinski Vesnik, along with several periodical publications and online portals. Earlier editions of the consortium WAZ are now owned by the companies Mireks plus, Orka Holding AD and Internet Group Investment (i.e. the businessmen Srdjan Kerim and Orce Kamcev from Skopje and Veselin Jevrosimovik from Belgrade, who each have 33.3 % ownership).
Through a company registered as being offshore, Serbian businessman Veselin Jevrosimovik bought Alfa television from one of the major businessmen in Macedonia, Sterjo Nakov, for the sum of 150,000 euros (data that confused everyone), after which, the TV station’s critical view of the government changed its editorial policy, and a number journalists were fired from the station. Meanwhile, journalists from Sitel, the Macedonian national broadcasting service, and newspapers that support the government, were "reassigned" to work for Alfa TV.
This offshore company also appears as the owner of the weekly Republika, which has been published for the past two years, and where government ads get dominant representation.
Offshore companies entering the Macedonian media space have been registered in Panama, Belize, as well as in the Cayman and Seychelles islands.
During the sale of Alfa TV, the Broadcasting Council, responding to reaction from the public, deliberated whether a concentration of media ownership had occurred, due to the entry of the businessman Veselin Jevrosimovik in the business of newspapers and television. Since no such thing was not found, the sale was allowed to proceed.
Conflict of interest 
The current president of the Broadcasting Council, Zoran Trajchevski, in a statement made in September 2012 (at the deadline when media were supposed to determine their ownership), talking about close familial relations to persons holding high office, claimed that some media were not even supposed to be issued a working license, since this law had been in force for a longer period of time. However, someone had tolerated their illegal operation.
“The question is why it had not been done five or 15 years ago, and if anyone should take criminal responsibility for tolerating them, acting as if they do not understand the law. I'm surprised that in this situation some media owners try to present themselves as victims. In all countries in the world the ones that do not respect the law are called criminals. The Council has nothing against a media that respects the law. The greatest objection that the European Union has given in their report is the mismatch of the ownership structures with Article 11 of the Law on Broadcasting” declared Trajcevski on September 27, 2012.
The issue of media ownership, which directly affects the independence of the media and its editorial policy, was often emphasized by many representatives of the European Union. This has also been supported through a statement by the German Ambassador to Macedonia, Gudrun Steinacker, who said she was "concerned about the freedom of the press in Macedonia".
"On this issue, I'm a bit concerned; we have seen some developments in the ownership structure of the media that are not aimed at the support of media freedom. Also, what I perceived in conversation with many journalists is the presence of some kind of fear. Perhaps that's too strong a word, but time and again there are journalistic texts on different types of pressure and this is not a good sign. Also, I think, and I'm sure the government is aware of it, this should be regarded very seriously," commented Ambassador Steinacker.
Besides the issue of media ownership by people close to the government almost until the end of 2012, reports constantly surfaced that donations were given by the media to political parties that were holding power in Macedonia.
Donations of interest 
The early parliamentary elections in 2011 were a serious example of many violations discovered by governmental institutions; but no one was punished, neither the media nor the political parties .
The state Anti-Corruption Commission commented that "the media were again the largest donors to political parties for the period of the election campaign for parliamentary elections held in June 2011. Huge discrepancies between free advertising space, offered discounts and unpaid liabilities make them illegal donations, which is punishable by law."
The Commission also stated in its report that the media, by covering the discounted amounts and not charging their claims from political parties in the period of the election campaign, automatically appear as visible or hidden donors to political parties.
“The huge difference between the value of the services provided and discounts and outstanding claims are evidence of illegal donations, punishable by law. Among the media observed in this context as donors we find A1, Sitel and Kanal 5 television,” said the State Anti-Corruption Commission on the implementation of the early parliamentary elections in June 2011.
Mirjana Dimovska, a member of the Anti-Corruption Commission and a former journalist, stated that “we believe that there should be no discounts. They range from 0 to 90 percent, I would say up to 100 percent. So, the discount given to different political actors is not the same. For some they will manage their campaign for free, while for others it is valid under the most stringent regime in the price lists. You will agree, this hole must be closed.” 
The President of the Broadcasting Council in the period, Zoran Stefanovski, acknowledged that the Council, as a regulatory body, found at the outset of the campaign that there were differences in the actual cost of advertising and that which was offered to the political parties, and was later shown as a donation.
"We had indication to doubt and fear this lack of better definition, and that manipulations may occur with certain media. When you add to this that there were many government campaigns lasting throughout the whole year, it leads you to think of misuses of media for partisan purposes. With such a gap in the legislation, we only stimulate their operating at the border of legality and limit the independence of the media," noted Zoran Stefanovski on that occasion.
At that time, Stefanovski requested "urgent amendments to the Election Code that would regulate the lack of definition with regards to financing of election campaigns." He concluded, in 2011, that “if you do not do that, then corruption will not be lacking in the media.”
For three years, debates over this issue raged in the country, and in January 2014 it legislative change was brought forth, that the media are not completely barred from donating funds for political parties, but are only limited to an amount of 50,000 euros.
Utrinski Vesnik, a daily newspaper in its editorial published on October 31, 2011, stated the following. “The media in Macedonia are the largest donors to political parties. That fact alone represents a big scandal, but here it is received in a surprisingly serene way. The financial reports of the State Audit Office regarding the campaigns of VMRO DPMNE, SDSM, DUI and DPA in three elections – parliamentary, presidential and local – have shown little, but found much. Political parties are well versed and presented pure electoral records before the auditors. Nevertheless, this is only the small visible part of the great iceberg. The dirty game is under the water." 
The newspaper concluded: “At first glance, it is incomprehensible why the media is giving financial donations to parties. Why are there such amazing discounts? What is the gain and what is the regularity of bonuses in excess of 97 percent? These are all questions which logically present themselves. It has been an open secret that the owners of the largest and most commercial televisions have narrow political party interests and important business motives. What they give as a donation is returned multiply as interest in the government, or millions of euros in government campaigns, which has become the largest advertiser in the country. This corrupts journalism, by creating an irregular media market."
Conclusions without reaction 
Still, do such questions in the media make any difference? The answer is no, because the same newspaper also wrote about corruption in the media during the elections held in 2009, citing the reports of the state auditor who found the irregularities, but there were no sanctions.
Utrinski Vesnik in its September 15, 2009 issue wrote the following. “It is an alarming discovery made by the State Auditor that the largest donors to the parties are electronic and printed media. The supreme institution disclosed information that for advertisements during only one election Kanal 5 TV gave VMRO DPMNE a fantastic 97 percent discount! This bonus translated in monetary amounts to 1.8 million euros. What were contributions made to the party for election advertising by the higher-rating stations such as A1 and Sitel, one can only assume, because they did not submit documents to the auditor. This avoidance only increases suspicion that the area of donations and the absence of a solid legal framework represent a large minefield, which is ready to explode if someone threads upon it. Moreover, it is fertile ground for abuse, manipulation and corruption in the media.”
Velija Ramkovski, owner of the largest, now defunct A1 TV, stated in Utrinski Vesnik: “Turn things around, and tell me about any media which received money from any party. I would put things in reverse. Overall, let the state audit check which media received money from the political parties. Survive is what we can do with the money collected from the parties. Specifically, A1 collected some change from VMRO DPMNE, but from SDSM – nothing."
To the question, as to whether money is then compensated after they have written off their receivables, or if the particular party in power instead agrees that in the place of charging for their services, the television will get government campaigns, Ramkovski said he made no such deal, but admitted to be "forced to write off the claims towards political parties."
Ramkovski also made the following comment. "With regards to the government’s campaigns, we have received payment that was timely and in full. But from the elections, we have charged nothing; basically everything is reduced to write-offs. I would like to see TV stations and newspapers try to collect their claims from the parties even with the discounts that are provided by the media." 
Media webs
Several months after this statement, the government closed A1, and the owner and several of his associates from the TV station and from other companies that were in his possession were sentenced to prison terms in a process called "Spider Web”.
Saso Ordanovski, President of the NGO Transparency International – Macedonia made the following statement. “The complexity of the ownership structure of some of the mainstream media and political parties in the country, followed by business and political constellations, contribute to substantial distortions of democratic and media practices of good behavior and professional attitude in informing the public. Owners of many media are directly dependent on funding, especially from the government, which is contrary to all fundamental principles of press freedom and fair competition in the media market. The example of giving discounts contributes to avoiding paying taxes and even laundering money during elections. Transparency – Macedonia has long warned that such corruption in the media is very dangerous to the health of our entire democratic system and the logic of partisan media relations." 
Despite the findings of the State Auditor and the Anti-Corruption Commission, the Prosecutor’s Office was not involved in these cases and no procedure was opened to determine whether there is corruption.
Audit reports show that no rules for donors exist, that the information space is being corrupted, and that some broadcasters and political parties hide data. The authorities act selectively with regards to the placement of advertising, sometimes completely absent, sometimes closed or (for media close to the government) abundant. In democratic countries, it is incomprehensible that the media should donate to political parties. That is because it’s a way of buying party affiliation and political parties become involved in the media – these are some of the conclusions that have been brought forth during the public debate on these issues.
Dzevdet Hajredini, a former Finance Minister, highlighted another crucial issue: the largest media in Macedonia are part of corporations that have other businesses, and therefore, the media is just a tool to strengthen these often quite profitable firms. Apart from the businesses with companies close to the TV station, the case with the journalists from Sitel showed that they also registered private companies at the address of the station. So far, no other details have been made public regarding business dealings that the journalists had with state and government institutions.
Dzevdet Hajredini commented that “the media are owned by businessmen and the media are not their core businesses. Hence, a TV station or newspapers are assets that a businessmen pay for to favor the other businesses. Otherwise, they would be at a loss.”
Therefore, it is not surprising that television stations give huge discounts for advertising political parties during election campaigns.
Hajredini also said that “the media are a good tool to attack or praise the government, or even to blackmail. The government promotes free campaigns, the parties are given bonuses, but in turn they receive much more, from eased procedures for renewing their work permits even going as far as tax releases. Perhaps this is not visible to the public, but that chain works well. It is the system of corruption. As a result of these relationships, budget revenues are reduced, and this is, actually, the taxpayers' money.”
(Un)professional standards
There are many examples where the tenders made by governmental and public institutions are awarded to companies that are part of the business of a media owner. There are many examples where journalists were biased at the time of deciding on tenders, and through the media attacked competing companies participating in the bidding, or the persons who decided, if they selected firms that did not have a common interest with the media.
In recent years, we have seen frequent examples of a company, which was "disqualified" in this way from participating in a public tender, being forced to lease advertising space in newspapers to be able to thus explain their point of view, because the TV stations accusing them were not allowed to publish a retraction.
Because of this situation, Macedonia in recent years increasingly declines on Freedom House’s freedom of the media scale, and the same happens with the scores received from Amnesty International, Reporters without Borders and other international organizations.
“The funding and political influence still remains the greatest problem in Macedonia, because many local radio stations and magazines were closed due to lack of finance. Ownership of the leading printed media is highly concentrated," is just one of the comments made by Freedom House in its report. 
The European Commission also concluded in a report devoted to Macedonia: “One of the objections of the OSCE / ODIHR is that the media extensively cover the campaign, but several broadcasters, including the public broadcasting service did not provide balanced coverage of the campaign.”
Corruption in media, the ownership structure and advertising by the government in media that support it are key observations that run through all the reports of the European Commission for Macedonia, as well as the reports of the U.S. State Department.
One of the problems that research journalists and non-governmental organizations face is the ruling of the Administrative Court, which decided that “political parties are no longer information holders, and therefore have no obligation to disclose information about their finances to the public and the media."
In this way, the parties now have no obligation to respond to allegations about the donations they have received from the media. The most characteristic example is the ruling VMRO DPMNE, which showed contributions by the media in 2011 that all are made on the same date, one day after the elections. Their financial reports became public only after being submitted to the State Auditor and the Anti-Corruption Commission, but the parties now have no obligation to respond to allegations arising from the inconsistencies in those reports.
The donations given by the media (among them many local radio and TV stations) were put under scrutiny after several public confessions of members of the ruling VMRO DPMNE that they had never donated to the party campaign, even though their names had been placed on the donors’ list with sums of up to 1,000 euros. The media revealed many cases of students, unemployed, or farmers who had been placed on the list of donors to political parties, who could nevertheless not say when they had donated to the party, on what date or from where they had got the money.
"From the entire procedure, it is easy to conclude that (non) transparency of funding of political parties remains under the auspices of the state institutions and that the right to free access to information with regards to the financing of political parties remains limited," concludes the Transparency – Macedonia 2013 report.
Following the ruling of the Supreme Administrative Court of the Republic of Macedonia to restrict the right of free access to information on the financing of political parties, because they are not "information holders", Transparency – Macedonia asks "how long will the financing of political parties be a ‘protected bear [species]’ in Macedonia?"
After regulating the financing of political parties, Macedonia is among the five top-ranked states in Europe. But according to Predrag Trpeski, Professor at the Skopje Faculty of Economics,  despite good legislature, due to the partisan character of institutions responsible for controlling the funding, and the fact that their composition often changes subject to party directives, there are still elements of corruption in the funding of political parties.
During the past three years Transparency – Macedonia conducted monitoring over the financing of political parties by their donors, but due to a court decision, and previously one made by the Commission for the Protection of the Right to Free Access to public Information , dozens of questions remained unanswered, when journalists and NGOs inquired as to how much money had been donated by the media to political parties, and in turn how much money the parties forming the government gave for advertising in the same media that supported them during the elections.
Public secrecy
The questions that were subject to requests for free access to public information were related to the funding of political parties in the parliamentary elections of 2011, in a period when political parties were still holders of information according to the Commission for the Protection of the Right to Free Access to Public Information.
The Higher Administrative Court of the Republic has assessed that the media (and through them, the public) can gain an insight into the donations the political parties receive, by way of the report the parties need to submit to state institutions and later publish online. Of course, they have no obligation to answer questions arising from the content of the reports.
The media and political parties in Macedonia are faced with a new challenge: new elections which to be held in late March 2014. At these elections, the media can only donate 50,000 euros for the parties, which is ten times less than had been presented as a donation in the past.
The media that support the government continue to air dozens of commercials commissioned by the government on a daily basis and are paid from the state budget. There are such instances where those appear to be ordered by VMRO DPMNE, publicizing the successes of the government in the videos, at a time when, according to the electoral law political advertising is not allowed.
The media is also awash with campaigns commissioned by the ruling VMRO DPMNE, targeting leaders of the opposition bloc, under the slogan "these people can not be trusted".
The media community in Macedonia shows maximum polarization, division and daily attacks between one group of journalists and the other. There are two associations of journalists. The new Association of Journalists only comprises journalists who support the government.
Allegations of corruption in the media, with the publication of public procurement documents hiring a company established by journalist Ivona Talevska, along with several companies she owns jointly with her colleagues, registered at the same address with Sitel TV, were not published by the media that support the government.
Will the journalists become journalists? 
As a counter-strike to allegations from the opposition for businesses involving journalists close to the government, news portals which support the government brought forward data on companies registered by journalists critical of the government, but fail to prove any illegality or participation of those companies in divisions of public/government funds.
Macedonia is a rare example for yet another phenomenon: information published by a  news portal regarding some journalists or opposition politicians, which is then transmitted in full by all media that support government policy. This approach resembles a media lynching. This procedure continues even after being repudiated by all the persons concerned. Their rejections are not retracted or commented, which goes against the Journalists’ Code of Ethics.
Government officials refuse to make statements to critically minded media, and threaten them with lawsuits for libel and slander. There have been cases where the media are sued and convicted for relayed statements by public officials.
The media community in Macedonia has never been so disbanded, where the norms and standards of the profession are not respected and where journalists, rather than their "watch dog" role in democratic societies, take on a new role of confrontation with their colleagues and opponents. They are labeled by critics as "traitors, mercenaries, spies, homosexuals," and the latest trend is to expose all the private property of the journalists, without establishing the legality of such actions.
The problem of media ownership, the application of professional norms and standards, political dependence and censorship, have left deep traces in the Macedonian media space.
Will introducing new regulations, media laws, or establishing an agency that will have much broader powers of control over the media and upcoming elections with new rules change anything? Any forecast would be premature, but the first test for the media will be in March during the election campaign and reporting.
Will the journalists manage to rise up to the task, and give what the public expects and requires of them: free and independent journalism, and accurate and timely information, with respect to the professional principles and standards? In this environment, where journalists fight foreign battles and perform someone else’s agenda, they can hardly fight for their own position within the system.
This article has been produced with the financial assistance of the project South East European Media Observatory, supported by the European Union. The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of Sase Dimovski and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union.
Article is originaly published here and its .PFD version can be downloaded here.
Media Integrity