Commentary: Bulgaria’s perils on the path to a print media law

Written by on July 18, 2012 in Bulgaria, News, Perspectives - No comments

Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boiko Borissov, annoyed at newspaper antics and alleging that some of his country’s journalists are “serving the mafia”, has asked Germany’s Konrad Adenauer and Hans Seidel foundations to come up with a print media law. His move and his timing are both appropriate and perilous.

The timing, in fact, is overdue. It is not just a matter that Borissov, who more than once has been described as especially sensitive about media coverage of him, is troubled by hostile stories – a recent example being an allegation (denied, for the record) that some years ago he solicited sex from a rising tennis star when she was 14 years old.

Bulgaria’s daily and weekly newspapers range in quality from mediocre to downright appalling, and the Prime Minister is hardly alone in being targeted with unproven allegations.

Outside politics, subjects of stories are astonished – one reaction, among a range of emotions – to discover that they are pregnant when they are not, that they are having affairs when they are not or that they have scorched themselves in sunbeds when they did not.

That is in the area of “celebrity news”. More seriously, which is not to diminish the stress caused to individuals by fact-free coverage, proxy battles are fought by newspapers on behalf of the other commercial interests of their owners. In turn, apart from these commercial battles, smear tactics extend to political coverage, though that is usually not without a link to commercial interests.

Statute has created a Council for Electronic Media to regulate radio and television, but those seeking defence of their interests against wrongful newspaper coverage must have recourse to the courts, the latter being far from Bulgaria’s most highly-respected institution in public perceptions. Some years ago, most major and minor media signed a code of ethics for the Bulgarian media, but this collective act of piety for the accompanying photo-op hardly translated into a milestone of reform.

There are ample tales from the trade to suggest that editors-in-chief in Bulgaria-language media are usually not the final arbiters of editorial content, but rather that direct intervention from owners is commonplace. Further, and this is a topic about which Borissov has been the latest to complain publicly, there are journalists who accept money other than their salaries for coverage, negative or positive, as ordered by the paymaster.

Borissov, in an interview with a Bulgarian media outlet earlier in July, said that it was “very easy to pay and hire journalists” (for the record, Wikileaks posted a 2006 cable from the US embassy in Sofia alleging that Borissov himself had a record of paying for positive coverage).

In the July 2012 interview, Borissov lamented that when he had sought to reduce the price of gas by eliminating middlemen, there had been newspapers that “smashed me, from the first page to the cartoon”.

Reportedly, he spoke admiringly of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, who earlier brought down EU wrath on his head with his media laws; Borissov wants print media laws, without the Orbán ordeal, which is why he has asked the help of outside foundations to come up with drafts.

At this stage, it remains unclear what shape these laws will take. According to a July 10 report by news website Mediapool, the Konrad Adenauer Foundation already held a round table in March, at which a briefing was given on the print media law of the German state of Brandenburg, which has in common with Bulgaria a transition through a post-communist era.

July also has seen a workshop on the future of media legislation in Bulgaria, convened by the Cabinet office and attended by representatives of the Presidency, Council for Electronic Media, the two rival associations of publishers and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.

The Brandenburg law includes provisions protecting journalists from involvement in unmarked paid publications, provides for equitability in newspaper distribution, regulates the right of reply and penalises deliberate publication of false information with up to a year in prison. In Bulgarian coverage of the Brandenburg law, eyebrows were raised at a provision that in certain cases, the interior minister would be entitled to dismiss an editor-in-chief, a power regarding which local media made clear their suspicion that it would be, in Bulgaria, open to abuse.

The Hans Seidel Foundation reportedly is scheduled to hold a workshop in September.

There is, so far, no clarity on the timing of a draft law being scrutinised and approved by Bulgaria’s ruling party and Cabinet. Apart from the existing – and long-standing – problem of low standards of Bulgarian newspapers, the only imperative regarding timing would be the fact that Bulgaria is due to hold national parliamentary elections some time in summer 2013.

The risks are obvious. With election campaigning already underway in a desultory, somewhat guerrilla fashion, steadily-raising temperatures would make sensible debate on a print media law more difficult than usual, and that comes on top of the fact that Bulgarian politicians would find little to like about any newspaper, with the exception of those that fawn on one party or politician or another.

A hasty law, however skilled its drafters, would likely be a bad one, especially after passing through the hands of Bulgaria’s legislators. Further, even though the Bulgarian public are showing – going by opinion polls – ever-diminishing trust in the country’s mass media, it is not impossible to imagine a mass mobilisation (via Facebook, no doubt) of protest against a perceived political crackdown on the media.Bulgariahas its examples of such in the shale gas, ACTA and Forestry Act amendment protests. In all these cases, leaving aside the individual merits of the respective issues, the current government backed down in the face of street protests. An anti-print media law series of mass protests could force it to do the same, precisely because of an upcoming election.

Cartoonists, at least on some newspapers, would be reaching for the yellow to paint egg on the Prime Minister’s face. But sadly, the newspapers would be no better than before.

(Photo: Griszka Niewiadomski)

 

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About the Author

Clive Leviev-Sawyer is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of The Sofia Globe. He is the author of the book Bulgaria: Politics and Protests in the 21st Century (Riva Publishers, 2015).