The limited access to information about media ownership is a common and shared concern in many European countries. Democratic principles like pluralism, freedom of expression and, what’s even more alarming, right to information, are threatened by its absence.
Author: Rosa Vroom. Rosa is a Spanish freelance journalist, covering Bulgaria and the Balkans
According to Access Info Europe, in only in 9 of 20 countries analysed by the organization can the public find out who the actual owners of the broadcast media are from reports of media regulators or company registers. In Bulgaria neither the legal environment or the media has so far facilitated this data to the public.
What makes the transparency of media ownership so important?
Transparency is undoubtedly a key principle of corporate governance. Along with other consequences such as corruption, fraud, and unfair competition; lack of transparency in a corporation could directly harm the consumer’s fundamental rights.
It is also clear that this premise is even more significant in regard to mass media corporations. Mass media hold an active role in setting up free public opinion, conditio sine qua non for a democratic system. Thus, democracy requires informed citizens, who rely heavily on the media to obtain information.
Moreover, there is a direct relationship between the knowledge of the citizens about the structure, ownership and functioning of the mass media and their capacity to use them freely. Media providers should be revealed to citizenry in terms of their identity as well as of the content they offer. This enables the citizens to evaluate the quality of information in order to make better informed political and personal decisions, not to mention that transparency also contributes to citizen’s trust in the media. Could an improvement of transparency solve the crisis of confidence in Bulgarian media?
How are we supposed to achieve this transparency? Is it actually possible?
Transparency is not only a matter of self-regulation of mass media. A gradual implementation of regulations is a prerequisite for obtaining the suitable conditions for effective transparency. This is one of the conclusions drawn from the research of twenty specialists from twenty countries coupled in the organization Access Info Europe.
Every country analysed had implemented its own measures package based on its mass media structure and democratic tradition. Sometimes the implementation of regulations is also misused as a bargaining chip. For instance, recent changes of the Information Law in Spain are seen as an attempt by the government to gain a more positive attitude from the mass media.
But even if effective transparency rules rely strongly on the former tradition of each country, Access Info Europe has brought together ten standard recommendations in order to enable citizens to evaluate the quality of media. Very important concepts on transparency can be extracted from them.
1. Firstly, indirect disclosure has to be taken in consideration alongside direct disclosure. Basic standard information of print, broadcasting and online media should be revealed to an independent 'media authority' as well as to the public. For instance, the Croatian and Austrian regulations require media ownership details to be published in the freely accessible Official Gazette on an annual basis. In addition, those two countries maintain a media authority to whom mass media have the obligation to report on a regular basis.
2. Secondly, transparency of ownership and transparency of influence in media involve different requirements of information. In order to know exactly who owns (transparency of ownership) and who controls (transparency of influence) the media, the names of the shareholders as well as the names of senior management board members and their relative voting weight need to be known.
In the case of Bulgaria, media ownership research has overshadowed media influence research. As a case in point, despite the fact that Bulgarian printed outlets usually publish names of their management board, there is no formal obligation to do so. This may work as an obstacle for the regulation of newly launched or online media as the necessity of such regulation may be questioned.
In regards to transparency of ownership, Access Info Europe has established all requirements of data needed in order to clarify who the real owners are behind the media corporations. Data that is considered essential ranges from the name of shareholders (with a 5% threshold) to their interests in other companies (media or non-media companies), as well as their position in political parties, as public officials or their family affiliations.
Thus, to be aware if information is partially financed by a bank is as important as knowing if the media owner’s family members share interests in media or politics. Of course, concrete ownership definitions are needed in any case (indirect, hidden, affiliated, linked and cross holdings ).
Regarding non-media companies investing in mass media and its possible consequences, Spain is the perfect bad example. Prior to the so called 'Brick Crisis' as a result of excessively brick-and-mortar based economy, a considerable amount of property companies had started to buy shares in local media. Not having enough indirect and direct disclosure of this ownership information, citizenry was unable to take objective decisions about buying, selling and renting property.
In contrast to Spain and the majority of European countries, such as Norway, Germany and Croatia require media to report extensive ownership information to a publicly designated authority. In Germany the authorities publish a list of nationwide commercial services annually (including broadcasters and parties with participating interests) that is also collated on the website of the KEK, an independent Commission on Concentration of Media.
Access Info Europe has established a good disclosure of the data needed for transparency. However, every country has the need to analyse its presence or absence of information and compare its mass media regulations tradition with other examples in order to take these recommendations into account.
In this sense it's useful to note the case of Austria, where an effective Media Transparency Act was introduced following years of concern about the amount of state money that was spent in advertising in return of positive news coverage. Along with this, Croatia also provides an interesting example in its decision for privatization of Croatian Competition Authority in order to assure its independence.
To get to the point... why don't we know who owns and influences Bulgarian media?
Non-governmental organisations and activists have made serious efforts to find out who stands behind the information in Bulgaria. According to Nikoleta Daskalova, an expert in Foundation Media Democracy, an investigating who is behind the Bulgarian media leads to an investigation of any possible interpersonal or institutional relation as well as detailed monitoring of the news.
So even if there are many 'public secrets' about who owns and controls mass media outlets in Bulgaria it's an arduous task to prove them in order to prevent manipulation or concentration of ownership. Delyan Peevski, Tsvetan Vassilev or Krasimir Gergov are some of the names that citizenry identify as drivers of the agenda setting in Bulgaria. Nonetheless there are no public answers to questions such as 'how do they influence the media?' 'how many outlets do they control?’
As stated by the attorney at law Alexander Kashumov in his report for Bulgarian for Access Info Europe, the laws are not enough to identify ownership. In the case of print and online media there is no requirement to disclose the percentage of ownership. In the case of broadcast media there is no legal requirement to reveal ownership by brokerage; neither to reveal details such as interests of owners in other business. Identifying ownership is a cross-referencing task, a task that is not achievable for the general public. In addition, the fact that some print media are registered as organisations instead of companies makes it even more difficult.
What Mr. Kashumov identified two years ago as a minor problem for Bulgaria because of the relatively small presence of brokerage, has now become one of the most pressing problems as ownership data is often hidden by offshore companies.
While Kashumov does not identify obscure media revenue as a major problem, Nikoleta Daskalova, states it as the single biggest problem in the mass media scene in Bulgaria. Indeed neither printed media nor broadcast media have the obligation to report media revenue on a regular basis. Only in the case of broadcast media it's a requirement for obtaining a broadcasting licence. Additionally most of the outlets in Bulgaria are identified as loss-makers which makes it even more complicated. Where does the money come from? What are the interests behind it?
Recommendations for Bulgaria
Recommendations made by Access Info Europe are a result of analysing different democratic systems that may not have a direct application in Bulgaria. Nevertheless, settling down an ideal of how it should be done may contribute to start a step-by-step improvement. A progressive improvement of the consumer-media relation is a key issue for improving the confidence crisis of mass media in Bulgaria.
1. Rethinking the role of media authorities
It is proven that a media authority is needed in order to control media outlets registration. In the case of Bulgaria, The Ministry of Culture through municipalities controls the registry of printed and online media, the Council of Electronic Media (CEM) controls the broadcast media registry. This media authority needs to be independent from the government, able to sanction efficiently and with limited power in order not to endanger editorial content.
For now no sanctions have been applied at all and the neutrality in the election of members in CEM has been put into question. In this sense, institutions and NGOs should conduct a specialized research to grant limited and independent power to a media organization for that purpose.
2. Facilitating the access to data
To facilitate the access to data to the public, this data should be centralized in a single registry in order to avoid cross-referencing work. This also entails that all media must be registered as companies.
This data must be as complete as possible. In any case it should be required for media to specify who the real owner is and encourage a gradual increase of the requirements. Not to forget that this data must be updated on a regular basis.
3. Self regulation
Changes should be implemented alongside self regulation of mass media. In other words, media should be encouraged to provide basic information to the audience through websites, printed outlets, etc. This will progressively improve public awareness of the importance of knowing who owns and who controls mass media in Bulgaria and improve the relation between consumer and provider of information.
4. Registration procedure for the ownership of online media.
Online mass media are becoming increasingly important. Regardless of the tendency to consider that it is a free and difficult to regulate space, property information needs to be revised and should also be a factor in determining its market presence. The audience has to learn to judge the information depending on the source.
5. Mass media revenue, the key in the information structure in Bulgaria
Access to information regarding advertising revenues and funding from external sources becomes even more important in a difficult economic climate. Media operators may rely increasingly on public funding or become dependent on one or two key sources of commercial revenues.
In a market such as the Bulgarian, where media are identified as loss-makers, the State is a key player. In its role as an advertiser the State distributes funds for promoting EU operational programmes and various public projects. Furthermore this position is used to influence media content.
It is essential to find solutions for Bulgaria against this panorama. Fortunately or not, it is not the only country that has had this problem, and some of the others have moved towards a solution. Croatia requires media to provide data on advertisers and agencies if they make up 10 percent or more of their annual marketing profits. Macedonia requires the disclosure of persons who generate over 30 percent of the advertising of a broadcast in a given year. Austria requires public authorities as well as state-owned companies to disclose the total amount paid to each media organization. Moreover there are some countries like Poland that require media to disclose details about interests or partnerships with non-profit making associations or foundations.
Thus, improving the transparency of the media in Bulgaria must inevitably go through improving the transparency of revenues. This task also includes a collective effort to clarify definitions, terms, rates and limits on investments in the media.
6. Encouraging the public awareness
In addition to the other recommendations, it’s crucial to encourage public awareness. No steps can be taken if the audience does not want an improvement by itself. This also ensures some sustainability in the relationship between consumers and companies.