Macedonia’s Massive Illegal Wiretapping Operation Allegedly Monitored Journalists and Diplomats

This phone is tapped. Photo by Cory Doctorow, CC-BY-SA 2.0

This phone is tapped. Photo by Cory Doctorow, CC-BY-SA 2.0

Leaked tapes revealed by Macedonia’s opposition seem to suggest that the country’s intelligence services have been illegally wiretapping more than 20,000 citizens on the order of conservative Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and members of his family. Opposition leaders claim that among those tapped over a four-year period were government employees, opposition members, journalists, editors, and foreign diplomatic representatives in the country. 

Zoran Zaev, the leader of the Social-Democrat Party, brought the tapes to the public’s attention in early February 2015. Zaev, who was allegedly one of the targets of the Counter Intelligence Service’s wiretapping, said his party has filed lawsuits against several intelligence officers, including the Interior Ministry's top intelligence official, Sasho Mijalkov

The Social Democrat Party claims that tens of thousands of Macedonian citizens unofficially labeled by the current government as “traitors”—including opposition members, journalists, NGO workers, and unaffiliated political activists, as well as some of their own workers and the current Minister of Interior—were under surveillance for several years.

Just one week before the tapes were revealed, Prime Minister Gruevski had charged Zaev and others with conspiring with a foreign intelligence service to topple the government. Zaev has since had his passport confiscated by authorities and cannot leave the country. 

The man accused of heading the illegal surveillance operations, Mijalkov, has been a controversial character in Macedonian politics for several years. He was instrumental in implementing financial pressure on a critical Macedonian weekly magazine in a defamation lawsuit in 2014, which ultimately led to the magazine’s shutter and large fines for its editor and journalists.

Later that year, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), together with Macedonian Nova TV and the Czech Center for Investigative Journalism, published an investigative piece about the amassed wealth of Mijalkov, who is a first cousin of the prime minister.

Zaev, leader of the largest opposition party in Macedonia, claims to have evidence of thousands of instances of illegal wiretapping that allegedly went on for at least four years of the eight years that Gruevski has been in power. Opposition members claim to have received the evidence from “patriots working for Macedonia's secret service” who are now allegedly seeking amnesty under a whistleblower protection act. Zaev's party, SDSM, has been boycotting any involvement in Parliament after the April 2014 elections, in a show of protest, claiming that the elections had been rigged.

The Mijalkov-Gruevski political dynasty has held power during much of Macedonia's transition to democracy. Jordan Mijalkov was the first interior minister after the country gained independence, until his death in a car crash. His nephew Nikola Gruevski was finance minister from 1999 to 2002 and prime minister from 2006 till today. The son of late Minister of Interior Jordan Mijalkov, Sasho Mijalkov, who is seen as the grey eminence behind the family “throne”, served in Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito's Honor Guard alongside his brother as a military policeman, and has held high positions in defense and interior ministries of Macedonia since 1998.

This new scandal has sent the Macedonian government into damage control overdrive. Weeks ahead of the announced press conference by Zaev, the government made several arrests of people they suspected to be whistleblowers and publicly labeled some opposition members as “foreign spies”. To pacify any complaints of these activities in the public, the government turned to coverage of what might be deemed as more pressing issues, such as announcing revisions or minor changes to the new education laws and taxes for part time workers, which have been the subjects of several protests in Macedonia over the past year. The official parliament daily agenda for the session of February 11 suddenly included at least five “emergency” legislative amendments.

An announcement was also made by government officials just after the revelation of the alleged wiretapping that 3,000 new people will be employed in the public administration. Macedonia currently has an unemployment rate of almost 30%, and the government has been promising the creation of new jobs for several years. In many southeastern European countries, the promise of more government jobs is often used by politicians as a resource to buy the loyalty of their supporters, with taxpayers’ funds, in particular ahead of elections or in a time of crisis.

Following the revelations, Macedonian students began organizing sit-in protests and occupying universities in late 2014, and part-time workers went on to stage a third big protest on February 13. Many remain unimpressed by the prime minister’s new promises and see it as another attempt to divert from the real issues in the country. The plethora of protests organized in the country over the past year, from those against new tax laws to new education laws and student living conditions at university dorms, have taken place and seen different social and ethnic groups coming together, often crossing long-standing ethnic differences.

People on social networks and citizen media have criticized Macedonian media for lack of coverage of these protests. Blogger Jane Gjorgjioski pointed out in a February 13 blog post:

Coverage of the “occupation,” which includes thousands student participants, by the media—the TV stations with national coverage, and especially by the Public Service Macedonian Television (MTV)—is nonexistent or, mildly said, pitiful. Here’s how the pro-government TV stations, which cover most of the market, informed about the first day of the occupation:

  • The 4 pm news on Sitel TV aired the news about the occupation in the 16:27 minute of the show, and the news item had duration of 1:30 minutes.
  • On MTV, which is paid by all the citizens and is obliged to inform objectively, the 5 pm news aired the news in the 17:25 minute, with a duration of 0:55 minutes – yes, the news lasted for 55 seconds!
  • Alfa TV news from 5:30 pm the news was mentioned in the 17:55 minute with a duration of 1 minute and 20 seconds.

At a press conference on February 27, after further examination of the wire tapping recordings that the opposition claims to have, Zaev stated that numerous journalists and editors in the country were among those monitored during the illegal wiretapping escapade, as well as what Zaev called “the six most influential embassies” in the country. Several international organizations and media have voiced their concern of Macedonia's already fragile democracy taking a turn for the worse as the wiretapping scandal continues to escalate.

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