By Klaudija Lutovska
A criminal verdict and prison sentence against media mogul Velija Ramkovski, a frequent critic of the Macedonian government, threatens to have a chilling effect on the press, according to journalists in the small Balkan nation.
Ramkovski, former owner of the A1 television station, four newspapers and other enterprises, was sentenced in Skopje criminal court on March 14th to 13 years in prison for money laundering, criminal conspiracy, abuse of position and tax evasion; 19 accomplices received prison terms of two to seven years.
A1 TV and four newspapers were closed for failing to pay taxes and fulfill obligations to creditors.
“The impression is that the actions undertaken towards these media, for which the verdicts were given, are selective and the institutions do not use the same methods in applying the laws towards all media,” Macedonia Media Institute director Biljana Petkovska told SETimes.
Some journalists, particularly former A1 TV employees, maintain that case, nicknamed “Cobweb,” represents a fight between the government and the then most powerful TV station in Macedonia that was critical of its policies and in support of the opposition.
“The current political establishment is going to put under absolute control every free thought and every opinion that is against it. Its goal, and today that is proven, was to quiet A1 TV and Velija Ramkovski as carriers of the struggle against the dictatorship of [Prime Minister] Nikola Gruevski,” former A1 TV editor and opposition Sandzak League MP Safet Bishevac said.
Officials responded that A1 TV has been treated the same as any other organisation, Ramkovski was guilty of years of criminal activity.
“This is an uncompromising fight against crime and corruption that exist in all countries, but whose sanction depends mostly on the political will of relevant factors and the ability and capacity of institutions to independently perform their work,” ruling VMRO MP Antono Milososki told SETimes.
Prosecutors supplied 25 witnesses who testified that Ramkovski evaded paying 4.5m euros in taxes and gained 17.5m euros through frauddulant means — such as by issuing bills with false content.
Ramkovski operated through his 15 firms — also active in Turkey and the US — which he headquartered at the A1 TV address.
According to Transparency International Macedonia’s section President Sladjana Taseva, the concern is more about the government freezing and confiscating A1 TV’s assets.
Taseva said Transparency has filed a petition with Macedonia’s Constitutional Court to examine the legality of the seizure.
“I am convinced Cobweb will have its epilogue in international courts,” Taseva said.
Others, like veteran journalist Mirka Velinovska, argued there are no arguments to substantiate the complaints regarding media freedom.
“Do you want the law to be upheld or not? Freedom of speech in Macedonia is alive and well and the A1 TV journalists who lost their jobs are working again in the profession. Some … received funds from foreign supporters and opened their own media; others are employed in domestic media. Where here is freedom of speech challenged?” Velinovska told SETimes.