Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

A Plea for Moderation

An IWPR journalist in Macedonia appeals for tolerance following his arrest last week
By Veton Latifi

To be arrested for no reason, as happened to me on June 9, is something I'll remember for as long as I live. After the initial shock had passed it occurred to me that the episode had taught me a number of important things.

There are dangerous elements inside the official Macedonian arena who are portraying all Albanians as potential enemies of the state. But there are also others who prefer to live in peaceful cohabitation, eager to avoid further bloodshed.

I was made aware of this when support came in from Albanians and Macedonian colleagues alike as well as foreigners following the article on this site alerting people to the news of my arrest.

As a journalist and political analyst, I am well aware that it is both Albanian and Macedonian communities who have suffered in recent months, that members of both communities have died.

Of course, plenty of others have had worse experiences. I wasn't physically harmed. I was only detained for a couple of hours. But it wasn't fun. Going through that sort of experience, it's difficult to keep perspective on events.

The incident occurred as I was travelling from my parents' home in Kumanovo to Skopje. All vehicles were being stopped at a checkpoint so I wasn't too concerned when the policeman took the identity cards of myself and three others in my car.

I was told to get out and the police started to go through my papers. Their behaviour made me feel that I could end up yet another victim of this Balkan conflict.

I tried to explain to them that I was just going about my journalistic business and that I had done nothing wrong. But they just pushed me into a windowless van. One of them saying "It's an order". Another officer closed the door and I heard him say "Definitely, he's going to die".

This wasn't the first time that my family have had trouble with the police. A month ago it was my father, a geography teacher. They probed him with questions about me.

But on both occasions, as now, I have never had reason to feel that I had done anything wrong. Whether writing my political analyses or journalistic articles, I have always presented a true picture of events.

I have no doubt that my arrest was intended to intimidate me into changing the way I work. There are very few Albanian analysts or journalists in Macedonia who speak English and have the sort of extensive international connections that I have.

Maybe it was because of this, and the fact I have always tried to present a balanced picture, that they were trying to provoke me into venting some ethnic slur, or reduce me to adopting some hate speech.

This sort of behaviour is extremely dangerous for the future of Macedonia. Portraying moderates as latent troublemakers can only fuel inter-ethnic animosity and distrust.

And I'm not the only one to have experienced these kinds of problems. The same weekend I was arrested, police searched the homes of four journalists from the Albanian language daily Fakti. Another two reporters working for Agence France Presse were also hauled in by the police and physically abused.

A while back, TV Art, an independent Albanian station in Tetovo had their electricity cut for two days after they had received a written warning from the state broadcasting commission over a programme they had aired reporting the deaths of Albanians in a village near Kumanovo.

Most of the Albanian journalists were young and hungry for news, the sort who are keen to get out of the office and find out exactly what is going on.

This also took place in the wake of Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski's call to Albanian journalists to make explicit declarations of their loyalty to the state. "They have to be clear about which side they are on during this conflict," his spokesman Antonio Miloshovski said.

This is a dangerous tactic passed on from communist times - and pronounces open season on anyone suspected of disloyalty. It inevitably makes a mockery of the idea of journalistic professionalism.

Fortunately, the widespread support I received from colleagues from around the globe reminded me that tolerance does exist. That gave me confidence knowing that there were people all around the Balkans, all around the world, backing me up.

Not that everyone was supportive. Since the beginning of the crisis here I have received threats over the phone, people demanding that I stop writing and break off all relations with foreign diplomats and organisations. Following the IWPR article about my arrest, I have received several terse e-mails from nationalists. I'm still receiving threats.

But let me finish by saying that of all the support I received, nothing was more important to me than the phone calls from Macedonian and Albanian colleagues here. Colleagues who knew what it was like to be detained during such a tense period in Macedonia.

It was they who urged me to publicise my case in the hope that it might help other journalists in Macedonia. That it might help Macedonia.

Veton Latifi is IWPR assistant editor in Macedonia and an independent political analyst.