News Media in Bulgaria Struggle for Independence
From The New York Times
By Boryana Dzhambazova
The European Commission has vowed to monitor media freedoms closely in Bulgaria, where rival political and business groups have taken control of top news organizations and used them to promote their interests.
Neelie Kroes, the European commissioner for telecommunications and the commission's head of media policy and regulation, has said she will ask to meet with the relevant players when she travels to Sofia in September for a conference on broadband Internet.
Ms. Kroes said in an e-mail that she had monitored a growing number of reports of reduced freedom of the news media in Bulgaria. "I have also read about violence and death threats against journalists," Ms. Kroes wrote. "This is alarming."
In one example, a Bulgarian journalist, Lidia Pavlova, who writes on organized crime for the daily newspaper Struma, has reportedly received a number of threats. In May, her son's car was set on fire in the southwestern town of Dupnitsa, where her she and her family live.
The European Newspaper Publishers' Association has also announced plans to investigate allegations of curbs on media freedom in Bulgaria, said Francine Cunningham, executive director of the organization.
More than two decades after the fall of Communism, Bulgaria, which joined the European Union in 2007, is still struggling to build a strong and independent news media. Reporters Without Borders , a group that defends media freedom worldwide, ranked Bulgaria 80th in its most recent World Press Freedom index , placing it last among E.U. members. The country's ranking has declined steadily since 2006, when it placed 35th.
While the country's laws provide protections for a free media, the South East Europe Media Organization, known as Seemo, portrayed a different picture in a report released in April. "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," the report said.
When Seemo representatives visited Sofia in April, Bulgarian editors and journalists said that business and political interests were determining what journalists could write and how they covered certain topics and public figures.
Oliver Vujovic, a former journalist and secretary general of Seemo, said the involvement of media groups in politics or other businesses was a slippery slope, with owners turning their holdings "into promotional tools."
"Media owners are also active in some other businesses, and this can become dangerous," he said. He described the situation as nothing less than an "open war" that undermined the democratic development of Bulgaria.
Media observers say that Bulgaria needs to take measures to make media ownership more transparent. Many outlets are struggling to survive in the small market, in which advertising money is often scarce. Those difficult conditions prevent strong competitors from emerging to keep political and business meddling in check. In addition, many of the country's journalists lack sufficient training.
Two groups that hold major stakes in the national media are New Bulgarian Media Group, which is controlled by Irena Krasteva, a former head of the state lottery whose son, Delian Peevski, is a member of Parliament. Since 2007, the group has acquired five newspapers and a television station.
The other major player emerged at the end of 2010 when WAZ Media Group of Germany sold two mass-circulation dailies, Trud and 24 Chasa, to a consortium that included Ognian I. Donev, the chairman and executive director of Sopharma, the biggest pharmaceutical company in Bulgaria; Lyubomir Pavlov, a former banker; and Hristo Grozev, a businessman and media consultant.
New Bulgarian Media published a series of stories this year on the high prices of medicines produced by Mr. Donev's company. Trud and 24 Chasa struck back, accusing Ms. Krasteva of unfair practices.
That same month, Bulgarian prosecutors charged Mr. Pavlov with money laundering and document fraud, and Mr. Donev also was charged with money laundering. The charges centered on the acquisition of the newspapers from WAZ Media Group.
In July, Mr. Pavlov and Mr. Donev were charged with other financial crimes by Bulgarian prosecutors that were unrelated to their media businesses. They deny any wrongdoing.
The latest confrontation between the media empires broke out when the publications in Mr. Donev's group experienced distribution problems, setting off a wave of accusations between the two publishing groups.
Georgi Lozanov, a media analyst and head of the Council for Electronic Media in Bulgaria, has called for new laws to better protect journalists, including editorial independence from publishers, more ownership transparency and stronger unions for journalists. "Capital standing behind media shouldn't create content," Mr. Lozanov said.
For Marius Dragomir, a media analyst in London, things are likely to get worse ahead of elections scheduled in Bulgaria next year. "These two media groups are gearing up for the elections and this is just the beginning of a media war," he said.
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