Jean-Francois Julliard, Reporters without Borders General Secretary: Bulgarian Media in the Grip of MafiaInterview |Author: Milena Hristova | January 7, 2011, Friday // 19:02| views
As Bulgaria's print media are expected to make now public the names of their owners under legislation that the country's parliament adopted last year, Milena Hristova talked to Jean-Francois Julliard, General Secretary of Reporters without Borders, about press freedom in the new EU member state.
The media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has repeatedly described Bulgaria as one of Europe's most repressive countries towards journalists. On the basis of what did you draw that conclusion? Why does the press freedom situation in Bulgaria remain that difficult?
RSF organized two missions in Bulgaria.
We met many journalists and bloggers. RSF correspondents in Bulgaria follow the situation on a daily basis. We also published a Report on Press Freedom in Bulgaria found at: http://fr.rsf.org/bulgarie-entre-resignation-et-resistance-la-05-02-2009,30206.html. We have been monitoring the situation very carefully for many years.
The reasons why Bulgaria is so poorly rated are following:
1. From an economic standpoint:
- A media sector in the grip of "gray" economy and mafia. No public or private investors sufficiently independent to ensure the development of an independent press.
As everywhere in Europe, the newspaper industry suffers from the lack of a large media group capable of guaranteeing the profitability and viability of print titles. There are no investments of foreign media groups except until recently maybe the German group WAZ, but that can not solve the problem. Besides WAZ did not always choose a development system that could reflect the enormous issues raised in Bulgaria.
This leaves the media industry in the hands of the so-called "gray" or "black" economy, which are the only ones to have the funds to invest in the field. These investments however do not guarantee the independence of the media but aim to transform them into a tool for communication or pressure.
- The traffic in the advertising market
The press can not survive economically on its sales. It needs adverts. Public sources and private sources are available but the market rules are neither independent nor transparent. Corruption taints the proper functioning of this system. Institutional advertising (from institutions, political parties, campaign information, etc..) is manipulated. The publicity that comes from the private sector is equally exploited.
Companies that can afford to be advertisers are also linked with the mafia. Investments concentrated in the advertising industry respond to the same logic as that applied for the purchase of titles.
- The labor market is small and limited.
The media sector offers few employment opportunities. Most journalists said the "employees" often work without a contract. Consequences? Feeling insecure, they will conform and yield to more self-censorship. This economic insecurity also opens the door for corruption and mercenaries, for whom, journalism is writing articles "a la carte. "
For freelancers and independent journalists, the situation is even more difficult. They face the same problems as their colleagues called "employees" but they also depend on the goodwill of the media, where they want to publish. Resistance to the status quo within this system is very complicated. Any form of reaction tends to exclude you from the job market or limit your chances to find space for publication.
2. From a legal perspective
If at the insistence of local NGOs the Bulgarian legislation is already in line with European standards, it is not, or at least very rarely, applied by a justice that is still infested with corruption and which does not enjoy independence. Press cases are clearly not subject to independent processing.
Judges are still very poorly trained to address the problems of the press and is very far from having the ability to do so.
Regularly challenged by the investigations of the media, the judiciary does not have more respect for the independence of the press than the political world. In the provinces, the collusion between political authorities and organized crime is often with the complicity of the judiciary. Assuming that these texts are known by the judges, none of them dare to treat the matter with impartiality for fear of exposing themselves to the same type of problems or pressures.
3. From a political perspective
The Bulgarian political class has still not internalized the culture of democracy and the role of the press in this culture. Movements and political parties of all leanings, believe that the press should serve the nation and just sees it as a transmission and communication body. For this generation investigations are not a mission of the press and nothing is done to encourage any change.
The latest developments on the Bulgarian media market have led to a near monopoly by a new media group spearheaded by Irena Krasteva, former head of the Bulgarian State Lottary. The media tycoon is also said to be behind the recent acquisition of the two dailies with the highest circulation in the country – Trud and 24 Hours.How does this monopoly affect the press freedom in a country, which considers itself to be a democracy, and how can it be broken up?
There is currently no such thing as a monopoly of information in Bulgaria, but it is true that the purchase of a large number of titles by Krasteva is disturbing. This acquisition is also curious and tends to create a monopoly. People do not need to have that many titles to inform with quality. But the problem is more about not knowing the people, who are really behind the capital, which is used for these purchases.
How to break this system? There is no answer simply because the influence of these organized crime groups is felt within the whole Bulgarian society. It's the whole system of management that must be changed. In the media sector perhaps we should try to create one or two dailies based on clear ownership and if possible in partnership with foreign groups.
But the press is in crisis in most European countries and there are not many European investors, who might be interested in the Bulgarian market where the general environment and rampant corruption plce too many obstacles and the profitability is extremely limited. We need to convince the European media conglomerates that what happens in Bulgaria, especially in terms of organized crime and grey economy, is already impacting all of Europe and that these problems must be challenged at source. Partnerships between the major European dailies and titles such as Capital or Dnevnik should be able to rise. But we have been trying to raise this issue for over 25 years in all European countries without success.
Do you agree that most Bulgarian paper either fawn over the government or severely censor their criticism?
Yes and no. If the government has undeniable influence and control over public media (TV and radio), a large portion of the titles are not under control as direct and absolute. Many can openly criticize the government and do not hesitate to do that. The quality of this criticism is also not always what you would expect. Even if Bulgaria has excellent journalists, we must also recognize that working as a mercenary is perceived as part of the job, which is certainly not very professional. The investigative journalism requires resources, time, and seriousness. Not all journalists practice their job as they should. This problem is present in other European countries, but not with the same consequences.
The political sphere is obviously important and its power to control and influence can and should certainly not be neglected.
Please also note that the Internet in Bulgaria has great freedom and is not subject to censorship. Criticism of government is totally free. But it is true that the impact of television is 100 times greater than that of the Internet. And in this area, the political sphere has relays very effective in controlling a significant portion of newsrooms.
Did you personally expect that the country will raise its standards in this respect in line with the other member states after its accession to the European Union?
No. The situation was already very difficult when Bulgaria joined the European Union. It has improved a bit since that time but the problems have not changed. The system was established after the fall of the regime of communist dictator Todor Zhivkov. The so-called gray economy or black gangrene of the society in all its key sectors has not been combated following Bulgaria's accession to the European Union. In the media sector mafias have been strengthening their hold each year and the European Union can not change this just like that. The freezing of funds and the blocking of Bulgaria's entry into the Schengen area are a testimony for the European Union concerns over Bulgaria's capacity to meet a certain number of democratic standards, including freedom of the press.
Sofia is among the few European capital cities apart from Moscow where the BBC service is no longer available on FM. Was this decision premature?
There are so many requests to be on the FM band that it is not easy to decide. Other European countries can not accommodate the BBC on FM, which is usually dedicated to local radio. In Bulgaria the BBC World is available in long waves and is not blurred. Bulgarians can also receive BBC World on the Internet. Those who speak English are also more likely to use this medium. This would be better if the BBC could have access to the FM band, but this is not the most crucial factor for the advancement of media freedom in Bulgaria. It would be really good to see FM radios that can have political debates with live questions from listeners, who are not strictly selected.
How transparent is media ownership in Bulgaria? Do you agree with critics who say the new rules obliging print media to make the names of their owners public once a year actually steers clear of putting pressure on the really influential media?
There is no transparency in the Bulgarian media. It is very difficult to identify the real identity of shareholders or those who really run the media in Bulgaria. If Capital weekly or Dnevnik daily are those who make more efforts in this area, most of the tabloids and publications do not have a shareholding as clear as that provided publicly. Journalists do not always know whom they work for. It is not uncommon for journalists to be fired or harassed for having written, without knowing, a critical article on a personality or an economic group that owns the daily where he published it.
Legislative efforts to change the situation are of course laudable and we support them. But again, the texts will only be meaningful if applied. I doubt we'll see the Bulgarian judiciary force the real owners of the media comply with any registry.
There is a lack of huge private investments in the small Bulgarian media market. Do you think that the share held by private hands is very often connected with the organized crime ?
Yes. Organized crime is gradually taking control of many media in Bulgaria. The shadow economy has the most important funds in Bulgaria and can afford to either buy back shares in large numbers or artificially prop up loss-making titles. The investments are not made because the area is economically profitable but because this control will allow the use of media held during communication campaigns that promote or instrumentalize other economic activities from which the real benefits come: public tenders, public works, mobile telephony, energy, tourism, etc..
Moreover, the sector offers significant opportunities for money laundering. At election time, media ownership can also offer the opportunity to play a key role in campaigns, and put in power men, who are more easily controllable.
The times when people from organized crime groups beat or kill journalists is not completely past. But the mafia have evolved and realized there was much more benefit in controlling media by financial arrangements than risk to be visible in any investigation opened for the murder of a reporter or violence against journalists.
Does media freedom have more enemies in Bulgaria today than a few years ago?
No. Unfortunately there is a certain "consistency" in the system that hampers the media freedom in Bulgaria and prevents its improvement. The enemies of yesterday are the same as today. They grow well in hand and have become even more powerful. Those who have found their place in this system have no financial interest in helping the media market evolve and are determined to keep the status quo in place.
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