Shut Up/Down unless You FawnEditorial |Author: Milena Hristova | April 12, 2011, Tuesday // 17:31| views
More than twenty years after the collapse of communism and amidst the increasing commercialisation of the media, a looming monopoly on the media market has emerged as the biggest threat for free speech in Bulgaria.
Sure, there is no such thing as a monopoly of information, but the purchase of a large number of titles by media mogul Irena Krasteva and the recent squabbles over ownership of the WAZ assets in Bulgaria – the first ever monopolist on the local media market, dating back to the 90s - have certainly left a bitter taste in the mouth of the audience.
It proved that in Bulgaria shady figures can afford to buy back shares in large numbers or artificially prop up loss-making titles not because this is economically profitable. They are tempted by the prospect of using the media for money laundering or for promoting other economic activities from public tenders, public works, mobile telephony, energy, tourism, etc. The investments are made with the sole goal of turning the media into a tool for communication or pressure.
Feeling financially and emotionally insecure, the journalists in the purchased titles agree to conform and yield to self-censorship. Thus the collusion between political authorities, organized crime and the monopolist is often with the complicity of the (until recently pretty honest) journalists themselves.
The monopolist and the authorities live in a mutually benefitting symbiosis, which poisons the media market and hurts the interests of society.
Isn't this status quo too dangerous for a country with such an unstable democracy and civil society as Bulgaria?
True, the press is in crisis not only in Bulgaria, but across the whole of Europe. In Bulgaria however the situation is very serious just because the media monopolist has spread its tentacles also to the distribution, printing and advertising sectors.
Even though the print media have made now public the names of their owners under legislation that the country's parliament adopted last year, Bulgaria remains one of Europe's most repressive countries towards journalists. The new law steers clear of putting pressure on the really influential media and revealing the real identity of those who really run the media.
The fundamental right to freedom of expression is a basic principle, but it means rights and obligations – for both journalists and owners.
I remember when Sofia News Agency, the biggest news provider in English in Bulgaria, joined the first in the history of Bulgarian journalism Code of Ethics in November 2004. We had the sincere hope that it will help improve professional standards in this field and build a civic society.
By signing under the Code of Ethics more than forty influential media and media organizations in Bulgaria declared that they are ready to honor the right of the public to receive and distribute reliable information, want to serve as safeguard against speech abuse, show editorial independence and assign priority to public interests.
The code includes provisions to serve as standards in the usage of information by unidentified sources, the preliminary non-disclosure of the source's identity, respect to everyone's personal life, non-publication of children's personal pictures, unless those are of public interest.
Alas, unlike the Media Code of Ethics in other countries, including France, it does not feature the so-called 'conscience clause', which can be invoked when duties imposed on the journalist conflict with his/her voice of conscience. The clause would allow journalists to not feel obliged to conduct themselves unethically merely to protect their job, but be free to quit and claim damages.
This is not the case in Bulgaria, where the media market and the relations between journalists and publishers are very often purely barbarian. It is easy to see that the clause was not included simply because many employers (publishers) would not have signed it in this format.
Elections 2011 are the chance for all to point out the difference between free speech and free talk, between the duty to show and speak the truth and the duty to see the truth as you are expected to see it. Unfortunately, my expectations are that major media outlets will fail the test.
The good news is that Bulgarians are not that stupid. They will find a way to get to high-quality information and make an informed choice.
There is just one lesson they should learn in the run-up to the elections - the lev they pay for a newspaper is as precious as the ballot they will cast.
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