European elections 2014: Bulgaria’s media in (and out) of focus

Written by on April 25, 2014 in Perspectives - Comments Off on European elections 2014: Bulgaria’s media in (and out) of focus

Georgi Lozanov, head of Bulgaria’s Council for Electronic Media (CEM) said on the eve of the official campaign period for the country’s European Parliament elections that if the media failed to cover the campaign in a balanced way, “they would lose their European reputation”.

Lozanov appears to have been unduly optimistic, not in hoping that Bulgarian media coverage of the election contest would be balanced, but that the media has any kind of “European reputation” – whatever that is meant to mean – at all.

The profound problems of Bulgaria’s media industry are well-canvassed. The landscape is dominated by a very few large players, there are close ties within a nexus of corporate and political interests, professional standards are scarcely applied and then inconsistently and no more than lip service is paid to ethics.

Apart from a lack of serious newspapers and a dire shortage of news websites that may be considered approaching reliability, there is considerable evidence to support assertions in various external reports that Bulgaria is sliding in the media freedom stakes.

Reports by organisations such as SEEMO have found self-censorship to be common practice, and beyond that, the common practice of smear campaigns for which certain media are harnessed becomes even more egregious at election time.

Against this background, CEM, the body charged by statute with regulating the broadcast media, and the Central Election Commission signed an agreement on April 24 intended to secure “transparent and objective” coverage by Bulgarian television and radio stations of the country’s European Parliament election campaign.

The agreement provides for monitoring by CEM of public and private television and radio stations listed in the document.

A reading of the agreement shows it to be an attempt to build on the provisions of the 2014 Election Act. That law, approved amid controversy after being hastily rushed into draft, is overall hardly a masterpiece of the legislator’s craft. It was no surprise that President Rossen Plevneliev returned a number of its provisions to the 42nd National Assembly for redrafting (his veto was overturned by the ruling axis), and even that was after some earlier controversial provisions were dropped amid an outcry about them, including some provisions about the media.

With the start of the official campaign period on April 25, the provisions of the act that govern the conduct of the media come into special focus.

Examination of them, however, show up some of the customary lacunae of the law in Bulgaria, among them the fact that broadcast media are meant to be regulated by CEM while print and internet media are subject to no such regulation, barring being open to court actions for libel.

This is not to make the case for regulation, even though industry attempts at self-regulation such as the codes of ethics put forward in recent years largely have come to naught. But it will be worth observing how well or otherwise the provisions of the Election Act on the media will be applied during the election period. Longer-term, before the issue of media regulation is put to the tender mercies of Bulgaria’s politicians, they might first consider Plevneliev’s call earlier in 2014 for legislation against media monopolies. This latter issue, however, does not appear to have seized the imagination of lawmakers of any political stripe.

The 2014 Election Act takes on board much of the provisions of previous electoral law in Bulgaria, providing for access by contestants to the public broadcasters, Bulgarian National Television and Bulgarian National Radio (BNT and BNR).

These two broadcasters are obliged to provide parties and coalitions with television and radio airtime, respectively, for debates of a total duration of no less than 240 minutes.

At least half of the time will be given to parties and coalitions represented in the national Parliament who have registered candidates and the remaining time to parties and coalitions outside Parliament and to initiative committees, based on an agreement between representatives of BNT and BNR and the parties, coalitions and initiative committees concerned.

Printed media and private radio and television operators should provide equal conditions and prices for paid publications and broadcasts to all political parties, coalitions of political parties and initiative committees registered to take part in the elections.

Tariffs for such services have to be announced no later than the 40th day prior to election day.

The rules are also set out for paid election campaign broadcasts on BNT and BNR.

The Election Act, however, leaves some issues still out of focus and perhaps awaiting legislative amendments in the future.

It provides, not unusually, for a “right of reply” mechanism, also applicable to print media and online news services.

The first question has to be just what constitutes an online news service. There is, thankfully, no system of licensing online news services, unlike for television and radio. It is no easy to task to begin to suggest how to define an online news service, and for that matter, doing the legislators’ work for them is not an attractive prospect, for a number of reasons.

But one could ask whether an online news service is defined as such if it is owned by a company whose founding documents describe as being in the media business. If so, what would be the case if a news website was owned, say, by a general trading company, a real estate firm or, say, a lending institution?

Further, the law intends to cover online news services, which in some cases also are outlets of broadcasters. The law requires right-of-reply material to be “in the same place, the same size, type and format and font” (and without comment, but for the moment that is by the by).

Presumably, a story on television which has fallen foul of this regulation and which also has been posted on a broadcaster’s website would have to be matched by an equivalent post – apart from the interesting issue that it also seems that as long as the reply material is there, the original offending material can stay. There does not seem to be a provision for its removal.

Further, the issue of placement, in the case of websites, also is an interesting one. The clause seems to have been written largely with newspapers in mind, and indeed, could well be based on extensive precedent, not only in Bulgaria but also abroad.

In the case of a website, if for example the original offending story was on the homepage but has been moved elsewhere or crowded off by new posts, quite how is the prominence and place matched? For how long, in days, minutes, hours or weeks, should a reply material be posted in a particular place? Again, one does not want to do the legislators’ or enforcers’ work for them, but they may find themselves having to think about this, because it seems no one else did.

Before moving on, it is worth mentioning again that in the case of a television story being found to be in the wrong, CEM’s legal mandate extends only to broadcasters, not websites.

In the case of complaints, parties, coalitions and initiative committees or people authorised to represent them have 24 hours after a broadcast to lodge a formal complaint.

If the broadcaster is of “national scope” then the complaint must be made to the Central Election Commission, and in the case of regional or local broadcasters, to the district or municipal election commission. These commissions can also take action against offenders on their own initiative.

A commission that receives a complaint has a 24-hour deadline to respond. The decision can be taken on appeal to the Supreme Administrative Court.

Given the predictability of the days from now to the eve of May 24 (the day of contemplation, on which no canvassing is allowed) seeing vigorous if not sometimes vicious campaigning, the media will most certainly be in play. Given the track record of much of the media in Bulgaria, just what hope there will be of “transparent and objective” coverage will be a question to keep sharply in focus.

(Photo: Txo, via Wikimedia Commons)

 

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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).