Does independent journalism have a future in the EU?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Businessman and media mogul Delyan Peevski is at the centre of most scandals in Bulgaria. [Dnevnik] [ClubZ]

Bulgaria’s harsh media landscape should serve as a warning about declining press freedoms in Europe, writes Kadrinka Kadrinova.

Kadrinka Kadrinova is a Bulgarian journalist specialising in international affairs. She worked for Tema magazine, until its recent closure.

This article was prompted by the closure on 1 August of the newspaper Presa, and Tema magazine. I had the pleasure to work for more than 10 years at Tema and to enjoy, together with my colleagues, the chance to engage in analytical, critical and intelligent journalism. My personal case is of course a small detail in the picture, but I use it to testify that Tema enjoyed a good reputation among its readers, and was in fact a rare oasis in the Bulgarian media landscape, where erzatz journalism prevails.

The daily Presa is a similar case. Although it appeared more recently, Presa was able to earn a reputation as a serious newspaper.

Why were these two media outlets were destroyed? Why did 135 journalists lose their jobs? Their publishers mentioned two reasons: a difficult market, and the Internet. Which means that quality journalism could not withstand the competition of the tabloid press, and that the modern reader had stopped buying print periodicals, preferring to be informed online.

These explanations were supplemented by publications in which publishers explained that the poor situation of print publications is a result of a bad legal procedure which favoured television and radio stations in obtaining state funds originating from EU programs.

Others mentioned the famous case of a failed bank [Corporate Commercial Bank (CCB)] suggesting that the publications that had just closed had debts to that bank, and that they had been sold to another company, together with debt from CCB

The truth is difficult to ascertain. What is certain is that society once again is trapped in a room with curved mirrors, and that people do not believe what they see

I don’t believe that tabloids have triumphed over the serious press. When both are property of the same oligarch, he is the emperor who decides which gladiator should should live or die.

I don’t believe that the Internet triumphed over print periodicals, either. For example, air transport has developed immensely, but trains continue to run.

But I agree that there are problems with financing. The private press in Bulgaria made its start in the early 1990s thanks to advertising from banks and mobile operators. Then there was a period of pre-accession financing, of brave foreign investors and optimistic Bulgarian businesses. These times are over. Now publishers seek funding from foreign foundations, which as a rule seek a geopolitical affiliation in exchange, or money from EU programs, redistributed by the government. The government of course seeks to fraternise with the publishers in exchange.

There is another peculiarity of the Bulgarian media landscape which needs to be highlighted. Those who speak in public about the problems of the journalistic profession are always the publishers, and never the journalists. The journalists know that they risk losing their jobs, and don’t risk speaking feely. The maximum you could expect is for one of them to write a post on Facebook. A journalistic strike is impossible in Bulgaria.

The Bulgarian journalistic syndicate, the Union of Bulgarian Journalists (SBJ), is consistently neglected and under attack by publishers, beginning with the democratic changes of 1989, until today. SBJ issued a strong declaration on the closure of Tema and Presa, warning that other media with debts could follow. But even the media in question didn’t dare republish the statement. How could they? This is what the declaration says:

“The Bulgarian media are victim of a hideous process of monopolisation and concentration in the hands of people dependent on the authority before which the alternating governments turn a blind eye. There is a dire need for transparency and clarification of media ownership, funding channels, the advertising and the distribution network, to make it clear who serves whom and with what money. No steps are taken in this direction, because the current situation is clearly advantageous to the political elite and fiercely defended by overt and hidden lobbyists. All this makes it extremely difficult to exercise the journalistic profession today. The social and labor rights of journalists are violated. Market distortion blurs the line between information and advertising, between an objective, independent and custom reporting. This diminishes the prestige of journalism and [prohibits] journalists to carry out their mission – to serve the public interest. “

SBJ reminds us that Bulgaria has fallen to 106th place in the 2015 World Press Freedom Index of Reporters without Borders [It was 51st when the country joined the EU in 2007], a clear reflection of the state of the media and the level of democracy in the country.

SBJ also raises the question of the need for adoption by parliament of legislation protecting professional journalism and journalists’ work. Such legislation would prevent the media from the shocks exemplified not only by the suspension of Presa and Tema, but also by attacks on other media. A recent critical article in Sega newspaper prompted an acute verbal reaction from the Bulgarian Prime Minister [Boyko Borissov] and was followed by the opening of a tax inquiry into that outlet.

The European institutions possess the necessary mechanisms for an adequate and responsible action against the deterioration of the media landscape. They could take new initiatives, such as the establishment of a European fund to support independent journalism that would subsidize as a priority, for example, cooperatives created by journalists following the ethical principles of the profession, and safeguarding the public interest.

It would also be good to introduce legislative changes to ensure state protection of such cooperatives in registering their facilities and providing tax relief. This approach could serve as global model through the UN and the International Federation of Journalists.

Since the EU was able to put in place the notorious Financial Stability Pact, ensuring the survival of banks, it is time for the Union to launch an initiative for its citizens, upholding the right of society to benefit from free and independent information.

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