Media Freedom Up against All Odds in Bulgaria
Bulgaria is a small country located in the heart of the Balkans which managed to obtain EU membership six years ago.
The country rarely appears in the Western press and it stays in the background of its more famous and bigger neighbors such as Greece, Turkey and Romania.
I was born in Bulgaria. What I can remember from my childhood and the years spent growing up in the country is the constant hope for a better life and anticipation for change. In the early 90's the change was concentrated at the idea of moving from a communistic system to a more democratic and free society. Later on the population embraced the notion of EU membership with hope for a more prosperous future, a better standard of life, employment opportunities and financial stability.
The reality, however, was different. The newly acquired democracy, after more than 40 years of communistic regime, brought a deep economic crisis, unemployment and inflation.
After six years of EU membership Bulgaria remains the last of all EU countries in freedom of the press, according to Reporters Without Borders. Bulgaria is described as a country where "the process of reform came to nothing and where the internet ceased to be a safe place for freelance journalists."
The latest EC report on progress in Bulgaria under the cooperation and verification mechanism had high expectations as it provided a comprehensive assessment on the past five years of Bulgaria's 'conditional' EU membership. The report clearly states the need for external pressure, thus raising the problem of reform from a local level to an European issue.
One of the main concerns in the country remains the lack of transparency in media ownership and financing. The population does not know how the media is being financed or governed and questions the existence of independent journalism in Bulgaria. "Corporate journalism" as it is called in Bulgaria undermines the credibility of most media and creates distrust among journalists. This is the conclusion of the Press Freedom mission conducted by The Vienna-based South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO) in April 2012. The purpose of the visit to Bulgaria was to acquire a better understanding of the media situation in the country.
Some of the other highlights of the report are:
“Respecting the business interests of media owners and silencing any information that may be interpreted as harmful is widely accepted by most reporters as a way of doing journalism. Even independent media, valued for their intellectual content, and unrelated to the above-mentioned groups, abstain from addressing those economic areas where their owners are active. For example, if an owner is in the oil business, one abstains from writing in-depth articles about energy.”
“Foreign media ownership is perceived as advantageous for media outlets and journalists. Foreign owners are perceived as credible, long-term thinking and generally absent from day to day editorial decisions….Bulgarian media owners, on the other hand, with less than two decades of capitalist experience, are perceived as investors with short-term vision who strive for immediate profits.”
“This business model has influenced the quality of media: most dailies have become tabloids.”
“SEEMO has observed that Bulgarian journalists fail to address certain topics related to diversity: gender and gender violence, homophobia, ethnic and religious minorities, to mention several. These issues are addressed occasionally, if there is a particular incident, generally negative, that triggers coverage. Bulgarian society and the political arena have not started debating these social topics, which top the EU’s policy agenda in other countries.”
Lybomira Konstantinova, editor at Bulgarian National Radio summarised the situation in a personal exchange: “Currently the media owners in Bulgaria follow their own political and economic interests and it is almost impossible to speak about the existence of independent journalism. In most media outlets the employees have to follow the requirements of the management and have to comply with the set procedures. The situation in the labour market is critical so they prefer to remain silent in order to keep their jobs. The competition among the workforce and the fear of unemployment prevent journalists from voicing their problems even through the media. Change of ownership regulations in the recent years only increased the monopolisation of the media sphere and independent outlets are a rarity.”
The issue of the monopolisation of media ownership is also covered by the Association of European Journalists – Bulgaria (AEJ-Bulgaria). In an open letter to the EU Commissioner for telecommunications and the commission’s head of media policy and regulation, Ms Neelie Kroes, the members of the association state: ”We are concerned that an attempt is made to establish a monopoly on the Bulgarian media market, and in particular on the print media. There are indications that certain economic circles are trying to concentrate ownership of the majority of the most popular publications and electronic media.”
As a result, the prospects for media independence and freedom in Bulgaria appear extremely weak. The broadcasting regulatory body has been accused of politicisation, corruption, and other irregularities when making licensing decisions. Legal uncertainty, the pressure exerted by politics and the economy, and the fact that democratic values are not fully embedded do not support media freedom on the country. In a sector driven by corporate interests and sometimes political interests, the media owners do not have the incentive to provide truthful and critical news coverage. While physical violence against journalists still continues to be a real threat, a silencing of critical journalism is more commonly achieved through ownership and economic pressures.
Recently Bulgarian journalist Spas Spassov, who is a correspondent of the online media Dnevnik.bg and the weekly newspaper Capital in the Bulgarian city Varna, witnessed that pressure firsthand. He received a “gift” of Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” with a note quoting the book: “If you cannot make friends or win them, it is better to leave them alone.” The note was signed by Marin Mitev, a co-owner of TIM Holding– one of the most powerful economic groups in Bulgaria, related to a controversial investment project in Varna’s biggest park, ‘The Sea Garden.” Spas Spassov has been continuously reporting on and investigating the project, which provoked numerous protests by Varna’s citizens.
On a positive note, there is growing awareness on the need for social monitoring of the media. Online media is becoming increasingly important, and journalism is increasingly finding shelter here, with personal journalists’ blogs and investigative news sites. While offering space for critical expression and even anonymity when necessary, these alternative platforms rarely generate adequate revenues to ensure their sustainability, so despite their clear democratic potential, they still cannot be considered a full match for their mainstream counterparts.