Nadia Damon in Sofia -
With campaigning officially underway for the May 12 elections in Bulgaria, the role the media could play in the outcome is attracting close scrutiny.
Mass protests at the start of the year - kicked off by high electricity bills, poor wages and corruption - may have prompted Boyko Borisov's government to make an early exit from office, but many fear it is the country's media owners who will ultimately determine the next vote.
Choosing a side for the political mudslinging may be nothing out of the ordinary in any country, but what is increasingly concerning observers such as the South East Europe Media Organisation, an NGO based in Vienna, is the effect that ownership issues are having on editorial in Bulgaria.
Following a visit to the country in 2012, it claimed that the departure of German-based Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung from the sector had set the stage for worrying levels of capital influence from domestic stakeholders.
The US Department of State is the Bulgarian media industry's most recent - and high profile - critic. Publishing its annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2012, it cites numerous examples of attempts to curb press freedom and echoed recent comments made by the International Research and Exchanges Board that editorial bias and the sale of news content are additional major problems for the quality of journalism. "Concerns persisted about [the] deterioration of the media environment due to corporate and political pressure that, combined with the growing concentration of media ownership, gravely damaged media pluralism in Bulgaria," the April report states.
Such fears are justified, according to Kristina Hristova, president of the Association of European Journalists - Bulgaria. "Prejudicial reporting is a common practice, as much of the Bulgarian media belongs to monopoly groups combining political and economic interests," she says.
The elections aside, animal rights campaigners claim that the recent acquisition of Bulgaria's TV7 channel by London-based Alegro Capital has done little to curb editorial bias on cultural issues. They allege that a March news item featuring an angry mob breaking into Dr George Litov's garden in the village of Selcha and beating his disabled rescue dog, Borko, was wholly one-sided - making no mention of the illegal acts taking place.
Alegro recently launched a dedicated 7News channel and has signed an affiliation with Turner Broadcasting to use exclusive access to video and newsgathering resources from flagship news channel CNN. In return, News7 will give CNN access to its own reports from Bulgaria.
Alegro Capital failed to respond to bne enquiries about how much input it has in the editorial policies of these channels.
The problems in Bulgaria were highlighted in January by the latest Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index, which revealed that the Balkan country had slipped another seven places in the annual ranking to 87th - leaving it bottom of the EU member states. This slide is put sharply into focus by Bulgaria's position in 2006 before it joined the US, which was a respectable 35th - putting it ahead of the US, as well as future EU stablemates Italy, Spain, Poland and Romania.
While she makes the point that the intimidation of journalists remains a factor, Hristova actually attributes this spectacular fall from grace to the restrictions brought about by the strong economic pressure exerted rather than open physical aggression. "This is even more dangerous because readers don't have the impression that the media is not free," she continues, "so they are not suspicious about the information they are receiving."
According to Hristova, one such example has already taken place in the run-up to the elections, with the green party Zelenite, which is trying to stop further development of the Black Sea coastline and the ski resort of Bansko, being attacked by a media group receiving a cash injection by one of the country's biggest monopolists.
Such news will come as no surprise to EU Vice-President Neelie Kroes, who visited the country in the autumn of 2012 to discuss this issue with representatives from various sections of the media as part of an EU-wide initiative to tackle the question of media freedom and pluralism.
The complaints that Kroes heard on her trip were manifold - ranging from journalists claiming their efforts to accurately report events are subject to threats and intimidation; to allegations of the aforementioned "corporate" journalism by media groups with interests in other industries and advertising revenue (compounded by the fact that ownership of digital media does not need to be declared in Bulgaria); and prejudicial reporting on the basis of a political or social agenda.
Journalist organisations including AEJ used the meeting to call on the EU to expand the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) to include the media - although for her part, Kroes is clearly keen to keep things on a national footing. "There are many claims and counter-claims about problems in the Bulgarian media," Kroes tells bne. "You don't get all that unless there is a problem at the bottom of it. But from Brussels it is hard to know who and what to believe, so aside from a question of what the EU's legal powers are, that's a good reason why Bulgarians themselves must be the first ones to work to improve the situation. I am happy to help bring people together to take the debate forward, but I cannot wave a wand and solve everything."
While an extension of the CVM is technically possible (something that has happened in Romania), EU spokesman Mark Gray further confirmed to bne that it was highly unlikely to occur in Bulgaria. Instead, Kroes' department is pressing forward with an open consultation across the EU (until June 2013), encouraging debates at both EU and national level to examine whether Brussels should intervene in order to guarantee regulator independence for audiovisual media.
While Hristova concedes that little has changed on the ground in the wake of the EU vice-president's visit, with the media still being used as a political weapon without scruple or consequences for those breaking the ethical code, she does point to a growing solidarity between journalists - bolstered by the feeling that Bulgaria's citizens are waking up to the problem.
Earlier in April, journalists took to the steps of Sofia's Palace of Justice with duct tape over their mouths to protest against the questioning of Mediapool reporter Boris Mitov over his use of court records in an article on wire-tapping - a situation that Hristova says is a perfect example of how some people in authority within Bulgaria see themselves as being above the law.
The ongoing challenges that journalists in Bulgaria face was colourfully highlighted in February - when the then PM Borisov reportedly told journalists attempting to question him about his past connections that he was in a position to cook up smear campaigns against them via the secret service.
Reporters Without Borders immediately voiced its dismay at those comments, claiming in a statement that they were better suited to the Cold War era. Making reference to Bulgaria's place in its 2013 ranking, it added: "Borisov has unfortunately confirmed our fears and is directly helping to maintain an uncertain and dangerous environment for journalists."
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