Gravely damaged media pluralism

The Economist„, Apr 23rd 2013

ONE of the most discussed issues in Bulgarian media is the topic of the deteriorating media freedom in the country. Consistently ranking last among European Union members the country keeps regressing. Bulgaria now ranks 87th in Reporters Without Borders’ latest annual Press Freedom Index, down from 35th in 2006.

“There is a growing concern that most of the media have retreated from their main function, to inform the public on relevant topics,” says Nelly Ognyanova, a Bulgarian media law expert. “The media is often serving political parties and various economic groups.”

Several calls from abroad underline Ms Ognyanova’s assessment: the American Department of State counts the “gravely damaged media pluralism” in the country as one of its most pressing human rights problems; the European commissioner for digital agenda, Neelie Kroes, wrote a letter to the then prime minister Boyko Borisov urging him to protect independent media. Matthias Höpfner, the German Ambassador to Bulgaria, is often quoted commenting on the “dangerous challenges” facing the media freedom in the country.

One of these challenges is the fact that “reporters continue to face pressure and intimidation aimed at protecting economic, political, and criminal interests“, Freedom House wrote in its latest “Freedom of the Press” report. The pressure comes from all sides, even from the state: in early April a journalist, Boris Mitov, was questioned by prosecutors in connection with an article of his that alleged a connection between the Sofia deputy city prosecutor, Roman Vassilev, and illicit wiretapping. Mr Mitov was pressured to reveal his sources. When he declined he was reportedly told that he could be jailed for up to five years for disclosing state secrets.

Last summer, Spas Spassov, an investigative journalist from Varna, received a more subtle reminder of the boundaries journalists should not cross: after a series of critical articles on a local business group, he got Sun Tzu’s“The Art of War“ in his mail. Included was a note quoting a passage from the book: “You should avoid those you can’t either defeat or befriend.”

Another distinctive feature of Bulgarian media is the lack of transparency of who owns it  “Media ownership in Bulgaria is like a Matryoshka doll: there is always one figure behind the other,” says Orlin Spassov at Sofia University. For instance, New Bulgarian Media Group, a company with close ties to the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, a political party, owns numerous high-circulation newspapers and a popular TV channel. Before the parliamentary elections in 2009, the newspapers owned by the group were highly critical of the Movement’s political rival, the GERB party and its leader, Boyko Borisov. After GERB won the elections, the group’s papers changed their tone overnight and became strong supporters of Mr Borisov.

One Matryoshka doll behind, the New Bulgarian Media Group is largely financed by the Corporate Commercial Bank (CCB). As it happens, in recent years the rather small private bank held a large portion of the funds of the state-owned enterprises in the energy, transport and defence sectors. This means, observers say, that the CCB is, in effect, financing the group’s media outlets, including the country’s highest-circulation newspaper, Telegraph, with public funds.

This is not an isolated case. Financial troubles in the media industry have left many outlets depending on public funds. (The advertising market has contracted by more than a third since 2008.) While there are no official subsidies for the press, according to Freedom House, the advertising expenditures of state agencies represent the second-largest source of advertising revenue for the print media. Since 2009, the state, through its ministries and government agencies, has directed over 28m leva ($19.5m) to private media by placing advertisements and launching information campaigns. Most of these funds come from the EU’s programmes. A telling anecdote is the case of a 25-year-old former employee of the Ministry of Agriculture and Food who received €50.000 for the task of creating Facebook and Twitter profiles for promoting the EU’s Rural Development Programme.

“It is widely believed that by using public resources the authorities are securing media comfort,” says Nelly Ognyanova. “The EU membership did not lead to more media freedom. On the contrary, EU funds are increasing the rift between media close to the government and the rest.”

This rift is becoming especially apparent during election campaigns. Bulgaria is facing a snap poll on May 12th after the government resigned amid mass protest earlier this year. The (legal) practise of political parties paying for coverage becomes problematic since the paid-for political reports are rarely identified as such.  The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) noted on the previous election campaign in 2011 that “virtually all campaign coverage in the media had to be paid which resulted in a near-absence of editorial coverage of the campaign”. Not much seems to have changed this time around as the Council for Electronic Media, the independent media regulator in the country, has acknowledged.

Election coverage, opaque ownership structures and harassment of journalists are the main reasons for the deterioration of media freedom in Bulgaria. Some disagree. According to Tzvetan Vassilev, a banker, there is too much media freedom in Bulgaria. Mr Vassilev is the majority shareholder in the CCB.

The same article as it apears in „The Economist“