October 17, 2014 / By Svetla Dimitrova
Media concentration and lack of ownership transparency are a major obstacle to media pluralism and freedom in Bulgaria. According to media law expert Nelly Ognyanova, neither of these obstacles can be removed without political will. Interview
A campaign in support of a European Citizens Initiative on Media Pluralism was underway across the EU in 2014. Bulgaria became the first country in the 28-nation bloc to collect the required number of signatures in support of the initiative, including a proposal for the Union to adopt new regulations on transparency of media ownership and on restraining the big media empires on its territory. A high level of support for the initiative was recorded also in Italy and Hungary. According to Bulgarian media law expert Prof. Nelly Ognyanova, those results were not surprising given the alarming levels of media concentration and media unfreedom registered in the three countries.
Here is what she also said in late September in an e-mail interview on the situation in Bulgaria, where excessive concentration and lack of transparency of ownership are viewed as the most critical problems for the country’s media sector.
The lack of transparency of media ownership has often been cited as one of the distinctive features of Bulgarian media in recent years. How has this problem affected the Bulgarian media sector?
The diagnosis is clear to everyone: there are unregulated links between media, money and power, leading to unfreedom, journalism to order and stifling of free speech. Media retreat from their function to inform people, turning instead into a tool for driving the competition and political opponents into a corner.
We cannot have professional and responsible journalism if the citizens do not know who it is that is talking and if the media are not held accountable for any incorrect or manipulative information. Bulgarian citizens have no clue as to who actually owns and controls the media. The prevailing opinion here is that this is one of the crucial problems of the media sector here, and this is also noted in independent international media freedom surveys.
The main reason is the desire of the people in power to use the media for their own political and corporate interests, to interfere in their managing, and to exercise various forms of control over content. That is why there are no political will and effective measures to ensure transparency of media ownership and control.
There are various forms of circumventing the legal requirements for establishing the true owners of a media outlet. For instance, it is not uncommon to see people who are allowed to exercise control outside the rules to be posing as consultants. It is a public secret that Krasimir Gergov, a former agent of the communist-era State Security (SS) services and owner of advertising agencies, has some influence over certain television and radio stations. He claimed that he was their consultant, but it turned out eventually that he had a share of the ownership and a contract allowing him to exercise control over the selection of the people in charge of the newsroom.
Another public secret is that Delyan Peevski, an MP of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), a predominantly ethnic Turkish party, controls a group of print media. While Peevski did not list this business, or proceeds thereof, in his statements as a deputy, he referred to “my media” in interviews, like in the one, in which he said: “the deputy prime minister wanted my media to put a protective umbrella over several crime bosses”. Formally, the media group is owned by the MP’s mother.
It is no secret, either, that Tsvetan Vassilev, the majority shareholder of the Corporate Commercial Bank (Corpbank), is linked to companies holding digital terrestrial television broadcasting authorisations (right of use for individually assigned scarce resource – radiofrequency spectrum). The rights to digital TV are currently held by companies with offshore property. Other media owners also use offshore companies to make sure that the true owners cannot be easily identified.
Some media professionals here say that it is important to know not only who the true owner is, but also the true sources of funding channeled into a newspaper, a TV station or an online edition. Do you agree with this?
It is not enough to know who the owners of the media are, but the sources of funding also need to be monitored, because financial dealings can open the door for exercising control over media content. According to the register of media ownership, Sofia-based dailies 24 Chasa (24 Hours) and Trud(Labour) are owned by journalist Venelina Gocheva, but it turns out that they were funded by businesses, which got loans from Corpbank. This fact of indirect funding, which was unveiled recently, is undoubtedly connected to some commissioned articles promoting the bank’s head and his inner circle.
It was a public secret that television stations TV7 and NEWS7 were funded by Corpbank. This fact is interesting because for the second time in Bulgaria’s modern history we have a new political party, Bulgaria Without Censorship (BWC), emerging and gaining clout as an offshoot of a TV program, running under the same name. The host of that program, Nikolay Barekov, who subsequently headed the BWC party, has repeatedly denied that TV7 and his party were in any way linked to Corpbank. However, it was the bank’s head, Tsvetan Vassilev, who confirmed the existence of such links in recent interviews. Again, as in the case with Krasimir Gergov, we see Vassilev posing as a financial consultant of the company that owns TV7.
The legally required registers for establishing the owners of Bulgarian media are based on the owners’ declarations. No institution has so far taken any effective steps to check the veracity of any of the “public secrets” I mentioned earlier. But they usually prove to be true in the event of some conflict between the owners or change of ownership. At the same time there are media, which have been sanctioned over publications whose authors could not substantiate their conjectures about the identity of a media’s concealed owners. Deutsche Welle ran several publications of this type in 2013 to then say that it was terminating the contracts of two Bulgaria-based correspondents over their “breach of journalistic standards”. It was only recently that Tsvetan Vassilev admitted in one of his latest interviews that “there are a number of companies served by Corpbank whose owners are nominal. The ultimate owner is not identified”.
Irena Krasteva’s New Bulgarian Media Group Holding bought a number of print and electronic media several years ago. What is the effect of such a concentration of media in the hands of one individual or a small group of individuals?
Media concentrations are a major obstacle to media pluralism and a key source of press unfreedom. Under the existing law in Bulgaria, media concentrations fall within the purview of the competition laws (the Law on the Protection of Competition) and the oversight body is the competition regulator (the Commission for Protection of Competition). The media law lays down only a general principle that a media licensing application must not be in violation of the competition protection legislation. Unfortunately, this general provision in the Law on Radio and Televisionhas proven inadequate.
Other EU countries have adopted special legislation aimed at preventing and limiting media concentrations, so that the issue is being dealt with separately.
In conclusion there are two main obstacles for the successful reduction of media concentrations in Bulgaria: the non-transparent ownership, which makes the drawing of accurate assessments of media outlets’ influence impossible; and the absence of specialized legislation regulating media concentration. Neither of these obstacles can be removed if there is no political will for this.
Is the lack of transparency of media ownership due to loopholes or ambiguous provisions in the legislation, or the reasons for this are different?
The Bulgarian law, particularly the Law on Radio and Television and the Law on Mandatory Deposition of Press and Other Works, require the submission of declarations identifying the actual owners of electronic and print media outlets, respectively. Public registers are available in electronic format. A law imposing restrictions on offshore companies to acquire assets in different areas, including the media sector, was passed several months ago. In addition, media are obliged to provide information about their ownership upon request, in conformity with an explicit provision of the Law on Access to Public Information.
Irrespective of the existence of transparency obligations, there are media outlets whose ownership cannot be proven, or the information listed in the register arouses suspicion. The transparency requirements are constantly being circumvented, without this leading to any sanctions. Apparently, the first problem concerns the application of the existing legal requirements. Another problem ensues from the requirements themselves: the envisioned means for scrutinizing and revealing the actual owners are not effective enough. The law should provide opportunities for a thorough examination of not only the ownership, but the origin of funding of media outlets as well.
What steps need to be taken to deal with the media ownership and concentration problems in Bulgaria?
The adoption of measures to ensure the transparency of media ownership and control, coupled with the introduction of a mechanism for continuous monitoring of media pluralism could provide a way out of the current crisis.
The goal is to prevent any individual owner from having too much influence over public opinion and the political agenda in future. The important issues that need to be addressed include:
- ensuring the independence of the media supervision bodies, both from politicians, as well as corporate interests;
- imposing a ban on the appointment of media oligarchs to high-level positions in the state administration;
- introduction of a monitoring system to regularly check the “health” and independence of the media and media pluralism;
- ensuring professional and responsible journalism and restricting the opportunities for media to be used as an instrument for dealing with difficult opponents and for running political errands; and
- sustainable development of strong and independent public media.
Can the problems in the media sector be resolved with amendments to the existing legislation or is there a need of a new law?
More and more people in Bulgaria are talking about the need of an entirely new convergent media law including uniform media content rules for both print and electronic media, as well as offering solutions to the above issues.
There are no effective legal obstacles to the expansion of media groups. In Bulgaria, the provisions of the competition law are applied for resolving issues in this area and anyone unhappy with media concentrations may ask the competition regulator, the Commission for the Protection of Competition, to solve the problem.
The experience of other countries has shown that media concentration is better regulated where there is a specialized media competition regulator (Norway) or where both the competition, as well as the media regulators are involved in the establishment of media concentrations (UK).
Post-concentration monitoring is essential, but it is equally important to make it impossible for an individual owner to gain too much clout. Hence, the focus should be on the appraisal and prevention of media consolidation on a regular basis, rather than just in response to intended mergers and acquisitions.
These measures should be introduced by law. The media will get an adequate legal framework, if there is political will. In brief, the development of free and democratic media in this country is also a function of the Bulgarian Parliament’s drive for democracy.
What is the role of media in this process?
Self-regulation plays an important role in setting the standards for freedom and pluralism. Journalistic associations are a key factor of pressure for the adoption of an adequate legal framework and protection of media freedom and media pluralism.
But it should be noted that there are certain issues that cannot be resolved without some involvement of the government. The codes of ethics cannot serve as a tool for preventing media concentrations, and even less so for reducing the number or scope of those already in place.
The European Commission warned earlier that media concentration can bring about the misappropriation of self-regulation by the big players in the market. A similar process is already observable in Bulgaria. Unfortunately, media ownership affects self-regulation in the sector. The complex relationships in the media industry have contributed to the current lack of a common and effective self-regulation.
It seems also important to recall the conclusions of a study , which found that the state of the media in a country is most strongly linked to the state of education there, rather than to the state of democracy or the quality of life. That is why the strive for free and independent media is not a one-time act, but a continuous process aimed at the development of not only professional and responsible journalism, but of free and educated audiences as well.
Report “It’s a Process: Findings of the European Catch-Up Index”. The 2013 edition of the European Catch-Up Index