At the end of each year, the Association of European Journalists – Bulgaria (AEJ-Bulgaria) asks journalists and media experts to share their thoughts about the past twelve months. Below we provide four opinions about 2017, which highlight topics such as political pressure on the media, the state of the public service media, threats towards journalists, the morality of the profession, and the inadequate interpretations of quality standards and good ratings.
2017: The year of total media displacement
Vesislava Antonova (journalist at the Capital newspaper)
We left behind a year of total media displacement. Journalists are on the verge of losing almost all their freedom and falling in the trap of the political class. The struggle for freedom of expression is a process, not a single act, and it requires persistence on the part of both journalists and civil society. Reactions to concrete cases are a necessary but insufficient condition. The more quickly we understand that, the better and the greater the hopes for journalists to return to where they should be – that is, on the side of the truth and the citizens. Practically everybody will agree that no society can have democratic and effectively working institutions without free media.
The media have an important role in the society. They not only inform and shape opinions, but are also responsible for investigating abuses by those in power, especially when institutions are not in a position to do that. When the media are not free and independent, they are essentially used as an instrument for shaping the public opinion in favour of the ruling political and economic elite. This has been confirmed by the annual surveys conducted by AEJ-Bulgaria, the Media Democracy Foundation, and the Alpha Research sociological agency, which indicate that more than 65% of Bulgarians do not trust the media. In addition, Bulgaria ranks 109th out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders’ 2017 World Press Freedom Index, with the country expected to go further down the list in the next edition of the ranking.
Bulgarian journalism, especially Nova Television, has long received threats and warnings by politicians – sometimes on air. It is enough to recall Anna Tsolova’s removal as a co-host of Nova Television’s morning talk show in September 2017 and the arrogant attitudes of Valeri Simeonov, a deputy prime minister for economic and demographic policy and a co-chairman of the United Patriots coalition, and Anton Todorov, a member of parliament from the ruling GERB party and a deputy chair of the parliamentary commission for anti-corruption at the time, in October 2017, toward Tsolova’s colleague, Viktor Nikolaev. The ugly political attacks triggered justified outcries in social media and led to declarations in defense of Nikolaev and the journalistic profession.
The attitude towards the co-hosts of one of the most popular morning talks shows on Bulgarian television is not an isolated case. A year earlier, Nova Television removed works by cartoonist Tchavdar Nikolov from its website. Most of the cartoons made fun of prime minister Boyko Borissov and had also been shown on the morning talk show.
It is also hard to forget the words of Yordan Tsonev, a member of parliament from the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), which he said on Nova Television’s morning talk show when it was still co-hosted by Tsolova and Nikolaev. “[MRF member of parliament and media mogul] Delyan Peevski sends you his regards and wishes you professional success,” Tsonev said at the time. A few months later, Tsolova is no longer a Nova Television host.
It now looks as if it is the turn of the Bulgarian National Television (BNT), which, as a public service media, is the only source of protection for the citizens vis-à-vis politicians. The latter, however, are keen on taking this protection away from the citizens, as indicated by the recent appointments in BNT, including its management board, and the attempts to take down shows and guests. That is why we should be careful and watch what politicians want to make of the public service media. The presence of media turned into megaphones of those in power would lead to an even worse social climate and deprive citizens of access to objective information.
Those in power demonstrated muscles vis-à-vis journalists
Zhana Popova (Sofia University)
2017 was the year of warnings targeting journalists. Government representatives demonstrated their understanding that a warning is an instrument for securing temporary silence.
The measures taken at the end of the year against Ivo Prokopiev, the owner of the Economedia group which publishes popular news media such as Dnevnik.bg and the Capital newspaper, were preceded by calls by MEP Nikolay Barekov, a member of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group at the European Parliament, for tax inspections targeting Bulgarian TV journalists Viktor Nikolaev and Anna Tsolova. The MEP’s accusations were disproved by the subsequent investigation.
The journalists in regional media continue to work under pressure, which people in Sofia learn about only if a story is reported by a more popular outlet, such as Bivol.bg, as was the case with the threats towards journalists and the publisher of Vratsa-based website Zov News.
Polarization in the media is growing, further limiting the options for media consumers who can now choose between propaganda and corporate journalism.
The Bulgarian National Radio (BNR) remains the only information-focused radio station, while Darik Radio continues to survive but offers less and less news content. The subject of media ownership is becoming more important precisely in relation to radio stations but there is yet no improvement.
2017 will go down in history as the year in which those in power demonstrated muscles vis-à-vis journalists. On the same morning talk show, a member of parliament of the ruling GERB party and a deputy prime minister from the United Patriots coalition showed their intolerance to journalists demanding certain answers through the power they represent.
In 2017, the Council for Electronic Media (CEM) selected a new executive director of the Bulgarian National Television (BNT) after a year-long delay, accompanied by diverse excuses in front of the public. The selection left the impression that many people still view BNR and BNT mostly as state media which formally look like public service media.
There emerge two deficit areas: a lack of diversity and a lack of systematically done journalism.
The funniest thing is that journalists started writing memories
Mihaylina Pavlova (host at the Bulgarian National Radio (BNR)
While writing this text, I learned that the Bulgarian National Television (BNT) has been left without a director for its most important department, News and Current Affairs. The reason for this and other changes and appointments are yet to be discussed and analyzed.
I think the main problem for journalism comprised the ethical challenges at a time when propaganda and disinformation prevailed over facts and arguments. In 2017, we did not stop asking ourselves about the morality of the profession, which we practise with love. We were at the border, while on the other side haters, trolls, fake news, and the anonymity possible in social media were laughing at us. The media were building the image of the politician, who later became a bodyguard of free speech. It is even not clear whether free speech has retained its original meaning. Journalism, despite being expected to work in the public interest in a world of shaken values, was often losing its courage because of censorship and certain political manners.
The same shaken values were often twisting patriotism into its uglier forms and building the image of the refugee and of those who were supposedly protecting us against its invasion… Our journalism was running after terrorist attacks, dead people, and destroyed worlds.
The sense of community among journalists was also on the agenda in 2017. Journalists suffer immensely from the lack of consensus among them on the important questions of the day, as well as on matters related to the profession. But where should we look for unity when the dependencies and media ownership remain in the dark, when you risk being fired, and when your labour is undervalued? No, no, this is not an excuse for failing to address those issues. But it may be the result of exhaustion accumulated in the struggle… with the mafia that has a state and media.
I would love to write a few happy words about the younger members of the profession but here the numbers will play a practical joke on me.
The funniest thing in 2017 was that journalism started writing memories as well, bringing together its thoughts scattered in different editions, arranging its priorities, and locking them up in new books. This is an understudied segment of our literature: not exactly journalism, not exactly documentary works, not exactly fiction. I don’t see anything wrong with that. On the contrary, journalism shows in many ways that it is not a quiet activity, which means there is hope.
Literacy versus resistance
Rozita Elenova (a member of the Council for Electronic Media (CEM)
The Bulgarian National Radio (BNR) and the Bulgarian National Television (BNT) were in the focus of 2017 in their own ways – the former with its still unresolved copyright issues, the latter with the changes in its management team. The crisis in BNR was unprecedented. The public service radio station and a copyright association were unable to reach a compromise solution for six months. BNT, for its part, got a new executive director after two terms, and he is again “an insider”. The changes in the public service TV station took place in the last three months of the year but the results are yet to be seen.
In 2017, the two largest private stations in Bulgaria, bTV and Nova Television, showed interviews with people in handcuffs. The reason: the principle “the rating above everything” dominates the shows so much that it leads to an extremely low level of resistance. Hate speech has been established as a model: if you do not speak this way, you are not going to be invited to the TV studios because you are not “interesting”. The acts of humiliation and intrusion in what is considered inviolable is now a norm, discrimination – an everyday reality. The repeated broadcasting of shots containing violence is motivated by the need to keep the audience informed.
The excessive focus on incidents, especially on TV, the brutal intrusion into people’s private space, and the emphasis on personal dramas – all these bring up the topic of professional standards and ethical norms. There inevitably comes the question about the role of self-regulatory mechanisms in protecting the audience from the media’s excessive activity in relation to such events, as well as in preventing secondary traumas among people who have been hurt and members of the audience. The information presented by the big private media causes strong reactions among viewers, especially in social media, which is the result of the approach of the media and their language. All this, however, does not lead to self-regulation.
The terrorist attack during Ariana Grande’s concert in Manchester, the UK, dominated the newscasts and the morning talk shows in the national media. The shots, broadcast repeatedly over the next days, show people running around but they do not contain images of people who have been hurt, bodies of death people, or any other type of audio-visual elements that may affect viewers. Most of the information is based on facts and details reported by BBC. This case is an example of professional reporting of something that is newsworthy – an example of a piece of information delivered with a sense of responsibility.
I believe that viewers’ media literacy can help us free ourselves from the low levels of resistance. I also believe that chasing good ratings without bearing responsibility for creating role models is a tricky and unpredictable boomerang.