By Kole Casule
SKOPJE (Reuters) - The United States cautioned Macedonia on Friday against silencing the media in a growing scandal over coup charges against the government's chief opponent.
Opposition leader Zoran Zaev was charged last week with conspiring with a foreign intelligence service to topple the government. He had threatened for months to publish evidence of what he says is criminal wrongdoing by the conservative government of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski.
Zaev's Social Democrats say the charges will not stop them going public. But the state prosecutor told journalists this week that they faced punishment for publishing material "that may become the subject of further criminal proceedings".
The U.S. embassy in Macedonia issued a statement expressing "concern" at the warning and stressing the media's role in presenting information that is in the public interest.
"We are concerned that the media in Macedonia may interpret the statement of the Public Prosecutor's Office to mean that it should not be playing this important role," it said, urging authorities to make clear the "narrow circumstances" where information may be treated as an official secret.
The European Union, which the former Yugoslav republic wants to join along with NATO, has also urged a fair judicial process.
Media watchdogs are already concerned over what they say is the shrinking of press freedom under Gruevski, who has been in power since 2006. Zaev's potential imprisonment would further deepen political divisions and may heighten concern in the West over a perceived authoritarian streak in Gruevski's rule.
The prime minister took to television last week to accuse Zaev of trying to blackmail him to call a snap election during face-to-face talks in September and November, saying Zaev claimed he had gathered intelligence against the government with the help of a foreign spy service.
Zaev was charged, but denies any wrongdoing, saying authorities were trying in vain to prevent the publication of what has become known in Macedonian media as "the bomb".
(Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Catherine Evans)