At 7 p.m., Macedonia's most popular television news program from A1 Television runs a string of pessimistic reports with one common theme - the victimization of ethnic Macedonians by ethnic Albanians and Western aggressors.
The anchor reports that an ethnic Macedonian athlete was killed on the road to Tetovo by Albanian terrorists, and ethnic Macedonians across the country are protesting an unpopular peace deal imposed by NATO.
High school teacher Sofia Stevanovska is watching the news closely, like most Macedonians. She and her family haven't been physically affected by the six-month conflict between Macedonian security forces and ethnic-Albanian rebels, but she says just watching the news has been enough to change her view of her country.
"I am frightened when I see how Macedonian people have been chased from their homes by Albanians," she says. "I thought I knew my Albanian neighbors, but now I don't trust them any more. I can't see how we can live together anymore."
The media, both news and entertainment, have played a major role in polarizing linguistic and national communities in conflicts across the Balkans. Now, even though Macedonia's peace process cleared a crucial test yesterday as parliament backed its overall framework and opened the way for NATO to resume collecting weapons from ethnic Albanian rebels, Macedonia appears to be headed down the same perilous road. Over the past few months, while the rebel National Liberation Army captured a swath of territory along the western border, the Macedonian- and Albanian-language media have diverged to the point where it might appear they are reporting on two different wars.
"The media, like everything else in Macedonia, is divided into two camps, broken along ethnic lines," says Dejar Georgievski, a media analyst in Skopje. "There used to be some media which were able to bridge the gap and claimed a large Albanian audience, primarily A1 Television. But after several recent nationalist outbursts from the editors, I doubt that is true anymore."
Technical standards are generally high in Macedonian journalism, but a proliferation of small weekly publications and local radio and TV stations has spread advertising and subscription revenues thin. The remaining advertising also divides on ethnic lines with Albanian companies rarely advertising in the Macedonia media and vice versa. "Journalists and entertainers have to rely on political parties and businesses with political agendas for their paychecks," Georgievski adds.
As a result, both Macedonian- and Albanian-language media reflect growing nationalist trends in their respective communities. "For the first time, the Macedonian media accurately reflects the local mood [among ethnic Macedonians]," says Sam Vaknin, Balkans analyst for Central European Review and United Press International. "And that mood is antigovernment, antiWestern, antiNATO, xenophobic, and antiAlbanian, not necessarily in that order."
Up until this summer, Macedonian-language A1, which holds about 70 percent of the national television market, was applauded internationally for its well-balanced newscasts. But after pressure from nationalist politicians and popular petitions that labeled the station and its journalists "traitors to the Macedonian state," the broadcaster now focuses on the Macedonian perspective and refuses to work with Albanian journalists.
"Once, we interviewed Ali Ahmeti, the general commander of the NLA, over the phone, and the next day there were signs all over town equating A1 with terrorists," says Aco Kabzanov, chief editor at A1. "We can't afford that kind of image."
Dnevnik, the largest Macedonian-language daily newspaper, was also considered extraordinarily moderate throughout much of the conflict, and its circulation suffered as a result. Then, on Aug. 9, after the NLA killed 10 Macedonian soldiers in an ambush, editor-in-chief Branko Gerovski published an irate editorial that irrevocably changed the image of his paper.
"There is nothing more to be negotiated," he wrote. "Signatories of [the Ohrid peace agreement] will be declared traitors. Period."
"The rest of the media is worse," Vaknin says. On several occasions, Macedonian journalists have called on their compatriots to take up arms to fight the "Albanian menace."
In return, the Albanian-language section of Macedonian state television turned radical, broadcasting statements in support of the NLA and refusing to air a Ministry of Interior promotional spot for the anti-terrorist special police force. As a result, the daily six hours of Albanian-language news were suspended for three weeks in August.
The private Albanian-language television and radio stations in Kumanovo and Tetovo, the main conflict areas, are beyond the reach of the state broadcasting board and often run pro-NLA "war songs," including the NLA anthem.
"Hate speech is proliferating at a rapid rate on both sides, which adds to the explosiveness of the crisis," says Slobodan Casula, a relatively moderate columnist for Dnevnik. "The interethnic time bomb we are setting right now is going to explode, and the West must pay attention because when it goes off it will hurt NATO too."
Some Westerners have taken notice, mainly of the extraordinarily vehement anti-NATO rhetoric in the ethnic-Macedonian press. Last week saw the onset of a media campaign to promote support for the peace plan and the NATO mission in Macedonia, funded by $250,000 from USAID. Local analysts warn, however, that program is already generating a backlash.
Ms. Stefanovska, for one, is not impressed by the American-sponsored commercials. She switches to Sitel, considered the most reactionary private Macedonian station, and watches a report alleging that instead of disarming the rebels, NATO helicopters were glimpsed dropping off weapons to restock the NLA south of Tetovo.
"You can't trust NATO," she says, hugging her shoulders with clammy hands. "They have always supported the Albanians, ever since the Kosovo crisis. They say they are here to make peace in Macedonian, but our journalists know that isn't true."