From Sofia, journalists from 10 countries call on the EU to protect media freedom

17 May, 2018 / By Bulgarian presidency

Publishers and journalists from ten European countries have urged the European institutions to take measures to protect media freedom in Central and Eastern Europe from the attacks of the authorities in these countries. The “Media Freedom and Pluralism Conference” was held in Sofia on Wednesday (16 May), the day before the Western Balkans summit. Krassen Nikolov has the story.

Krassen Nikolov is a journalist specialised in judiciary affairs. He works for Mediapool and is a regular contributor for for the six months of the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU.

The participants to the conference unanimously requested the EU to set up a European “Media Freedom Fund”. Its aim is to protect the media and journalists and to support international journalistic investigations.

The Forum proposes that the allocation of EU structural funds beyond 2020 to be conditional not only with the rule of law but also with the freedom of the media in the EU member states. Another idea from the conference is that EU funds for the media should not be allocated via the governments. In Bulgaria, advertising for EU programs or EU tenders are allocated by the government to friendly media only.

Another call from the conference is a copyright reform at EU level which will benefit publishers who invest in original journalistic content vis-à-vis platforms such as Facebook and Google, which currently account for 90% of the digital advertising revenue.

“Freedom of the media in Europe: Red Code”: this is the title of the declaration of the forum in Sofia, which lists many examples of political control and repression of the media. It says that “the erosion observed in recent years of the European democratic model continues,” and that this trend “is becoming increasingly worrying.”

“The combination of various factors, such as journalists’ murders and physical threats against them,  growing political and institutional pressure, repressive legislation targeting the media, destructive technologies and the financial crisis, put the existence of free media in a number of European countries at risk. Two journalists’ murders in five months, the first in Malta and the second in Slovakia, show an alarming decline for the democracies of the continent”, the statement said.

The conference paid special attention to the worsening media environment in Bulgaria, Poland, Hungary, Malta, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Serbia. Journalists from these countries gave examples how politicians are constantly hindering their work and using the institutions to silence them.

Threats to journalists happen every day, because it is easy to threaten a journalist whose pay is low and working conditions are poor, said Matthijs Berman, the Principal Adviser of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media.

Mark Dekan, Chief Executive Officer of Ringier Axel Springer Media AG, pointed out that verbal and physical violence against journalists is already a sad reality in the EU. Pauline Ades-Mével , Eastern Europe’s Coordinator of Reporters Without Borders, gave as s sad example the host country. Bulgaria’s fall in the index of freedom of speech from the 59th place in 2008 to the 111th place in 2018 is related to the deterioration of the media situation and coincides with the three terms of office of Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, she stated.

Bulgaria’s case

In its part about Bulgaria, the declaration describes the main tools for pressure – the concentration of media ownership, the economic dependencies and the political control. A major problem is the monopoly on the distribution of the press. Reporters Without Borders reported that nearly 80% of the distribution was held unofficially by Delyan Peevski, an influential MP from the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, who owns the New Bulgarian Media Group.

“Since 2009, with short interruptions, Bulgaria has been governed by GERB and its leader and three-term prime minister – Boyko Borissov, who enjoys the comfort of the media controlled by Delyan Peevski. Prime Minister Borissov not only constantly refuses to admit that there is a threat to media freedom, but plays a key role in increasing Mr Peevsky’s access to public resources, while providing him with additional institutional tools for repression, including legislative decisions against the independent media”, the declaration says.

It adds : “The model also includes a strong influence on the government, prosecution and the judiciary, as well as control over most independent regulators. All this is a huge political and business conglomerate led by the current politician, former magistrate, businessman and media owner Delyan Slavchev Peevski”.

The only participant in the conference who did not agree with the final declaration, was the editor-in-chief of Monitor newspaper Lubomira Budakova. This newspaper is part of Peevsky’s media empire.

Budakova said the declaration of the conference was full of “fake news” in its part concerning Bulgaria, adding that the reason was that the media group to which she belongs had declared war on fake news.

This is not the first time Budakova makes the case that her boss Peevski is not the villain, but the victim.

Asen Yordanov, one of the creators of the Bivol investigation website, said that in Bulgaria media who dare to say that 2+2 equals 4, and not 3 or 5, are subject to discrediting campaigns. He said he had been attacked several times for his own journalistic work by acting politicians and prosecutors.

Lawyer Alexander Kashumov of the Access to Information Program added that it’s the journalists and media who criticise the status quo that are being attacked in Bulgaria. “Both the state apparatus and the legislative system are part of the repression”, he said.

MEP Mihal Boni ( Poland), from the EPP group, where GERB also sits, stressed that political affiliation should not be a reason not to name the problems, and that political views must in any case be as close as possible to the common democratic values.



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