Bulgarian Plurality and the Public Broadcaster

Editorial |Author: Phil Davies | December 2, 2009, Wednesday // 19:50|  views

November was not a good month for the media: in Bulgaria, in Britain, in the Philippines, in Central and South-East Europe.

Last Friday, the TV station Re:TV closed down for lack of finance. The Bulgarian public was thus deprived of a source of news and information. Whether one liked the station or not, it had a distinctive voice, now silenced.

One week ago, Bulgaria’s far-right, nationalist Ataka party submitted to parliament a proposal for amendments of the Radio and TV Act.

The changes involve canceling TV news broadcasts in languages other than Bulgarian. This in turn means the real point of the exercise - elimination of the short Turkish-language news program, currently broadcast on Bulgarian National Television (BNT) at around 4 pm.

In the UK, the BBC’s Director-General announced on Thursday last that program services would most likely be cut after digitization is completed in 2012.

In the Philippines, the largest ever massacre of journalists in a single day occurred in politically motivated violence.

SEEMO, a media NGO, has on Wednesday highlighted its continuing concerns about unacceptable pressure put on journalists and managers of public broadcasters throughout the central and south eastern countries of Europe.

So, what is going on? What is happening to our broadcast media? What effect does all this have on us, the viewing, listening public?

The BBC Charter succinctly defines the essential role of the public broadcaster:

“The Public Purposes of the BBC are as follows -

(a)sustaining citizenship and civil society;

(b)promoting education and learning;

(c)stimulating creativity and cultural excellence;

(d)representing the UK, its nations, regions and communities.”

These “public purposes” are emulated the world over, by both public broadcasters and by many responsible commercial organizations.

It seems, however, that in too many recent cases, these “purposes” are being eroded, or are under severe attack. Attack by whom? The viewers and listeners? No – it’s the politicians, almost always the politicians.

The recent furor about the Turkish news on BNT is surely a case in point. Ataka wants it banned from the airwaves, cleverly confusing nationality and ethnicity.

"Bulgaria is a state of one nationality and it is unacceptable to have any divisions on ethnic or racial bases," declared Volen Siderov, the party leader. This refers to the Bulgarian Constitution which states that Bulgarian is the official language of the country.

But, where are the divisions he mentions? Do they exist to any significant extent? Does that fact that this is written in English undermine respect for Bulgarian nationality? So what, if one speaks Turkish, or Roma?

The UK is (for once, fair play) a good example - not perfect, admittedly – of the ability to foster a positive idea of nationality while catering to ethnic and racial minorities in their preferred languages.

This is perceived by the majority as a meaningful way to promote dialogue and better understanding among the variety of minorities living in Britain. No-one for the most part becomes agitated on seeing or hearing a broadcast in a language they do not understand.

In fact the opposite was true, historically. Take the example of the Welsh for a moment. The language is among the oldest in Europe. Sadly, it is now spoken by only some 20% of the people. It was not recognized as an official language until 1993, after a campaign that extended over 50 years on the part of the Welsh.

Now, the Welsh-speaking minority have their own national public service TV and radio channels. They have a choice, in other words. And the non-Welsh speaker is not deprived of anything, as he/she has plenty of choice on other, English channels.

Returning to the Bulgarian example cited above: BNT’s Director-General, Uliyana Pramova, made some significant remarks earlier in November, when the Turkish news row began to erupt. She said:

"My personal opinion is that at the end of 2009, we are more intolerant than 10 years ago - to 'different' people.

"No matter how low the rating of the Turkish National Television news, watched by 50 000 - 60 000 people per day, the removal of this news at the moment would deprive these people of this information, which they obviously need.

"My professional opinion is that, in the future development of BNT, multiple programs for minorities in their mother tongue will be provided."

Surely this is a true, public-spirited attitude, to recognize the differences that exist among Bulgaria’s population, and to try to cater to those distinctive needs?

The statement shows a comprehensive appreciation of the ethos that has always pervaded the serious public broadcaster: while providing a full range of programming for the majority, to bear in mind that minorities, whether racial, ethnic or religious, have rights as citizens, and to provide an adequate and relevant service to them.

Another unique facet of public broadcasting is the audience number. "No matter how low the rating of the Turkish news… " the DG of BNT said. No commercial broadcaster can afford to think like that. The public remit ignores mass ratings when dealing with specialist or minority programs. So the DG also emphasizes "... this information, which they obviously need" – the most significant service the public broadcaster can, and should, provide.

We have to wait to see what may eventually come of this politically aggravated situation. But there are other, similar cases in the region.

In Bosnia & Herzegovina, the public broadcaster is under severe political pressure, with attacks from across the entire political spectrum. Meantime, it struggles to remain professional, independent, and to cater to three distinct national groups who remain wary of each other.

Kosovo is similar. RTK, the public broadcaster, founded in the 1990s, had been praised as a model in the Balkans. Not so now – the Director has recently resigned after a single year in the job, citing unbearable pressure to use the broadcaster for purely political ends.

In Hungary, MTV (no, not the music channel) now finds itself in a huge financial mess, the consequence of a savage cut in funding by the country’s government, a decision rumored to have been taken, not on economic grounds, but for political gain.

The sad fact is that, all too often, it is the national public broadcaster that provokes politicians of all colors. If it is doing its job properly, it is going to expose political wrong-doing, corruption, and unacceptable rhetoric.

It thus quickly becomes a thorn in the flesh, is perceived as a threat to the “establishment”, and is all too often vulnerable to retribution by the political classes.

There is a complete and deadly paradox in the behavior of politicians of all colors, everywhere: on the one hand, they constantly clamor to appear on TV themselves, to put across their views; and on the other, they want to restrict discussion, criticism, comment by or on behalf of, the public they are supposed to serve.

So, when the public broadcaster succumbs as an institution, the real loss is – to us, the public, who lose good programs, who get propaganda instead of news, who miss out on real and relevant information.

And all that in a modern democracy? Where are the "public purposes", when there is no real possibility of “sustaining citizenship and civil society; promoting education and learning; stimulating creativity and cultural excellence; representing the nation, its regions and communities”?

We have all been there before, in our different ways.

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Tags: Uliyana Pramova, SEEMO, Turkish language news, BBC Charter, Volen Siderov, Ataka, kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hungary, Bulgaria, BNT, public broadcaster, Wales


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