Media regulation in Bulgaria over the past 13 years (in 1998 the Law for Radio and Television that is currently in force was adopted) has looked more and more like that fairytale about the emperor’s new clothes.
In recent months, the European Commission, the Council of Europe and the European Parliament have sharply criticized the state of the media environment and regulation in Bulgaria, seeming to say: “The emperor has no clothes!” Yet we keep replying: “We’re already sewing new democratic clothes…” All political parties and coalitions that have governed the country throughout the years of the transition, without exception, are responsible for the state of freedom of speech, the independence of the media regulator and the electronic media themselves. Meanwhile, civil society and the professional associations during these years have been steadily losing hope that anyone will ever listen to their voice. Today the journalists’ unions are a powerless voice, while the professional associations find it difficult to unite around common values and standards, being torn by contradictions and secret rivalries.
The monitoring of the activity of Bulgaria’s Council for Electronic Media (CEM) ordered by the European Commission ended in October 2010. In their report, the Euro-experts most sharply criticized the rules for selecting members of the CEM, which by law should be an “independent, specialized body that defends the public interest.”
The Press Freedom Index compiled by human rights activists and media NGOs “hurled” us down to the rank of 70th in the world. In a resolution in March, the European Parliament ranked us behind Italy as a country in which pluralism in the media environment and the independent control of the media are insufficiently guaranteed.
On an order from the prime minister, a working group spent eight months preparing a report on the problems with Bulgaria’s media law, which could be solved in the new law for audio-visual services. The report was ready in January, but has not yet been taken up for discussion by the Council of Ministers.
However, the diagnosis stemming from the European Commission’s monitoring has long since been known. Media specialists know very well that Bulgarian legislators irreproachably transfer the texts of European media legislation, yet they never create effective and sufficiently democratic rules for composing the regulatory bodies and for the management of public media.
Today, the European Commission’s monitoring report reiterates the principles and rules for selecting members of the CEM, which since 1998 have been part of the “Free Speech Bill,” which was created by a group for European media legislation. The European institutions had only one criticism of it, but instead the Bulgarian parliament adopted the law currently in force, which had received 68 sharply critical comments. All the opposition parties criticized and continue to criticize the current law, however when they come to power they only add even more dubious “democratic patches.”
The Euro-experts emphasize that the rules and criteria for selection do not guarantee the independence of the regulatory body.
“The current procedure for selecting CEM members does not grant sufficient guarantees for the independence of political and economic interests due to the fact that CEM members are selected directly by the state institutions, without special legal conditions for their nomination and without sufficient legal guarantees of their objectivity, professionalism, as well as assurances that they represent the interests of significant social groups… The lack of transparent procedures for nominating candidates leaves the selection to the subjective evaluation of the president and the governing majority in parliament.”
Over all these years, the Euro-experts have recommended that members of CEM be nominated by civil society structures according to clear professional criteria, and also that their election by parliament be made by a supermajority.
Without a doubt, the next monitoring will be focused on the problems of the public media in Bulgaria. The periodic crises in the public media show the lack of mechanisms to guarantee that Bulgarian National Television and Radio are governed independently of political and corporate interests. The mechanism for public financing has not gotten off the ground, and neither has that for the creation of a public “Radio and Television” Fund.
Bulgaria is the only member-state in the European Union that lacks a clearly formulated public tender system for the programming of BNR and BNT; a legal mechanism has also not been created for the formation of a public programming council. It is also unclear who conducts financial oversight, how the programming policy aimed at the whole spectrum of significant public interests is created, or how the rules for the organization of its activities are created. Public media are a European achievement with a more than fifty-year history and there is no need for us to reinvent rules and mechanisms for their independent management, programming policy and public financing.
Here are a few paradoxes in the field of Bulgarian public media. On the basis of a ten-page-long plan, the general director of BNT is now reforming the structure, management and organization of the activities of this public media. This reform is happening “in the dark,” with no public or professional debate. The BNT board of directors is acting in the name of the public, but making reforms on its own behalf. To say nothing of the fact the board, rather than acting as a corrective to the general director, is a function of his own proposals. According to current law, the board is elected by CEM following a proposal by the general director.
The programming policy is also developed “in the dark.” The programming director’s strategy does not introduce stability into the programming conception and a clear scheme, but rather imposes a seasonal character on the lines of programming.
Seasonal television formats are created following unclear procedures and in the absence of internal and external competitions. The financial crisis has still not passed – BNT’s budget deficit has not been covered, despite a 10-million-leva financial injection from the state during December of last year.
For example, successful formats such as “The Big Read,” “Great Events of the 20th Century” and “Worthy Bulgarians” were made thanks to a system of “barter” with sponsoring banks, in which the national public airwaves were used to advertise the sponsors, while the financial windfall was redirected to external production companies who received the right to implement these formats without a contest or a public tender. At the moment, the Bulgarian National Audit Office is continuing its audit, employees of the State Financial Controller are working at BNT, yet this practice has continued with “The Little Big Read.” As the former financial director Chapanov put it, “barter is not forbidden by the internal-normative act for BNT…”
It has gotten to the point that the CEM Chairman Georgi Lozanov has written to the parliamentary Committee on Media and Civil Society to inform them that despite the budget deficit and suspicions of corrupt practices at BNT, CEM does not have the instruments to conduct financial oversight. Never mind that according to the law CEM is the employer of the board of directors and the general director.
These practices show that Bulgaria needs a structured law for public media that allows for clear oversight, management and a programming policy that is to the benefit of civil society.
The monitoring report was conducted on the orders of the European Commission with the legal support of the Institute for European Media Law in Saarbrücken, and was submitted to the EC on October 15, 2010. As of yet, it has not received any publicity in Bulgaria.
Svetlana Bozhilova is the leader of the EC’s European Student Television Network, and is a former member of the Bulgarian and the European media regulator.
See: The EC Monitoring Report, under the heading “Documents”.