Shop Notes

Macedonian journalist seeks new ideas through fellowship

Posted: Oct. 2, 2017 | Tags: journalism


Photo by Jeff Watts, AU

Lirim Shabani at the Workshop.

One of my dreams was to visit the USA for educational purposes, and finally I am here to learn journalism through a fellowship. I am from a tiny country, Macedonia, in Southeast Europe, where I work as a journalist at an online media outlet. I’m spending the fall with the staff of the Investigative Reporting Workshop.

I didn’t study journalism as a college student, but I started to work as a journalist almost a decade ago when a group of my fellow students and I started a students’ union and published a magazine in which we wrote about different issues in the University of Tetova, in Macedonia. 

Somehow, unusually, we were free to write what we want. And we wrote about the poor management at the university, which did not work to improve the quality of study. We were interviewed on TV, and I remember being told to be careful what I said because the program was going on live and journalists sometimes suffer consequences for being critical. But I said what I wanted to say, namely that the quality of study was going down, and as a students’ union, we will raise all issues that concerned the students.  

Unfortunately, the magazine, called “Studenti Shqiptar” (the Albanian Student), lasted for only a few months. Since then, nobody has published a magazine or newspaper independent of the university and no one has written about the issues that we raised, such as the pressure over students not to speak about their needs, the teaching methodology, etc. There are still student magazines at universities in Macedonia, but the question that pops up is whether they are independent, and whether they write stories that are not so important. 

Students are an integral part of political processes when it comes to the political clashes; otherwise, are not considered critical. They are used at different times, by the government and the opposition. Whenever there are high political clashes, then students become more active with political statements. Also, when there are elections for students’ parliament, political parties try to interfere with the final results. 

Similarly, the media and journalists are used by politicians. Media in my home country is considered either pro-government or pro-opposition. Of course, there are independent media outlets, but very few. Based on the way we work and report, mine is one of them.

I was born in Yugoslavia and grew up in a time of transition from communism to democracy in Macedonia. My father points out that under communist rule, newspapers wrote about different issues. Rilindja was a well-known and well-regarded newspaper. And radio and TV stations had great programs, such as a cultural one on TV Prishtina. After the Constitution of 1974, there were more journalism, radio and TV programs in the Albanian language. Journalists also did a great job at that time using audio podcasts of educational and cultural programs.

But there was no investigative journalism until the 1990s when the communism ended. No journalist wrote about corruption issues, and nobody could write about scandals in governance. But after the '90s, more printed media, radio stations and TV stations opened. On the one hand, this was positive, because things changed and the media was independent enough to criticize and investigate the corruption at the highest level. 

On the other hand, the media split, with some outlets becoming independent and others supporting the government or the opposition. Journalists were attacked and imprisoned. The most suspicious case was the death of Nikola Mladenov, who is considered one of the greatest and most reputable journalists in Macedonia and who investigated the corruption that has been rampant and includes a former president and prime minister. 

He was the founder of weekly newspaper “Fokus.” He was investigating the case of the “Swiss Accounts,” in which former president, Branko Cervenkovski, and former Prime Minister Hari Kostov were suspected of hiding money in secret bank accounts in Switzerland. 

After publication, Mladenov was indicted and fined $3,000. He died in a crash while driving to Skopje. The car overturned several times and ended in a ditch. The next day, the police found him by tracking his mobile- phone signal. 

In the United States, I face a different situation in almost every sector, from my academic studies to the journalism I am learning to take to the next level. 

I am surprised to find that almost all undergraduate and graduate journalist students whom I meet at American University, where I am working on my fellowship, already have experience in journalism through internships and part-time jobs. There is also an affiliation with WAMU-FM, owned by the university and among the most listened-to stations in the country, which hires and trains interns, too. AU students run the campus TV station and several student magazines, the newspaper and alternative publications. 

Here, I also have encountered a different way of teaching as well, something that I did not have when I was a student, a situation that has not changed a lot in my country. I’ve seen professors speak in each other’s classes; I’ve seen the dean take part in classes; I’ve seen follow-up and personal time between professors and students. 

These things are very important to me because they prompt me to engage myself as much as I can in fulfilling my goal of being here, to learn as much as I can.

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