Sex, money, howls of corruption and influence-buying…it must be a Bulgarian business story

Written by on January 18, 2013 in Bulgaria, Business, News, Perspectives - No comments

It is not every day and everywhere that it is possible to claim a direct link between European Union operational programme funds and sex, but the story of Bulgaria intending to give a million or two euro in EU funds to Payner media made it possible for headline writers and leading members of the country’s cultural elite to do just that.

The story that has dominated most local media, internet forums and online social networks for days provided the country with a new scandal, running in parallel with the ever-unfolding (if not unraveling) saga of the battle between Bulsatcom, on the one side, and bTV and TV7 on the other.

Payner is best known for its dominance of Bulgaria’s chalga pop-folk music market and is by anyone’s measure a commercial success story. However much the educated urban middle classes in Bulgaria may sniff derisively at chalga, not only for its Turkish-inspired sound and its cousinly affiliation to Serbian turbo-folk, someone out there in this nation of 7.3 million is buying the discs, downloading the clips, watching the Payner-linked channels and buying tickets to the concerts.

The story has had all the elements of sex, sadism and snobbery, as not a few headline writers and those objecting to the planned spending of EU regional development funds to help Payner expressed anguish at the bloc’s money going to the music of a sub-culture best known for its scantily-clad performers, cosmetic-surgery-enhanced stars and lyrics that get re-posted online even by those who rail at chalga: “Would you want your daughter singing along to these lyrics?” read a recent Facebook post that linked to a video of samples from about 10 chalga songs.

Prominent theatre directors were among the first to rush to condemn the Payner plan, expressing embarrassment at what they saw as European assistance for a national disgrace. For Payner itself, few were prepared to offer any sort of defence. One was Bulgaria’s best-known archaeologist, professor Nikolai Ovcharov, who said that it was unfair to pick on Payner because the company also promoted the country’s cultural heritage sites.

Culture Minister Veshdi Rashidov dismissed the controversy as nonsense, saying that some of the critics had themselves accepted EU funds from regional development coffers. Kapital, a local Sofia-based newspaper, ran a commentary piece saying that the purpose of the funds was indeed business development.

Payner boss Mitko Dimitrov, previously hardly known outside Bulgaria, suddenly found his company getting attention from European and international media (it was the sex thing, they just could not resist it). The money would provide jobs to highly-qualified young people because it was being used for costly equipment, he was quoted as saying.

Yet there were those who would not be satisfied, arguing that regional development funds should be used to help fledgling SMEs get underway, rather than aid successful businesses develop further.

At European level, the European Commission was reported to have called on Bulgaria to investigate the allocation of the funds to Payner, although the veracity of these reports later came into doubt.

In an election year, it seemed a dead certainty that someone would try to attack the government on the grounds that it was not prepared to do much for pensioners but could find money for chalga. Then again, that strategy could backfire, given the possibility of a lie factor in Bulgaria about who listens to chalga (privately, behind closed doors, between consenting adults) and who does so openly and who genuinely has not helped Payner and the chalga industry on the lame-lined path to success.

But speaking of politics…

Can buy me love?

Sergei Stanishev, leader of the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party, alleged this week that the government was using EU funds to buy influence in the media.

Bulgaria holds national parliamentary elections around mid-2013 and recent months have seen a number of manoeuvres involving large media houses, which some – conspiracy theorists, and not only them – see as linked to a supposed attempt by the current centre-right government led by Boiko Borissov to ensure that all journalists in Bulgaria are singing its praises harmoniously and in chorus.

As it happened, as the week drew to a close, a think-tank reported that a media analysis found that most of the significant media were pro-Borissov, with a few notable exceptions who were hostile. Stanishev, the survey found, had gained in the amount of coverage he got, but no one in the media seemed to like him.

The chatter about buying media allegiance began after European funds minister Tomislav Donchev, replying to a question in the House from right-wing Blue Coalition MP Vanyo Sharkov, said that close to 14 million leva (about seven million euro) was being distributed to various electronic media in Bulgaria this year to promote the seven operational programmes of the EU. This was the largest amount since 2009 (coincidentally or not, Bulgaria’s previous parliamentary election year, when Borissov’s party ousted the socialists in the elections and had by definition not been involved in any decisions on EU funds).

These funds were not the only ones, because there are others that go through other ministries.

Promotion of the human resources development operational programme has a two million leva budget in 2013. Each getting about half a million leva are commercial television stations bTV and Nova, while Darik Radio, TV7 and Evropa were also getting money.

Rural development programme promotional funds were also reportedly said to be likely destined for several large-scale media, including Bulgarian National Television, bTV, Nova TV, TV7, Darik Radio, Bulgarian National Radio and local news agency Focus.

Donchev’s office said that the selection of media and communication agencies to receive funding was done in strict adherence with the law on public procurement and the main criteria in the selection was a media outlet’s ability to reach specific target groups that were priorities for the programme.

Media reports on the matter darkly hinted at purchases of allegiance through the funds, or at very least, effective subsidies for certain media.

But for fresher meat for the conspiracy theorists, one had to look at the continuing Bulsatcom saga…

Bulsatcom fighting, a blood sport

At this writing, bTV and TV7 both have withdrawn from allowing their channels to be carried by Bulsatcom.

This is just a manifestation of a wider business battle, supposedly involving rivals who want to contain Bulsatcom in their own striving for supremacy.

Bulsatcom has been on the march – it has acquired a licence to become Bulgaria’s fourth mobile operator and has ambitions to become the seventh multiplex operator. Hence the theory, posted in Bulgarian media and social networks, that bTV and TV7 are working with mobile operator and satellite provider Vivacom to shift business to that firm, and further, so the theory goes, advance the interest of Corporate Commercial Bank’s Tsvetan Vassilev, widely seen as close to the government.

As previously reported by The Sofia Globe, prosecutors and tax authorities have been in numbers to the offices of TV+, a company officially not owned by Bulsatcom but reportedly suspected to be so, investigating alleged tax evasion on the staff payroll.

Prosecutors and other officials have denied any link between the fight between Bulsatcom and bTV and TV7 over fees, and in an interview this past week, Prime Minister Borissov said that he had no advance knowledge of the raid on TV+ and said that in any case, the Bulsatcom affair was not the business of the government because it was a commercial dispute.

All manner of dramas added to the episodes in the Bulsatcom saga.

The broadcasting association, ABRO, had been cited by bTV as saying that platforms were deliberately inaccurate in stating subscriber numbers. Bulsatcom, which in addition to saying that it had not been able to reach an agreement with bTV because the television station’s financial demands were “illogically” high and would in turn burden subscribers with unaffordably high fees, let it be known that it could take court action against ABRO.

Suddenly finding itself in the midst of all of this was Darik Radio, with news that the radio station was withdrawing from ABRO. Bulgarian media linked Darik’s move with the Bulsatcom battle, but the station responded that its decision had been taken well before the fight started because Darik did not have the capacity to “be a member of 100 associations”.

The stage got even more crowded when music rights association Musicautor issued a statement that it had issues with both bTV and Bulsatcom – it alleged that both owed large sums in unpaid music royalties.

Meanwhile, in another blow to TV+, it emerged that Football Pro Media was withdrawing from the station the rights to broadcast matches from Bulgaria’s top football leagues.

And to add to that, in a move that possibly could see Bulgaria’s prosecutors’ in-trays get piled a bit higher, both bTV and TV7 said that they wanted to file criminal charges for piracy, alleging that Bulsatcom had continued to carry their signals after the stations withdrew.

As the catchphrase went, tune in again next week.

(Photo: M van den Dobbelsteen/sxc.hu)

Comments

comments

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).