In Bulgaria, local administrations spend large sums to „finance“ the media, thus influencing their editorial line – a concerning situation, especially outside Sofia
Francesco Martino , Sofia
How did you come up with your investigation of the dependency between media and local administrations?
I have long followed the ways in which the administration of Varna, where I live and work, spends part of its budget on financing local media, and concluded that these funds are used primarily to buy their acquiescence and influence their editorial policy. A recent example: in these days the administration allocated a record 190 thousand leva (almost 100 thousand euro) for four media. While requesting the funding, these media have highlighted their willingness to „create and reinforce a positive attitude among Varna citizens“, towards the municipal administration.
Hence came the desire to explore the situation in the country, with the suspicion – later confirmed – that the situation is not any better in other municipalities.
In your investigation, you focused on ten municipalities – how did you select them?
I chose the five largest municipalities, Sofia excluded, and five smaller ones that, one way or another, had had issues related to freedom of the press and expression. I believe, however, that the trends highlighted in these ten municipalities are common to the whole country.
In 2013-15, the ten municipalities you studied financed the local media for 2.7 million leva (1.4 million Euros) – what for?
The figures are actually much more important – 2.7 million were paid directly by the municipal budgets, but we must add EU funds, so the total nearly doubles. The trend is probably the same throughout Bulgaria, so we talk about really important numbers.
Officially, the funds finance joint projects between municipalities and local media for publishing materials, municipal documents, and advertisements. Yet, the contracts often add the words „and publication of other texts“, i.e. articles or radio and television services paid for by administrations.
Are readers, listeners, and viewers informed about the nature of such materials?
Absolutely not – contracts do not prescribe the acknowledgement of such materials as commercial, not to mention the fact that many media and materials are financed without any official contract. For example, the documents received by the city of Vratsa (northwestern Bulgaria) show that many payments towards the media were made directly from the municipal coffers, without any specification of the reason for payment – a situation that concerns many of the administrations considered.
Are these funds received by municipalities vital or marginal to the media budget?
They are absolutely vital, as they often cover most of the expenses necessary to the very existence of such media. Sometimes municipalities pay directly the salaries of journalists tasked with monitoring the activities of the local administration.
The situation is made more difficult by the low levels of remuneration of journalists outside Sofia, often under 500 leva per month (250 Euros) – in such conditions, with relatively little money, local governments are easily able to secure the support of journalists and therefore control over everything that is broadcast or published in one municipality.
Are EU funds also used to finance local media?
European funds can be used very effectively by local governments to influence the editorial line of the local media. In the projects financed by the EU, about 1% of the budget is usually dedicated to the dissemination of the results obtained – a crucial operation, but one that is often bent to the interests of the administration. An example: in Varna, in August 2015, a project for 115 million leva (60 million Euros) on the creation of an integrated public mobility system was declared completed and functional. To date, the system is not operational. Yet, in summer 2015 – an election year – 800,000 leva (400,000 Euros) were spent for the media coverage of a system that does not work: there’s a reasonable doubt that this money was spent for the benefit of the political forces that currently govern the city.
What should be done to avoid or at least limit this type of abuse?
We need more effective control mechanisms. And some rules should be revised – in the case of Varna, for example, the municipality was, in fact, able to decide which media were to be funded. Furthermore, many of the awarded companies and media outlets – but this is another chronic problem in Bulgaria – were connected, directly or indirectly, with then Minister of Youth and Sports Krasen Kralev.
Is funding local media required by law?
Yes, indeed there are many instances where the publication of documents and records of the media authorities is a legal obligation. The problem lies in the way these operations are managed, with funding that often rewards media in exchange for support, and in the type of material published, often – as mentioned – covert advertising for local administrations.
Your analysis was conducted thanks to the law on access to public information. Were municipalities open to provide data on funding to regional media?
This law is one of the best things in recent years for Bulgarian journalism, as it provides a legal basis for requesting information from administrations at all levels, including online. During my investigation, however, many municipalities did not know how to respond to requests for information. In some cases, as with the municipality of Blagoevgrad (southwestern Bulgaria), my requests were met with complete refusal, with arguments that have nothing to do with the dictates of the law in question.
In general, is it difficult for correspondents and local media to protect their freedom of expression?
I think it is a lot harder for those who live and work outside Sofia. Far from the capital, pressure mechanisms are much more direct and effective. The level of pay, three to four times lower than in Sofia, makes journalists much more vulnerable. Not least, journalists in small towns are often isolated and cannot rely on a professional community that can step in and protect colleagues in case of problems or threats – this is something we seldom think of, but that I see as absolutely decisive.