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Macedonian TV mogul’s future hangs in the balance December 27, 2010

Posted by Yilan in Macedonia.
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Velija Ramkovski claims his arrest is a strike against democracy, accusing the government of blatant dictatorship. AFP photo
Velija Ramkovski claims his arrest is a strike against democracy, accusing the government of blatant dictatorship. AFP photo

Macedonia’s most prominent media mogul faces an uncertain future after police detained him late Thursday on serious charges of money laundering and tax evasion.

The arrest of Velija Ramkovski, owner of Macedonia’s pro-opposition A1 TV station, brings to a head a brewing confrontation between the media figure and the center-right government of Nikola Gruevski, which has become increasingly poisonous in recent months, Balkan Insight website reported Friday.

The mutual antagonism is made worse by the fact that Ramkovski was once a close ally of Gruevski’s – who now seems keen to punish his former ally.

Ramkovski was led into court in handcuffs Friday by masked policemen after being detained along with 16 executives from his companies, including private A1 television.

Authorities say none of those being held have been arrested or charged, the Associated Press reported Friday.

Only one month ago police accompanied financial inspectors on Nov. 25 into A1’s Skopje headquarters in search of evidence of criminal financial activity. Both the TV station and Ramkovski accused the police of intimidating his staff, according to Balkan Insight.

Ramkovski maintained that Macedonia’s ruling VMRO DPMNE party, led by Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, was looking for excuses to shut down A1 and jail him because his media outlets had started criticizing government policies over the past two years.

Ramkovski denied allegations of financial misdeeds and counter-attacked, saying the prime minister had offered him money from the state budget to air advertisements for VMRO DPMNE during the 2006 and 2008 elections.

The media figure was apprehended Thursday when a large number of undercover police officers stormed the headquarters of A1, the most popular TV station in Macedonia.

Police also raided the media figures home and apprehended his oldest daughter, Emel.

Ramkovski’s attorney, Miki Vujic, complained of a breach of police procedure, saying he had been kept in the dark about the allegations made against his client. “This is a total twist of the proper procedure,” he said.

“It is unprecedented for the media to find out first about the charges while I am kept in the dark,” he said.

“There was no need for this theatre! No one is trying to flee or hide.”

Following the raids, police spokesperson Ivo Kotevski and head of the Public Revenue Office Goran Trajkovski appeared on the private national TV station Sitel. Linked to a deputy who is part of the ruling coalition, the station is seen as more pro-government in its outlook than Ramkovski’s operation.

The two men said Ramkovski was suspected of money laundering, tax evasion and other crimes.

Growing opposition

Over the past 20 years of political pluralism in Macedonia, Ramkovski has been one of the main movers and shakers in the media. Formed in 1993, A1 has consistently drawn the highest ratings in the country over the last ten years.

Ramkovski also set up the TV channel A2, which he intends to turn into an Albanian-language station, thus tapping into the country’s large ethnic Albanian market. Albanians make up about one-quarter of Macedonia’s population.

Although they are not registered in his name, Ramkovski has said he owns three daily newspapers, Spic, Vreme and Koha e Re. Ramkovski’s name is also connected to dozens of other companies in the country.

Despite his long involvement in the media, Ramkovski only became widely known to the public in 2006, before the general election that year, when he set up a political party, the Party for Economic Recovery. It failed to win any seats in the election.

When VMRO DPMNE came to power in 2006, Ramkovski and A1 were seen as close to new Prime Minister Gruevski, which Ramkovski defended on the grounds that the ruling party had accepted his own agenda, especially concerning the need for increased subsidiaries for agriculture.

After a snap general election in 2008, when Gruevski again pulled off a landslide victory, the TV station began to distance itself from the ruling party.

This gradually developed into an open confrontation, generating much anger on the side of the government. In 2010, VMRO DPMNE started accusing the TV station of deliberately distorting the truth.

In June, Gruevski himself accused A1 of undermining the national interests of the country, through allegedly biased reporting. The prime minister accused A1 of working for the opposition Social Democrats to topple his government and urged his supporters to not watch or trust the station.

Tensions between A1 and the government escalated in November prior to the police raid, with the TV station claiming it was under siege and urging its supporters to take to the streets.

 

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