A controversy has erupted over the decision by Bulgarian television station bTV not to air an episode of talk show host Slavi Trifonov’s nightly programme, saying that it wanted to preserve its political neutrality while Trifonov was “trying to use the airwaves to further his personal political campaign”.
Trifonov, at a news conference on March 28, said that bTV’s decision was “nothing other than censorship”.
The previous day, he had issued an “ultimatum” to the newly-elected National Assembly, saying they had two weeks to begin work on implementing the outcome of the November 2016 referendum that Trifonov was instrumental in initiating.
He threatened Parliament with large protests unless the referendum results were reflected in legislation within two months.
The referendum to which Trifonov was referring produced “yes” results to the three questions, but fell below the turnout threshold to be binding on the legislature. Those who voted said yes to a two-round majoritarian system for electing MPs, to making voting in elections compulsory (by law, it already is) and to reduce the state subsidies for parties represented in Parliament to one lev per valid vote in the most recent election.
On March 27, soon before Trifonov’s hour-long show was due to start at 10.30pm, bTV announced that it was changing its programme to show a repeat of an earlier episode of the show.
It said that the show that had been scheduled for broadcast would not be aired because it did not meet “the standards for a television broadcaster of a neutral and objective television like bTV, which does not tolerate one-sided presentations on its programmes”.
The station said that it respected the political affiliations of its presenters, provided that they did not interfere with their work on bTV programmes.
After the announcement, the cancellation decision was widely-reported by Bulgarian-language media and caused considerable comment by Bulgarians on social networks. The long-running show is among the most-watched on local television stations.
At a news conference live-streamed on the internet in the early part of Tuesday afternoon, and watched by thousands, Trifonov said: “This is a matter of censorship”.
He said that there had been “nothing different” in the programme that had been intended for broadcast the previous night than any other in the 17 years that the show has been running.
In the episode not broadcast, Trifonov read out his letter to MPs about the referendum. He told the Tuesday news conference that he had read out a similar letter, about a month before the election, and there had been “no problem” at the time. “Last night was different,” Trifonov said.
He said that his team would keep to its side of its contract with bTV and whether the station would broadcast the show that they would have to record for broadcast on Tuesday night, he could not say.
Trifonov said: “I have not violated any laws in what I did last night”.
Reports in the Bulgarian media on March 28 said that the ticket office at NDK was not selling tickets for Trifonov’s show.
In a March 28 statement, bTV said that its election coverage had been “balanced” and said that the success shown by its viewership figures was built on “a bedrock of impartial and objective coverage of the political process in current affairs programmes and in news reports”.
It said that it had cancelled the broadcast of the previous night’s show by Trifonov “in which the presenter tried to use the airwaves for the purpose of his personal political campaign”.
The station said that it “cannot and will not” deviate from its political neutrality.
It said that Trifonov was free to express his political opinions. “We are ready to give him the opportunity to express his views on our actuality programmes. At the same time, we will present different opinions from all other stakeholders.”
BTV said that it adhered to Bulgaria’s media laws and its own journalistic principles. “This rule must be accepted by all our employees and partners, without exception,” the station said.