Macedonian TV’s Owner Faces Fraud Charges

The future of another independent media outlet in Macedonia is in doubt after Telma’s owners, Makpetrol, were charged with fraud.

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Macedonia’s Interior Ministry filed 21 criminal charges on Thursday, mostly against high officials in Makpetrol, the biggest private company for distribution and sale of petroleum in the country, and owner of the Telma national television station. The company’s account was blocked by the Criminal Court in Skopje on Friday. The timing of the attack on the company that owns Telma has drawn claims that the government is trying to silence one of the last national TV networks that is critical of the ruling VMRO-DPMNE party.

“We received our monthly salaries just before the account was blocked. We have no idea when we will receive the next payment,” one of the journalists in Telma told BIRN.

Police claim small shareholders suffered:

Police suspect an illegal spillover of funds from the share-holding company Makpetrol to the limited partnership company Oilko. The first suspect in the affair is the general director of Makpetrol, Andreja Josifovski. Nine members of the management and eight members of the supervisory board are also under suspicion. Other suspects include employees in the Central Registry, the Central Security Depository and the Securities and Exchange Commission of Macedonia. They are collectively accused of fraud worth more than 6 million euros.

Police say those worst affected by the alleged fraud were Makpetrol’s smaller shareholders. The Interior Ministry states that Oilko was founded by evading Makpetrol’s small shareholders. The new company then gradually took over part of the oil business of Makpetrol. According to the police, since Oilko was founded in 2006, Makpetrol’s profits started to fall while those of Oilko grew continuously. Makpetrol management on Thursday stated that the company works transparently and every decision was made by shareholders’ agreement.

“We had constant positive internal controls, external audit reports and, so far, never had any official complaint from a shareholder who felt that he was not informed or had been damaged in any way,” it said. In the same written statement, Makpetrol said the management was “surprised by the tendentious smear campaign based on baseless accusations”. Makpetrol has about 2,800 shareholders and a dominant position in the market of oil products, particularly in retail. Of a total of 275 petrol stations, Makpetrol holds 124, [Russian owned] Lukoil 27, [Greek owned] Okta 16 and the remaining 108 are privately owned by several small companies.

TV Telma on Saturday said the blocked account of Makpetrol “threatens to cause a serious energy crisis. Schools, hospitals, airport and power plants won’t have oil derivatives if this situation persists. “Makpetrol holds 60 per cent of the oil market in the country and it has a stock of petroleum products sufficient [only] for the next five days,” it announced.

Pressure on independent media:

Some experts on media and corruption think that the government is exerting pressure on Telma by filing criminal charges against the media outlet’s owners. Atanas Kirovski, director and editor-in-chief of Telma, told BIRN that the case will not influence editorial policy. “We won’t allow changes in the editorial policy because of political pressure. Telma will remain critical of any political structures in power,” Kirovski said.

Petrit Saracini, program director in the Macedonian Institute for Media, says the motives of the criminal charges against the first people of Makpetrol were clear: to intimidate Telma and to put it under the control of the government. “The fact that the alleged crime occurred nine years ago, and there were no charges against it so far, shows that this was timed and politically motived,” he said. “We had similar cases with Alfa TV and A1. That is why the public must be well organized in the defense of Telma TV and the process against the company’s owner must be followed very carefully,” Saracini added: “We can’t allow the government to gets its hands on another media outlet.” The timing of the criminal charges also raised suspicions about the motives with the president of Transparency International Macedonia, Sladjana Taseva. “The main question is why institutions waited… when the case concerns actions in 2006 and 2007,” she said. “We don’t have enough information on the case, but, of course, the first reaction is whether the case of A1 television will be repeated,” Taseva told Radio Free Europe. A few months ago, Telma started an open campaign against censorship and political pressure called the “Red Phone”.

In several news shows, while presenting the news, the anchors had a red telephone that would ring during the broadcast in the studio. The anchors would pick it up, and then hang up the receiver, saying that no political or institutional interference would be allowed. “Our TV network wants to work in a professional and independent way in spite of the tendencies of the government to exert pressure,” the heads of the network said in a statement.

The ruling VMRO-DPMNE party meanwhile in a statement urged Telma to say openly who was putting pressures on the TV station. “Before the entire public we invite Telma TV to say the first and last name of who has exerted pressure on them. If that it is not revealed directly, that will mean that Telma is doing superficial marketing at the expense of an alleged battle against pressures,” VMRO-DPMNE said in response to the anti-censorship campaign.

History of charges against media owners:

This is not the first case in which media owners faced criminal charges and TV outlets suffered big changes in the editorial policy or even closure. The biggest TV network in the country, A1, closed after the owner, Velija Ramkovski, and dozens of his co-workers were convicted of tax evasion. Ramkovski was jailed for 13 years, the accounts of his companies were blocked and A1 TV was closed in 2011. Another TV station, Alfa, founded in 2008 as an independent satellite TV station – terrestrially disseminating its signal through some cable and internet TV operators – saw its ownership change in 2012 and 2013.

Sterjo Nakov, the general manager of the shipping company Fersped sold his part in TV Alfa – 56 per cent of the shares – to an company belonging to offshore company based in the Dutch Antilles for 150,000 euros. The owner of Fersped has been seen as an opposition supporter, and the sale came amid a court probe into the privatization of his company. Since news of the sale of Alfa was released, there have been allegations that Fersped’s owner was blackmailed into selling his stake in Alfa on the cheap in return for the dismissal of the lawsuit seeking to annul the privatization of Fersped.

After the change in ownership in 2013, that year the company ended with almost 85 per cent more revenue compared to 2012, although the annual viewership rating in 2013 had not changed compared to 2012. The campaign group Reporters Without Borders in its most recent World Press Freedom Index, surveying media freedom in 2014, ranked Macedonia at the bottom of the Balkan pile, in 117th position out of 180 listed countries.

“The situation of Macedonia’s media continued to be bad in 2014, a year marked by the misuse of defamation legislation and politically-motivated allocation of state advertising,” the report said.

BIRN

18 August 2015