It was a strange if not unhappy coincidence that in the very week that the US state department expressed concern about the troubling implications of consolidated media ownership in Bulgaria, and The Economist posted an article headlined “gravely damaged media pluralism”, the media in Bulgaria consolidated just that much more.
Already, the nexus between media ownership in Bulgaria and the conjoined-twin quest for political and financial influence has been an issue of concern for a long time.
Further, the crucible of the economic crisis has been ideal for the consolidation of media ownership. Bulgaria is not alone in this, but there are factors that compound the problem. It is an open question whether the statutes that require declaration of the flesh-and-blood owners of the media are genuinely effective. It is no wonder that people in Bulgaria ask who “stands behind” individual titles in the broadcast and print media, if not, perhaps justifiably, having their own theories about whose interests are served by the major Bulgarian-language media, individually and collectively.
Bulgaria has no effective bar on owners of media having other businesses. This lack of a bar has led to repeated criticism that media in Bulgaria are subverted to their owners’ interests. Hostile coverage of companies that are rivals to those owned by their owners; favourable coverage of partisan political interests that dovetail with those that their owners seek to share that warm, fuzzy and profitable afterglow with; even “interviews” with owners of their media, with all the impact of candyfloss on titanium.
In the democratic world, readers are migrating, to an arguable extent, to the “alternative media” on the internet, away from the brand names established in the days of typesetters and steam-powered presses. Admittedly, some of these are the heady and hysterical platforms of conspiracy theorists (viz those in the United States finding alleged discrepancies in the confused narrative of the Tsarnaev brothers, to cite the most recent example); some are exercises in “citizen journalism” whose enthusiasm but lack of professional journalistic standards leave them far short of the admirable arc of the Huffington Post; still others are the illustration of the fact that it does not cost much – the purchase of a domain name, a few dollars for a WordPress theme, importantly, a zeal for storytelling – to set up as a “news website”.
But what of Bulgaria? True, there are several surveys showing that people increasingly are getting their news online. In the context of Bulgaria, with spending power declining from an already low base and with high-speed internet access relatively affordable, it makes sense that people would prefer to click on news sites rather than shell out precious stotinki for the garish, unsubstantiated and hysterical rubbish with which editors are briefed to cover what used to be trees.
And so, much as a very few owners dominate the print media, and similarly the broadcast media that matter in terms of resources and influence, so too those websites in Bulgaria are subject to increasing consolidation. As noted, running a news website may be affordable in terms of domain and brand name ownership and hosting, but there are still important financial downsides – the contest for scarce advertising, the essential practice of paying journalists, the near-absence of anyone willing to enlist their wallets in the cause of independent reporting.
And add to that the significant problem of big stories having to be covered by fewer people, or the internet-age problem of having to be firstest with the mostest to earn the capricious attention of revenue-earning search engines. It is a difficult game, and one where the teams are weakened by owners deciding that it is cheaper to deploy journalists of lesser experience and depth. A striking example in Bulgaria is the close-of-winter street protests; the Bulgarian-language media faced the test, and failed spectacularly, with reporting that was episodic, lacking context and background, unchallenging and unquestioning, fundamentally inaccurate (routinely referring to the “protesters” as if they were a monolithic whole, which the slightest scrutiny made it clear they were not) or simply confused. For those media that had been loyal cheerleaders of Boiko Borissov’s centre-right GERB government, coverage of the protests left them simply lost; reminiscent of serfs whose feudal lord suddenly had absented himself, leaving them dazed and confused in a field of barren stalks, dust and lacking any word of firm guidance about how to prepare for the coming season.
The established field of print media in Bulgaria is well-known; the big boys on the block, the owners of 24 Chassa and Trud, the former of which also rate highly, if not at the top, of online readership; and who were caught up in an exceedingly strange saga, involving allegations of criminal conduct subsequently dropped, when much of their coverage was hostile to the political establishment of the day. In the broadcast media, the ratings describe the dominant player as bTV and, to an increasing degree, TV7, well-resourced but also who have tended to pump the pom-poms for the now-previous government of the day. Ironically, in the Bulgarian context, there have been private media who have been much more enthusiastic about the official line than the public broadcasters, whatever the suspicions that media watchdogs may have about the latter in former communist parts of Europe, supposedly carrying over the His Master’s Voice habits of yore to whoever happens, in the case of Bulgaria, to be occupying the desks in the imposing pile that is 1 Dondoukov Boulevard.
Of course, stories of expanding media empires, as happened in Bulgaria in recent days, may merely be praiseworthy episodes of commercial success, of synergies, of the survival of the fittest-to-be media barons. Stories of mergers and acquisitions, the customary practice of commerce. Alternatively, for the more suspiciously-minded, further episodes in the contest, ultimately, for commercial influence. Especially considering that venturing into the media business is not now, and never has been, a form of get-rich-quick scheme. Ink then,and bandwidth now, costs money. That same contest for scarce advertising, and the similarly scarcity of funds for support for a diverse and independent media, is hardly the stuff that makes bank managers pass a quiet word to get out the superior brand of coffee for a client.
Against this lengthy background, it was with interest that media-watchers in Bulgaria observed some of the transactions that became clear in recent days. Sanoma sold its ownership of NetInfo to Darik News, a significant consolidation of online presence that will be subject to scrutiny by Bulgaria’s competition protection authorities before finalisation is approved. This transaction has meaning; NetInfo’s portfolio includes news site Vesti.bg, local video-sharing platform Vbox7 and that locally well-known suffix, abv.bg. Unconfirmed media reports placed the value of the deal at 12 million euro. Darik itself, founded as a radio presence in the 1990s, has no mean portfolio of its own, including news, sports and financial sites.
Separately, Bulgaria on Air TV – a relatively recent entry on the market and hardly a name to conjure with in a field dominated by the long-established free-to-air channels in Bulgarian television – acquired an 86 per cent (some reports said 90 per cent, still others 88 per cent) share in investor.bg in a 16 million leva (about eight million euro) deal carried out through the local stock exchange. Whatever the real viewership of Bulgaria on Air TV, and its associated media enterprises online, given that it tends to be hardly-quoted compared to the much-more influential bTV, TV7 and public broadcaster Bulgarian National Television, the deal is a game-change in the acquisition of a serious media such as investor.bg and that enterprise’s associated online products – dnes.bg, investor.bg, imoti.bg (property) and gol.bg (sport). Behind Bulgaria on Air, according to several Bulgarian-language media reports, stands influential Varna-based business group TIM.
In turn, there were reports on the bTV front, when it emerged that four per cent of the station – ratings claim it to be the most-watched television station in Bulgaria – were acquired by Krassimir Guergov, an influential figure in Bulgaria’s advertising industry. A bar on cross-ownership of media and advertising interests was lifted about three years ago. Kapital, a local Sofia-based newspaper owned by Economedia, a Bulgarian-language media company that is not the country’s most significant but that describes itself as the “biggest business media publisher in Bulgaria” said that even the minority stake gives Guergov “special rights over the content of the news and journalism” of what the newspaper described as “the largest TV in the country”. The report quoted unnamed sources as saying that Tsvetan Vassilev, majority shareholder in Corporate Commercial Bank, a consultant for TV7 and major creditor of the group that owns the Monitor and Telegraf publications, among others, was “celebrating” the deal. The opportunity, the article suggested, was in the competition for influence, and the notable aspect, the same article said, in the continuing lack of clarity about the truths of media ownership in Bulgaria.
In turn, all of this – the consolidation of media ownership, the outside concerns about it, Bulgaria’s ever-plummeting place in media freedom indices – is taking place as the country heads for its May 12 national parliamentary elections. While eyes are on the polls and the personalities of the politicians, a parallel process is happening, as vital to the future of Bulgaria’s democracy as the outcome of the vote – and, as evidenced by the protests and comments in online forums – that many ordinary Bulgarians feel that they have been conceded the cheap seats in a smoke-and-mirrors show.