After a prolonged period of crisis, employees of the Macedonian Radio and Television (MRT), the public media service in the country, went on strike

23/08/2006 -  Risto Karajkov

After a prolonged period of crisis, employees of the Macedonian Radio and Television (MRT), the public media service in the country - went on strike, last week. The program is still on, but it is not known until when.

Unpaid salaries, food allowances, and social, health and retirement benefits, which their employer has not been providing for more than several months - are the demands of the employees. After several ultimatums and overstepped deadlines to have their requests met, part of the MRT's numerous staff of over 1,000 people, announced the beginning of the strike.

MRT's union formed a strikers' committee, which went out with its demands. In addition to the financial demands, they asked for a resignation of the director, Ms. Gordana Stosic.

"We demand an urgent resignation by Ms. Stosic, as responsibility for these 4 years of destruction", stated Mr. Vangel Bozinovski, leader of the committee.

MRT is in serious debt which is estimated to 10, 5 million euro. As much as half of this amount is said to have been accrued over the past 4 years, while Ms. Stosic has been in charge of the channel. Its commitments to its employees alone are estimated to half a million.

MRT's over-staffing and inefficiency are an unresolved legacy from the previous regime, that no government to date has managed (or had the courage) to resolve. The channel has by far the largest building in Macedonia, much of which these days is leased as MRT cannot possibly utilize it. The number of employees dwarfs any other private TV channel in the country, but the production unfortunately not.

Until now, MRT has been largely financed by a very unpopular TV subscription in the amount of 5-6 euro per month, which many in Macedonia do not want to pay as they feel they do not get anything in return for it. Everybody has to pay, even those who do not own a TV set.

The program of MRT is indeed poor and with the media liberalization, citizens watch private channels for free.

The long battle over the subscription ended in favor of MRT several years back, when the Supreme Court ruled that the subscription is a public tax that citizens simply had to continue paying. The efficiency in its collections was ensured with its coupling with the electricity bill - whereby when citizens pay the power bill, they were automatically paying the MRT subscription as well. And this system worked until recently, when the power supply company ESM, which ensured the collection, was privatized, sold to an Austrian company. The first thing the new owners did - they said that the citizens do not any longer have to pay the TV tax with their power bill. MRT was left to deal with this on its own.

This was a strong blow for MRT. Without the support of the efficient tax collection, money just stopped flowing in. The channel embarked on collecting its dues by itself, but whereas citizens fear having their power cut, which is a realistic possibility, they do not fear the legal threats of MRT, which does not have nay other means but to take people to court for not paying. And that would take years.

Following the demand for her resignation, director Stosic hurried to comply. She submitted it immediately on the first day of the strike. The problem was - she didn't know who to give it to. She was appointed by Parliament, under the old legislation, which was in the meantime changed. According to the new one, she reports to the Executive Board of MRT. So, she submitted her resignation to the Board. But the Board said it couldn't accept it and that she would need to do it before the Parliament, as the body which appointed it.

"Ms. Stosic has been appointed by Parliament, and she responds exclusively to Parliament", said deputy president of MRT's Executive Board, Mr. Vanco Kosturski.

Interestingly enough, Ms. Stosic tried to resign back in February when she submitted a resignation to Parliament. Back then Parliament said she should talk to the Board.

In the meantime she needs to continue to conduct her duty until a new Board is composed under the new legislation.

Some media accused Ms. Stosic of using this legal vacuum to unlawfully fire strikers. She has reportedly dismissed one staff of the national radio (which is under the same umbrella) for having ceased the program for 1 minute on the first day of a strike; another one for carrying a badge reading "Strike for Dignity" while hosting a TV show, and a few others. MRT's workers' union reiterates that it is illegal to fire people during strike.

In the meantime the strike continues and negotiations are underway between the strikers' committee and the Board. Some concessions have been made and employees have received a portion of their monies, but a very small one. They do not accept promises by the Board without guarantees that it would be able to actually execute them.

"We had an offer to have our salaries and benefits paid in 9 installments, but they didn't give us any guarantees that this would actually happen, so we didn't accept it", says the strikers' spokesman, Mr. Aleksandar Angelovski.

The strikers wanted a 20 seconds intermission on every 1 hour of broadcast, to inform the public of the strike, but that was declined by the Board. For the time being the strike continues through everyday gatherings in the entrance of MRT, and press conferences.

The strikers' committee had a meeting with the new President of the Parliament, Mr. Ljubisha Georgievski, and presented the issues and its demands. Mr. Georgievski promised support by the new Government. At present, the country is in-between governments; the new incoming one is expected to be proposed to Parliament by the end of this month. Mr. Georgievski promised the Government would discuss the state of MRT at its very first meeting.

Without a direct financial injection by the Government, it is clear that MRT cannot pay its dues. But it will have to wait for the new Government to seat in office to hear its position. The outgoing one sent financial reviewers to the channel, to control its financial management.

"The situation in MRT is below any criteria of dignity for quite a while now" say some employees "the management team turned to be the most incapable ever. We all do our jobs, everybody conducts their given tasks, but the management does not".

A recent report by Freedom House puts Macedonia in the countries with "partially free media", on the 107 place globally, and on the last one from among the former Yugoslav countries.

Some of the reasons are political influence over journalists; MRT's pro-government bias; self-censorship of journalists for fear of loosing their jobs.

The state of MRT is grave. Perhaps gravest ever.

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