War of words after Bulgarian talk show host joins political party on air

Written by on February 11, 2014 in Bulgaria - No comments

A hullabaloo in the media and on social networks has followed after a Bulgarian talk show host announced live on air that he was joining a political party – while interviewing that party’s leader.

Days ahead of the broadcast, there had been stories in the media that talk show host Rossen Petrov intended embarking on a political career.

When plans were made for Petrov to interview Nikolai Barekov, leader of the “Bulgaria Without Censorship” (BWC) party on his February 9 show, management of television station bTV insisted that Petrov sign a formal declaration that he was not a member of BWC.

During the interview, Petrov announced that he was joining BWC and handed a membership application to Barekov. Petrov then thanked his viewers for watching the show in the five years he has been hosting it.

The episode came against a background of the European Parliament elections to be held in Bulgaria on May 25, in which Barekov has the ambition of winning seats. Former breakfast TV show host Barekov’s most recent employment was with TV7, a media outlet owned by the Irina Krasteva’s New Bulgarian Media Group, whose political line switched in early 2013 from support for then-ruling party GERB to vehement opposition to the Boiko Borissov party.

With Barekov at its centre, television show “Bulgaria without Censorship” was transformed from a programme into a political party, via a lavishly-funded choreographed roadshow around Bulgaria. Opinion polling agencies have been divided on the question of the extent of Barekov’s electoral chances.

Barekov, who fancies himself a future prime minister, said that Petrov would be his interior minister.

The on-air stunt caused floods of comment on social networks, with Bulgarians expressing outrage at the use of a talk show for a partisan political promotion.

In an interview with local media on February 10, the head of the Council for Electronic Media – the statutory body set up to regulate broadcast media – Georgi Lozanov said that the Radio and Television Act should be amended to introduce the concept of political advertising being monitored and sanctioned by the council.

These amendments should be similar to those banning commercial product placement in editorial content, Lozanov said.

He said that for now he could see no opportunity for the council to react because the concept of political advertising did not exist in current Bulgarian law, barring during the formal month-long pre-election periods.

The comments by Lozanov were made against a background of the political affiliations of several media being apparent. Examples are television station Alfa, the mouthpiece of ultra-nationalist party Ataka, and Skat, mouthpiece of ultra-nationalist party the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria. In other cases, such as TV7, coverage is anti-GERB, pro-government and hostile to anti-government protesters.

Lozanov said that political advertising should be governed by law and contract and identified as such.

He said that the roles of journalist and of public relations for a politician should be clearly distinguished.

In a statement on February 10, bTV distanced itself from Petrov’s conduct and said that what had happened on the show was an “unprecedented breach” of journalistic standards and the use of national airwaves for personal purposes.

The station that together with Dream Team Productions, the producers of the show, it would decide the future of the show. BTV said that it would seek its rights to have the terms of its contract and the responsibilities of the producers and presenter kept to.

Bulgarian media reports said that what had happened on air had come as a suprise to the show’s producers.

“In terms of current affairs broadcasts, bTV always has followed the principles of impartiality and political detachment,” the station said, adding that it would continue to present “objective journalism” in the future.

Dream Team Productions also released a statement distancing itself from Petrov’s behaviour. The company also said that it would defend its legal rights, claiming breach of contract.

In an open letter, Barekov – whose career as a reporter includes having been a breakfast show interviewer on bTV – accused the station of double standards, saying that bTV had tolerated evening talk show host Slavi Trifonov’s behaviour in the past, such as “nominating” Meglena Kouneva for president.

Petrov said in an interview with mass-circulation daily 24 Chassa, “I am sick of bowing down, I have back pain”. Echoing his leader, he also accused bTV of double standards, citing the Trifonov endorsement of Kouneva.

Another aspect of the background to the story is the contest in recent months between two of Bulgaria’s major privately-owned television station, bTV and Nova Televizia. A significant number of presenters haved moved from bTV to Nova, while the appointment a few weeks ago of a new manager of bTV was followed by the departure of a number of presenters.

Media reports said that the next broadcast of the show previously hosted by Petrov would be helmed by another presenter pending a decision on the future of the programme.

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