European elections 2014: Bulgaria’s media sideshows
First, there is the number game, as always – the percentages in opinion polls, the counts of participants at election campaign rallies.
With Bulgaria’s European Parliament elections just 25 days away, nothing much has changed about the sharply polarised divisions within rival camps of political parties and media, apart from the official campaigning period having started and so some sort of rules are meant to apply.
Largely futile calls have been made for even-handed reporting by the media, but not much can be expected when even the mathematics of attendance at campaign events is at play.
Take, for example, the Bulgarian Socialist Party’s May 1 rally, annually an iconic event for the party but also this election year a major campaign event.
The question of numbers at political events has a particular piquancy in recent Bulgarian political life. The vastly varying estimates of turnout at the anti-government rallies that began in June 2013 is a case in point. Pro-government media referred to “miniscule protests” when, in the first few months, numbers of people running into the many thousands were in plain view in central Sofia. Among anti-government circles, the official statements by the Interior Ministry became a running joke for seeming to be knocking off decimal places in their statements on turnout.
More recently, at a Bulgaria Without Censorship rally in Plovdiv, before the start of the campaign period, media allied to the cause of BWC leader Nikolai Barekov saw “several thousands” at the event, while local reporters – who accompanied their account with photographs taken over the space of more than an hour at the peak of the event – saw somewhere between 150 and 200.
And so to the BSP event, which according to the party’s website was attended by 20 000 members and supporters of Sergei Stanishev’s party. Local news agency Focus and Bulgarian-language local website Dnevnik agreed with this number in their accounts, while Mediapool and bTV used a phrase that, in translation, could mean “a few thousand” or “several thousand”. Offnews saw 10 000 people while Bulgarian state-owned news agency BTA confined itself to a reasonably indisputable “thousands”.
Boiko Borissov, leader of the principal rival of the BSP, centre-right GERB, performed a political rain-dance on the BSP parade, telling reporters that Stanishev had phoned editors to plead that his rally be described as having a turnout of 20 000. In reality, it had been only 6000, rumbled Borissov.
The question of turnout at events should, in theory, not be that much of a challenge for a trained and experienced reporter, whose skills are meant to include crowd-counting.
But in the heady days of election campaigns, estimates of crowds and projections from political opinion surveys tend to descend into morasses of subjectivity.
Depending on the vague allegiances or outright bias of media groups in Bulgaria, some surveys tend to be given more weight than others. April 29 and 30 provided a fine example. Alpha Research released on Tuesday a survey showing GERB about two points or so ahead of the BSP, while the following day, Sova Harris came out with one showing the opposite. The latter poll was trumpeted prominently in pro-government, anti-GERB media. A few media cover any old poll indiscriminately, leaving – for example – television viewers casually glancing at the news with the possible conclusion that their fellow Bulgarians must be a fickle bunch indeed, as the fortunes of political parties yo-yo sometimes just a day apart.
The second syndrome about these elections, and hardly unique in the history of elections in any country where a multiplicity of parties and the voting process actually have some meaning, is that it did not take long for the first complaint to come in from a minor party that it was not getting its fair share of coverage.
World-weary political journalists will have many war stories to tell about two-people-and-a-fax-machine parties decrying the media for ignoring them. (Then again, even parties that win majorities of more than 66 per cent have been known to complain, not only for their every wise utterance not being covered, but also not sufficiently in praise-singer style.)
In the case of Bulgaria’s 2014 European Parliament elections, first past the post in the whingeing stakes was the National Movement for Stability and Progress and its coalition partners. The party, which in 2001 won a decisive victory in parliamentary elections, has all but disappeared into minor-font footnote status (failing to win seats in the National Assembly in 2009 and in 2013), and is standing in this vote with partners of notable obscurity.
It has filed a formal complaint against public broadcaster Bulgarian National Television (BNT) to the Council for Electronic Media, railing against the rules for participation in BNT’s early-evening debates. The rules, according to the NMSP, were “intended only to be detrimental to the smaller parties who are unable to pay for expensive TV packages in private”.
On the media front, meanwhile, also in play was Alfa TV, mouthpiece of Volen Siderov’s far-right ultra-nationalist Ataka party.
The anti-government Protest Network (not standing in the election) wrote to the Council for Electronic Media asking it to rescind the licence of Alfa TV for what the network alleged was “systematic preaching of hatred and violations of the Radio and Television Act”.
The Protest Network also called on CEM to refer Alfa to prosecutors for hate speech in breach of the Penal Code.
In its letter to CEM, the network cited the law that says that media outlets are required to prevent the creation or delivery of broadcasts inciting national, political, ethnic, religious or racial intolerance.
The network said that it believed that the hatred preached by Alfa TV was publicly known and documents by experts of CEM as a fact. Randomly selected watching of the TV station would give CEM and every democratically minded citizen sufficient grounds for supporting the network’s request for the cancellation of Alfa’s TV broadcast licence, the letter to CEM said.
The Protest Network, nonetheless, added some examples it had chosen, in which it alleged that an Ataka MP appearing on the station had referred to refugees from Syria as variously “scum”, “mass murderers”, “cannibals”, “savages”, “Islamic fundamentalists fleeing from justice” and “seedy primates fleeing the law in Syria”.
Reports on April 30 said that CEM would consider the Protest Network’s letter some days after the end of the May 1 to 6 special public holiday. Just what will emerge is unclear, given that there were reports previously alleging that earlier correspondence sent by the broadcast regulator to Ataka had been returned unopened. But then again, given that no opinion poll of any stripe shows Ataka as winning any European Parliament seats, that party’s worries may lie elsewhere than in being disturbed by the Protest Network or CEM.
(Photo: Michal Zacharzewski/sxc.hu)