Bulgarian Media: Lacking Money and Morals

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May 3, Global Press Freedom Day

Bulgaria’s ranking in freedom of press, published by Freedom House on the eve of May 3, the global press freedom day, is slipping down once again. Even though the country went down by just one spot, compared to last year, the trend that began in 2005 is continuing. A trend which can be noticed in the rankings of another large human rights organization “Reporters without Borders.”

The reasons for this trend are complex and have been analyzed in detail in the report on Bulgaria of Reporters without Borders, published in February 2009. It stresses on “power reflexes,” inherited by the totalitarian pass; economic pressure on journalists; murky ownership of large media and the role of the shady groups, striking terror of physical retribution with the non-conformists.

Several months later, in the eve of the general elections, American Ambassador Nancy McEldowney sends a classified report to the State Department, focused on Bulgarian media [09SOFIA304], where the diagnosis is harsh and the language far away from diplomatic: venality, corruption, political servitude, paid for with dirty money from the gray economy.

Political parties, paying journalists, publishers and TV producers under the table for interviews and news stories, are the main corrupting factors, journalists have shared with the Ambassador. The champions here are the ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms, DPS, followed by the Bulgarian Socialist Party, BSP, and the party of former King and Prime Minister, Simeon Saxe-Coburg – National Movement for Stability and Prosperity, NDSV, who have a well-established history of paying for press coverage, McEldowney believes. According to the Ambassador, the center-right parties (Democrats for Strong Bulgaria, DSB, and Union of Democratic Forces, UDF) previously paid only for advertisements. Also in the past, the now-ruling Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria, GERB, relied mainly on the charisma of the party’s informal leader Boiko Borissov for coverage, who often called or texted journalists directly. The cable does not say more about the actual relations between GERB and the press.

Popular TV journalist Svetla Petrova, who recently left Bulgaria’s largest private TV channel bTV, where she hosted the political show Seismograph, commented for Bivol on McEldowney’s cable on Bulgarian media the following way:

“I can say that it is a deeply moving read and a surgically precise analysis of the state of Bulgarian media in general and of Bulgarian journalism in particular… “

According to Petrova in popular TV emissions where politicians are interviewed “everything is arranged, even the critical questions.”

What Ambassador McEldowney had missed is the official purchase of media by those in power, through the so-called contracts for “media information services.” A report of the Bulgarian National Audit Office, cited by Deutsche Welle, shows that during the 2008-2009 period just the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy gave 16 media outlets 603 272 leva from taxpayers’ money. With scores of ministries and agencies, feeding from the State budget and with local municipalities added – we have a multimillion gray information market.

When we have such financial dependency from politicians and institutions, media wash away, beyond recognition, the boundaries between paid PR and authentic information and journalism.

Another factor for dependence, missed by Nancy McEldowney, is the strong presence of former collaborators of the Communist Political Police – State Security, DS, among owners and editors from the country’s largest electronic and print media.

The result from all this is the decline of investigative journalism and of media pluralism, pressured by gray economy interests and media owners, tangled in political and business deals among each other and the State, and with those shady circles of power, created by DS employees during the Transition Period.

Analysis of information from diplomatic cables in Bulgaria, Serbia, Kosovo and Macedonia, which have been made available to Bivol, shows the level of press freedom is a more specific problem for Bulgaria than for neighboring “less European countries.” For example the word censorship can be found several times, but just once in the context of self-censorship in the already quoted cable from Sofia [09SOFIA304].

Other grounds for regional comparison are reactions of the civil society to attempts of those in power to restrict media freedom. While in Bulgaria the last legal amendment, imposing strict penalties for vaguely defined “discriminating” publications did not generate firm and loud public opposition, in Serbia a similar Act almost toppled the ruling coalition, a cable, sent from Belgrade and dated April, 2010, reveals [09BELGRADE791].

However, intertwining of business, politics and media is observed in neighboring Greece, a long-time member of the European family. In a cable from 2006, released by Wikileaks’ partner, the daily Kathimerini, former U.S. Ambassador to Athens, Charles Rhys, offers a colorful comparison for the ties between owners of Greek media, politicians and the government: “relationships more complicated and incestuous than those among the gods, the demigods, and the human beings of Greek myth.”

Without knowing in details relationships at Mount Olympus, Bulgarian readers obviously recognize the “incestuous” events, preceding publications in “serious” press, because they defect to tabloids more and more – a fact, which, as a whole, lowers the quality of journalism.

***

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