DTT and ASO – Bulgaria's New Abbreviations for Corruption?*
Well, it is finally official – Bulgaria will not declare void the controversial tenders for the operation of what will be the country's DTT multiplexes.
Despite pressure from Brussels.
"There is to our knowledge no EC requirement for the annulment of the competitions," Bulgaria's Transport Ministry said last week as it replied to a list of questions submitted by Kapital Daily.
The replies also showed that the government in Sofia is not aware exactly what steps it has to take to ensure open and non-discriminatory access to the digital terrestrial broadcasting infrastructure market, as required by Brussels.
But what Brussels said clear enough for everyone to understand is that the deals for the multiplexes - bundles, which group digital TV and radio stations and transmit the signal - breach EU law.
Bulgaria's government has two months – up to May 22 – to clean up its act. Or face the EU highest court and be forced to pay hefty fines, worth up to EUR 200.000 per day.
The government however does not seem at all frightened by the looming threat.
"The European Commission is well aware that declaring the tenders void could prompt the winners to sue Bulgaria for damages, which is hardly a better scenario than being fined by Brussels," the ministry said.
Does this sound like the government is determined to defend the interests of the audience and the values of transparent business?
No, I don't think so.
Does this sound like the government will prefer to throw some dust into the eyes of Brussels officials, keeping the knot of intertwined suspicious ties, unconstitutional laws and corrupted tenders intact?
Yes, I think so.
The European Commission launched infringement proceedings over the DTT licences awarded in 2009 in May 2011. This followed complaints from Austria's transmission company, Oesterreichischer Rundfunksender GmbH & Co KG (ORS) against allegedly conflicting requirements for the eligible bidders in the mux contests, which drove it away.
The requirements in fact made possible a near monopoly on the mux market as all companies which were granted licences are linked in one way or another to Tsvetan Vassilev, majority owner of Bulgaria's Corporate Commercial Bank.
Here is a short timeline of Bulgaria's multiplex saga:
1. The previous Socialist-led ruling coalition awarded in 2009 licences for the first two national multiplexes to Latvia's Hannu Pro and Slovakia's Towercom. Austria's ORS also participated in the contests, but was forced to drop out because it is a major shareholder in the Austrian national television ORF. The contests came in the wake of legal amendments the coalition adopted hurriedly and on the sly in the last minutes of its term.
2. Everyone knew that the deals were just schemes that seal the love between the ruling coalition and the media tycoons they favor. The hopes were that this incest will be stopped by the center-right government of Boyko Borisov, which came into office in the summer of 2009. But all of a sudden, the Bulgarian communications watchdog picked Latvia-based Hannu Pro to operate what will be the country's public service DTT multiplex, which will distribute the digital programs of the national state-owned television BNT and radio BNR.
3. In 2010, Cyprus-based international financial investor Mancelord Limited acquired a 50% stake in Bulgaria's radio and television broadcasting unit NURTS, which covers nearly all of the country with its network of radio and television broadcasting services. Mancelord Limited is represented in Bulgaria by Bromak Ltd., majority shareholder in Bulgaria's Corporate Commercial Bank Ltd. Bromak also holds a stake in the media group of mogul Irena Krasteva, who is believed to be funded by Corporate Commercial Bank.
4. Shortly afterwards Slovakia's Towercom was acquired by NURTS Bulgaria, a joint venture between the Bulgarian Telecommunications Company, rebranded as Vivacom, and Cyprus-based international financial investor Mancelord Limited.
At first it was not clear who stands behind the foreign investors Towercom and Hannu Pro, but soon the names of Tsvetan Vassilev, head of Bulgaria's Corporate Commercial Bank and Irena Krasteva, a media mogul, believed to be funded by the bank and ethnic Turkish leader Ahmed Dogan, popped up in all deals.
The government has boasted that the new amendments and the contest for the seventh multiplex will allow companies such as Austria's ORS, which have TV channels outside Bulgaria, to participate in the new DTT contest.
Experts however say that the new procedure is a mere attempt to throw dust in the eyes of Brussels officials.
The seventh multiplex will be just a collection of frequencies and its holder - in a much more disadvantaged position than Hannu Pro and Towercom, which have already grabbed the lion's share of the market, according to them.
Doesn't it sound like corruption continues to blight Bulgaria, putting off investors and hindering growth?
*DTT – abbreviation for digital terrestrial television. Bulgaria's Ministry of Transport has drafted new legislation proposing March 2013 as the deadline for the launch of digital terrestrial television
ASO – abbreviation for analogue switch-off. Bulgaria's Ministry of Transport has drafted new legislation proposing September 2013 as the deadline for analogue switch-off