Bulgaria’s media: Of photographs, politics and proxy wars

Written by on February 3, 2014 in Perspectives - No comments

In an exclusive on February 3, Economedia’s publications reported that Economedia was suing another Bulgarian media company and a fledgling politician for breach of copyright by allegedly using photographs without permission.

In itself, a story of only the faintest interest. The internet is a riot, and looting of photographs and text by mobs is long since out of control.

However, the background to the story and the characters in it lend it slightly greater interest because the tale is an episode in the scuffles in Bulgaria’s wider political life.

The court actions are against titles owned by Irina Krasteva’s media group as well as against former journalist Nikolai Barekov, now of the “Bulgaria without Censorship” party, all of whom are wont to say beastly things about Economedia owner Ivo Prokopiev, whose titles in turn are wont to be less than kind to Krasteva, her controversial son Delyan Peevski and others within that ilk.

In the case of the court action, the allegation by Economedia is that its photographs were used without permission. Naturally, it will be for the court to decide who is telling the truth, but it is the actual content of the photographs that is of interest.

Taken in 1995, they depict a number of luminaries from the controversial business group SIC, and in their company, Boiko Borissov.

Given the current hostility towards Borissov on the part of the Krasteva’s media group and Barekov, the latter formerly known for, among other things, his many interviews in Borissov in the days that neither Barekov nor Krasteva’s media showed any sign of hostility towards him – anything but – the allegation of using such photographs without permission would seem a serious strategic mistake, to say nothing of the legal issue at hand.

If Economedia’s allegation is true, those who took the photographs without permission have handed an opportunity to the media group and its owner thus slighted.

In the world-view of Krasteva’s media organs, Prokopiev, who hails from a village somewhere in the Razgrad area, now is an oligarch whose sinister presence looms large in a circle also including, among others, President Rossen Plevneliev.

It is these cohorts who, as those close to the current ruling axis insist, are behind the protests and other manoeuvres dedicated to the downfall of the government. Thus the piquancy of the lawsuit; it is one thing to say blood-curdling things about your neighbour, it is another to filch from his photo album.

On top of that, Economedia’s story did not fail to say that the photos dated back 20 years, “but Nikolai Barekov and the Peevski media thought of them only after they decided to turn their backs on Borissov after he fell from power”. That point aside, one may glean from the story that Economedia’s wounds, apart from being assuaged with assertion of its legal rights, must be salved with money.

The Krasteva camp, overall, see themselves as more sinned against than sinning, or in fact not sinning at all, if one goes back to a previous episode.

On January 10, Franco-German channel Arte aired a story regarding alleged real estate ownerships and the overall overweening influence of Peevski, complete with concealed-camera footage of security guards and police intervening in the process of coverage.

In short, Krasteva denied everything in the coverage, and went on to decry it as the work of Prokopiev. For the Krasteva camp, the involvement of one Nickolay Staykov, a former employee of Economedia, in the making of the story was proof enough of this.

Krasteva insisted that in spite of such attempts, the newspapers of the New Bulgarian Media Group would not stop, in her words, covering “objectively the social and political reality in the country”. (This camp, it may fairly be assumed, cannot have been endeared by the offer online in 2013 of a device enabling users to block all Peevski media websites for those who do not like the output of its newspapers, websites and television stations and their “objective coverage”.)

Prokopiev, in turn, took exception to this allegation by Krasteva, saying that he could not be a party to the dispute between Krasteva and Arte. Referring to Staykov, in the context of journalists who had left Economedia, he said that neither he nor the publishing company “dictate or direct their activities throughout their remaining adult life”.

He added that the “endless tailor-made and factually inaccurate” articles against him would bring them no benefit. Prokopiev said that there were many court actions against the publications owned by the family of Peevski and “I believe that soon there will be a fair punishment for at least some of the many slanders about me”.

Peevski and Krasteva, he said, were responsible for transforming their publications into media propaganda tools for the protection of their personal interests and the party they worked for now, their econommic and political interests.

“They both are personally responsible for the humiliating position in which they placed dozens of journalists – their employees who are forced to work against their conscience , as in totalitarian times,” Prokopiev said.

Leaving aside the notion apparently shared among Bulgarian media owners, however deep their mutual enmity, that each believes himself or herself to have a moral stature deserving one day of rendition in effigy among the saints, the mud-slinging has been considerable.

Staykov was singled out in particular for his involvement in anti-government website Noresharski.com, with suggestions of murkiness about his backers (Noresharski has tended to respond to such allegations by pointing out that it states its backers and that Staykov himself is no cyber pimpernel, having posted his mobile phone number on the site.) With a certain sneering if highly irrelevant salaciousness, the anti-Staykov material added that he and his sister apparently have a company that sells condoms, lubricants and “other sex products” online.

Nor, even to the most casual observer, are the sympathies of senior Economedia personnel difficult to discern. Several were routinely to be seen among the numbers of many thousands in the streets present at the anti-government protests that began in mid-June after the abortive appointment of Peevski as head of the State Agency for National Security. Perhaps they were just there as professional observers or casting about for somewhere to stroll on those pleasant summer evenings; but then, if they were in their capacity as Bulgarian citizens exercising a constitutional right to peacefully demand political change, opinion polls suggest that 80 per cent of the population of this country would hardly be inclined to look unkindly on them.

Prokopiev and Economedia have been the target, meanwhile, of something other than poison pens; that is, the scrutiny of the National Revenue Agency.

In late December, it emerged – as reported by Economedia’s Kapital itself – that a total of 11 tax audits were in train, of Prokopiev, his spouse (recently named as the company’s new chief executive), Economedia and other companies in the Alfa Finance Holding. The same article insisted that none of those subject to this scrutiny had anything to hide, and suggested that the tax audits might have something to do with “our media (being) among the most vocal opponents of this government”. It said that it had directed a number of questions to the prosecution, including whether there was a connection between its coverage and the company having its books looked over.

There is some evidence that tax audits might be hazardous the health. According to a report by news website Offnews, the publication Anons was suspended after undergoing a number of tax audits.

Nor would this be the first suggestion that media coverage can have its rewards.

Public broadcaster Bulgarian National Television was the subject of public complaint about its coverage of the anti-government protests, notably from socialist Speaker of Parliament Mihail Mikov, and in the year 2014 has found itself shaved of five million leva from its budget. The socialist-driven rewritten draft electoral law also deprives public broadcasters of earnings from party political broadcasts, which will be of no benefit to BNT (and its sibling Bulgarian National Radio) in this European Parliament election year.

In early December, political scientist Ognyan Minchev said that there were direct reasons for government to make the BNT budget cut, among them to punish it for its television coverage of the protests, to undermine Vyara Ankova after failing to stop her being re-elected to a second term of office as director-general, and to benefit certain commercial media.

In the midst of this media bunfight, there also has been a drama about, of all things, codes of ethics.

Bulgaria has more than one association of publishers, their respective compositions more or less reflecting the relevant commercial rivalries.

The Bulgarian Media Group, the one in which the “Peevski media” (so commonly called) is a major presence, came up with a media code of ethics. In turn, the Association of European Journalists – Bulgaria, with some relish, cited examples where it alleged that publications of the Bulgarian Media Group had violated said code of ethics on the very day that it was published.

Not that, if the AEJ’s allegations are true, those publications should feel alone. A decade or so ago, media owners and managers in Bulgaria, of major and minor chords, gathered at a Sofia hotel to sign a code of ethics for the media. It probably would be unkind to suggest that most seemed to have done so either with disappearing ink, or their fingers crossed behind their backs, or both.

There was a spinoff to the new media code of ethics drama, when it emerged on January that the company that publishes mass-circulation dailies 24 Chassa and Trud said that it was resigning from the Union of Publishers in Bulgaria, citing as its reasons dissensions in the “media community”, publishing wars and the emergence of a second code of conduct. The manager of the company was quoted by Bulgarian news agency BTA as saying that it did not want to be a member of any such association.

This tale cannot go without recording a notable aspect of the law against participation of offshore companies registered in tax-lenient zones in 28 areas of the Bulgarian economy. That law, tabled by none other than Peevski and MRF MP Yordan Tsonev, has an exception for the periodical press, provided that information about the real owners (in the form of individuals) is disclosed.

That law went through the 42nd National Assembly with no especial difficulty, although the call by President Rossen Plevneliev for the parties in Parliament to come up with effective media legislation against media monopolies is unlikely to enjoy the same smooth passage or even, for that matter, ever have a bottle of champagne broken against its bow.

Thus, in brief, a picture of the current state of play in the nexus that is the media-and-political war of words being waged in this country. But ever was it so that a picture is worth 1000 words, including – to end where we began – to lawyers.

(Photo: Brano Hudak/sxc.hu)

* Disclosure: The Sofia Globe and Sofia Globe Media Ltd have no link whatsoever to any other media group, publisher or owner in Bulgaria, whether mentioned in this article or not.

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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).