Of hearts and minds and media monopolies

Lyutvi Mestan, leader of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, says that Delyan Peevski’s media do not constitute a monopoly because they make up only one per cent of the media market in Bulgaria.

In the famous phrase of the early 1960s, well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?

As leader of the MRF, a key element of Bulgaria’s current ruling axis, Mestan is also the parliamentary leader of Peevski, whose place as an MP has been confirmed by the Constitutional Court in spite of challenges to it on the basis of the abortive appointment of Peevski as head of the State Agency for National Security in June 2013.

It was that appointment that unleashed widely-supported public protests demanding the resignation of the government for which the Bulgarian Socialist Party holds the mandate.

It is commonplace for the anti-Peevski, and by extension anti-government, camp to refer to the controversial figure as a “media mogul”. This is a term with which Peevski, it has been repeatedly reported, is not comfortable.

For months, from the point of view of the Peevski camp, the position was that he could not be called a media mogul because the New Bulgarian Media Group is not his, but his mother’s, Irina Krasteva. The company is no small affair, given the ownerships of television stations, newspapers, magazines and websites.

So it was with glee that the anti-government movement seized on Peevski’s use of the term “my media” in an interview with a website owned by the New Bulgarian Media Group, in which Peevski was quoted as speaking of the alleged pressure he came under from then-interior minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov, in the words of Peevski, to extend an umbrella over certain organised crime figures.

Given the “aha!” reaction to the use of the expression “my media”, Peevski later sought to say that what he meant was the media owned by his family.

But then, in an interview on February 22 with Nova Televizia, Mestan used a strikingly similar expression – “the media of Delyan Peevski”, in literal translation.

Mestan was arguing that the newspapers of Peevski (“he (Peevski) has no newspapers, but if we assume that the newspapers of his family are his”) made up only five to six per cent of newspapers in Bulgaria, so once all media were taken into account, this came to one per cent. Hardly a monopoly, according to Mestan.

It is arguably fair to say that this is an argument unlikely to be accepted by the movement that wants the current ruling axis gone from its control of Bulgarian public life, nor by those who seek to delve into the ownerships – of media and otherwise – of Peevski, his family and his allies.

For that movement, the struggle is against not only the ruling axis of the BSP and MRF (and Volen Siderov’s far-right Ataka party that had a crucial role in putting this government in place and keeping it there) but also the wider pervasiveness of the interests behind the scenes determined to keep this ruling axis in place.

Already intense, this struggle will become even more intense in the about three months remaining to Bulgaria’s European Parliament elections on May 25 2014.

The unfolding narrative, which began not with the formation of the cabinet in May 2013 but well before that with the February “cost-of-living” protests mobilised around high electricity bills and overall disillusionment with Bulgaria’s politicians, has produced – among other things – even its own nexus of media and politics, in the “Bulgaria without Censorship” phenomenon.

Those protests saw an editorial policy turnaround of the New Bulgarian Media Group, from support of Boiko Borissov’s centre-right GERB party to hostility to it. The turnaround in media stance from pro-Borissov to anti-Borissov has been embodied by the transmogrification of former talk show and ex-TV7 boss Nikolai Barekov. From a well-resourced roadshow around cities and towns in Bulgaria to broadcast live complaining citizens, BWC has become a political party, led by a Barekov who literally has draped himself in the flag. Essentially nationalist and populist, and seeking to tap into the February 2013 themes of protest against “oligarchs” and “monopolies”, BWC’s place appears to be to shave off votes on the right-wing of the spectrum. It has made Borissov and his long-standing lieutenant Tsvetan Tsvetanov into its bete-noires – Barekov has said that on becoming prime minister, his first act will be to arrest Borissov – and in fact seems to be trying to ape the GERB phenomenon, down to recruiting an MP or two even in the existing National Assembly, just as GERB did before its 2009 national election victory.

Along this wider front, not only the “talking points” of the BSP – the leaked heads of argument of the ruling axis against GERB and the June 2013 anti-government protest movement – but also the allied media are rallied to the cause. A predictable part of the contest for hearts and minds has been shown in the articles by website Bivol (no relation or connection to Alex Bivol of The Sofia Globe) about systematic posting of comments in online reader forums to seek to sway public opinion.

There also has been the somewhat lesser phenomenon of the “counter-protesters” mobilised around the message of “give the government a chance”, which in turn was extended into part of the campaign to try to discredit President Rossen Plevneliev, the sole remaining national office-bearer to have been elected on a GERB ticket.

That little band has largely faded away, probably having outlived its usefulness or perhaps because there is a greater complacency on the part of the ruling axis because of the shrinkage of turnout (albeit from a vastly larger base) on the streets for daily anti-government protests.

The political battle largely now has reverted to type, of a fight in the media and in social networks.

For the anti-government movement, social networks have, unsurprisingly in the internet age, been a boon to get the message and keep up morale.

Some media have been prepared to run coverage of what critics call “taboo” topics – the property ownerships of Krasteva and Peevski, as per the January 10 Arte documentary and later a February 14 investigative report by television station bTV on the same topic.

Inasmuch as Peevski reportedly gets annoyed by being called a media mogul, so too Corporate Commercial Bank majority shareholder Tsvetan Vassilev takes exception when links between him and the Krasteva media group are alleged.

In the case of Vassilev, this led not only to a row with Deutsche Welle about 2013 articles by Bulgarian correspondents referring to him, but more recently to correspondence from Vassilev to the European Commission over Bulgarian media coverage of an EC report in early February.

For years, Vassilev has rejected claims that he invested in the newspapers of the New Bulgarian Media Group.

This is the background to what followed when a report in daily Sega sought to flesh out details mentioned in the European Commission report.

Following EC practice, the report did not name individuals. In referring to the SANS appointment row in June 2013, the EC report referred only to a “controversial MP”, and Sega added Peevski’s name. The report’s statement that “media ownership is increasingly concentrated, compromising editorial independence” led Sega to infer this to be a reference to the New Bulgarian Media Group and to go on to refer to Vassilev as the “creditor” of Peevski and Krasteva.

According to a February 19 report by the EurActiv website, the Sega article by journalist Svetoslav Terziev led to the CCB letter to the European Commission requesting confirmation that these names were not referred to it in the report.

EurActiv said that CCB alleged that Terziev had committed “malicious falsehood” in his article on the EC report. The EurActiv article said that it was “common knowledge” that it was Peevski’s appointment as head of SANS that sparked boisterous protests and that it was also “common knowledge” that the biggest concentration of Bulgarian media ownership and distribution was that of the New Bulgarian Media Group.

“Asked by EurActiv to comment, Svetoslav Terziev said that the main objective of the CCB was ‘to instigate fear and self-censorship on journalists outside the media empire of Krasteva and Peevski’.”

Terziev also said that following a complaint by CCB, the media watchdog in Bulgaria had ruled on February 14 that his article did not contravene reporting rules, as it distinguished clearly his own words from the report quotes.

Meanwhile, with those three months to go to the European Parliament elections, new products are set for an appearance on the Bulgarian media market, though the scale remains to be seen.

A magazine and a website are to be brought out in March with finance from Ognyan Donev and by Svetlana Dzhamdzhieva, former editor of mass-circulation daily Trud.

Donev has a previous background in media ownership, when with Lyubomir Pavlov he was minority co-owner of the publishing house that produced Trud and 24 Chassa. Donev and Pavlov left that ownership at the end of one of 2012’s most keenly-fought media struggles.

According to a media statement by Dzhamdzhieva, the new products would be media for people “who want normal, real journalism” and for readers “who are looking for something different. Different from what we were given last place in the freedom of speech rankings for”.

Presumably, this is a hint at a counter-balance – at very least – to the products of the New Bulgarian Media Group and perhaps also may be linked to the fact that there are very few media palatable to those who support the anti-government campaign, whether or not they are supporters of GERB (anecdotal evidence suggests that in spite of the “talking points” of the BSP, far from all who want the current government gone want to see Borissov return in its place).

Against the background of the shape of the Bulgarian media landscape and the serious inadequacies pointed out in a succession of reports by international media watchdogs, it is also no surprise that among the most-contested among many controversial points in the election code was that concerning the media during the official election period.

An initial attempt by the ruling axis to provide for the imposition of huge fines for coverage “damaging the good name” of candidates was withdrawn amid an outcry, not only because of the vagueness of the wording but also the murkiness of how this mechanism was supposed to work. Now the right-of-reply rule has been kept in more or less the same form as before, but also provision is made for funding of parties not represented in a legislature and thus unable to use state subsidies to pay for media coverage.

Nonetheless, for the bigger parties the sheer scale of state subsidies will continue to allow significant spending on media campaigns, leaving in place the multiplier effect of an alliance between a political party and a media group. And even then, such alliances can be on the basis of shared aims and interests, more than a matter of officially paid-for space.

President Plevneliev has made repeated appeals for parties in the current National Assembly to legislate against media monopolies. For now, if solely for the reason that pervasive media groups play such a significant role in Bulgarian public life, it seems that his is doomed to be a voice crying in the wilderness.

* 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.




Clive Leviev-Sawyer

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), and co-author of the book Bulgarian Jews: Living History (The Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria 'Shalom', 2018). He is also the author of Power: A Political Novel, available via amazon.com, and, on the lighter side, Whiskers And Other Short Tales of Cats (2021), also available via Amazon. He has translated books and numerous texts from Bulgarian into English.