Bulgaria’s media landscape: The more things change?

Just a few days after a deal was announced involving New Bulgarian Media Group’s newspapers and an Irish-owned firm, came news of a change of hands of mass-circulation daily Trud and its stablemate Yellow Trud.

The deals, both subject by law to approval by the Competition Protection Commission, come with Bulgaria’s May 25 European Parliament elections just more than a month away.

The commission’s findings on the deals could take about a month to three months to announce.

The first deal, involving a number of publications in Sofia and one in Veliko Turnovo, drew significant attention because New Bulgarian Media Group is owned by Irena Krasteva, mother of controversial MP Delyan Peevski and a considerable figure in Bulgaria’s media landscape.

Peevski, whose abortive appointment in June 2013 as head of the State Agency for National Security (SANS) triggered months of public protests demanding the resignation of the government, now has a highly electable place in the European Parliament election candidate list of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF).

Twice elected a member of the National Assembly for the MRF, his place as an MP for the MRF was twice challenged in the Constitutional Court after the SANS appointment controversy. The court left him in place as an MP, but he has not been seen in the House since taking the oath as head of SANS.

Peevski consistently has rejected claims of being the real owner of his mother’s media group, although eyebrows were raised when he referred to these outlets as “my media” in an interview in which he alleged that he had been approached by the former government to ensure soft-pedal coverage of certain alleged organised crime figures.

For much of the term of that government, the media group’s coverage was positive towards then-prime minister and centre-right GERB party leader Boiko Borissov, but there was a diametric turnabout a few months ahead of the May 2013 elections.

Amid the turbulence of the early 2013 “cost-of-living” protests, directed against the GERB government over electricity prices, a process began of one of the media group’s employees, former television talk show host Nikolai Barekov, having a political party formed around him.

It had been expected that the editorial line, anti-GERB and for the current ruling axis, with prominent coverage for the sayings and doings of Barekov, would continue up to the European Parliament elections.

The newspapers deal involves Media Makers Limited, the directors of which have been identified as John Raymond Phelan and Patrick Halpenny.

Halpenny, an experienced business person principally with a track record as a financier, formerly was an executive with Communicorp Group, whose portfolio includes about half a dozen well-known Bulgarian-language radio stations. Local media said that Media Maker Ltd was registered in Dublin on April 9, just two days before the announcement of the deal involving New Bulgarian Media Group’s print publications.

Then came the deal involving Trud and Yellow Trud. The seller is Media Holding AD, which according to the Commercial Register, most recently reported a loss in 2012 of a net 3.7 million leva.

The preliminary agreement on the change of hands was signed by Media Holding’s Venelina Gocheva and Petyo Bluskov.

Trud and its stablemate 24 Chassa came into the stewardship of Gocheva, until then a senior editorial staff member, after a dramatic saga that followed the departure of their previous owner, the WAZ Group, and a complicated contest in which business people Lyubomir Pavlov and Ognyan Donev – owners from 2010 – came under considerable pressure from external forces.

Local media reports said that Bluskov had expressed positive views towards Peevski and Barekov and previously had dealings with Krasteva, to whom he had sold publications he had founded.

Bulgaria has two rival publishers’ associations and Bluskov is a member of the one of which Krasteva is a member.

Bluskov reportedly told editorial staff after the preliminary agreement was announced that he intended reviving Trud to make it more dynamic.

A new company, Bluskov Media, was registered in the Commercial Register on April 16, its chartered activities including acquisition and management of media projects.

Separately, details also have emerged of how advertising budgets to promote EU operational programmes were shared out among Bulgarian-language media.

Against a background of a difficult contest for advertising revenue, sources of funding such as large government-sourced advertising deals and, further, external grants and sponsorships from external organisations are important to the financial viability of media.

These processes take place against the broader background of Bulgaria’s media landscape being dominated by less than a handful of large players, a situation that repeatedly has been a matter of concern at European and Bulgarian level, and in particular among independent international commentators on that media landscape.

According to a report by the office of Bulgaria’s cabinet, over the past 10 months the current government had allocated 6.28 million leva in promoting EU programmes, of which 4.5 million arose from contracts dating from before June 1 2013, before the current government took office.

The largest sums went to three privately-owned media, Darik Radio, Nova Televizia and Bulgaria on Air. In turn, much of the sums paid for advertising with these three dating from pre-mid-2013 contracts. After the new government took office, the sums for TV7, where Krasteva is an owner, have increased significantly, though they remain much less than the money received by Darik.

Sums that went to print media were not stated in the cabinet list because the money was paid through advertising agencies.

(Photo: Brano Hudak/sxc.hu)

* 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.