Bissera Zankova and Reni Tsoncheva
The Bulgarian media is often criticised for a lack of transparency of media ownership.
The gist of transparency relates to the public level of honesty and integrity in a given country that enables the media outlets to call themselves a neutral “fourth power” entrusted to structure public agenda and mediate freely the debate. In a narrow sense transparency is about who actually stays behind the news production, while in a general sense it touches on many more characteristics of contemporary media such as independence, pluralism, openness and quality of journalistic work, effective media governance, media accountability and is part and parcel of the overall transparency in a democracy. By enhancing transparency, the media gains trust and credibility in society and this is the most widely shared perspective. “Transparency of media ownership is intended to provide the public with an accessible, continuously updated source of information, and make public whose interests are behind the news and whether there are any conflicts of interest” (Meier & Trappel, 2022: 269).
According to the Freedom House’s Report (2022) about Bulgaria “media ownership remains opaque”. An alarming tendency is the growing concentration and cross-ownership in the media sector. The Media Pluralism Monitor report of 2021 states that “news media concentration scores very high risk (96%) with no improvements in 2021 compared to the previous MPM editions. There are still no specific thresholds based on objective criteria in order to prevent a high degree of horizontal or cross-media concentration of ownership in the news media sector” (Monitoring media pluralism, 2021: 13).
The Freedom House (2022) also warns that “even though the media sector remains pluralistic, many outlets are dependent on financial contributions from the state (through advertising), effectively resulting in pressure to run government-friendly material”. That is why an insistent recommendation of the EU Rule of Law Report (2022: 3) is “to improve transparency in the allocation of state advertising, in particular with regard to state advertising contracted through intermediaries, such as media agencies”.
Due to the efforts of civil society, changes in government, media property shifts and some positive legislative initiatives (the new whistleblower protection legislation adopted in January 2023 with the intention to transpose the minimum standard requirements of the EU Directive on whistleblowing – 2019/1937), in 2023 Bulgaria moved 20 positions upwards according to the Reporters without Borders ranking on freedom of expression and now occupies 71st place. However, the conclusion is that media freedom in the country still remains “fragile and insecure”.
All these observations shape a picture of an unstable media situation with a lot of risks and dependencies and unclear future. These features are rooted in the time of democratic transition when inconsistent reforms, incomplete legal framework, strong economic position of the former communist class and highly commercialised media characterised the Bulgarian media system as an element of a semi-consolidated democracy which was not radically reorganised and journalists had become disunited and submissive to political and economic interests.
Commentators admit that through various mechanisms (often benefiting from legislative loopholes and biased procedures), the state pursues the greater part of public media financing, state advertising in loyal media outlets, media support of municipalities and election advertising (Indzhov, 2021: 14-17).
The effects of these unfavorable factors on the media environment lead to:
“(…) an unevenly developed market, with the de facto dominance of a limited range of entities and with a concentration of the same type of content, with roughness in functioning and with a lack of transparency. These traits ultimately narrow the boundaries of pluralism and infect the environment with risks.” (Daskalova, 2015: concluding section, para. 1).
It is always stated that the Bulgarian media regulatory framework follows accepted democratic models but its implementation has been inconsistent. The Constitution of Bulgaria provides for freedom of expression and freedom of media together with the right to search, obtain and disseminate information (art.39 – 41). The Radio and Television Act (RTA) has been in force since 1998 and the Electronic Communications Act (ECA) since 2003. Bulgarian citizens can get access to public information through the procedure stipulated by the Access to Public Information Act (APIA). The Competition Protection Act (CPA) regulates competition in all sectors without special provisions concerning the media. In order to support transparency in economic activities, public registries are set up. The main bulk of data about media companies is accessible in the Commercial Register and Register of Non-Profit Legal Entities. In addition, other specialised registries are also in operation – with respect to media and online services and distributors at the Ministry of Culture (MC) and several registries encompassing linear, non-linear services, national and foreign programmes and Video-sharing platforms (VSPs) at the broadcasting authority – the Council for Electronic Media (CEM). Amendments flowing from the transposition of the European Union directives have been introduced in national media regulation in connection with the accession of Bulgaria to the Union in 2007. These include the provisions of the Audiovisual Media Services Directive (AVMSD). In Bulgaria, no special legal instrument regulating the press and online media has been adopted so far. Formally, the legal framework creates a sound basis for the media outlets to fulfill their public function. However, laws and legal practice do not full-fledgedly settle the issues of transparency and concentration in the complex media environment. To some extent, existing bodies and norms give the impression of a façade that is ineffective in practice due to incoherence and loopholes. The outlined circumstances blur the whole picture since they require a lot of effort to collect, systematise and compare data in the process of research. In addition it seems that two parallel worlds exist in Bulgaria. On the one hand, it is about the information in official registries and statistics which, though hard to find, still exists. On the other hand, are perceptions of the public based on journalistic stories of political combinations and pressure. And these two worlds do not always operate in harmony. Eventually, the overall impression is that Bulgaria looks like a symbol of the “captured state and captured media” (Mitov, 2020). However, many European standards are in place but media regulation is worth being improved in terms of both – norms and practice.
The majority of the monitored media for EurOMo purposes are owned by companies the economic activity of which is related to media business. Legal instruments in Bulgaria do not explicitly forbid politicians from owning outlets or being members of the management boards. Parties and political movements can also have their media outlets (like BSTV which is under the auspices of the Bulgarian Socialist Party or the nationalistic Skat TV). However, there are no party affiliated owners in the sample studied since those do not have great impact on information and news provision. For the media under investigation, the Director General of BNT Emil Koshlukov is a former politician. Only one media outlet from the sample (Fakti.bg) is owned by a company carrying out activity in the property sector (Sofiiski imoti Ltd). We do not consider this a risk for its news production and circulation since we have not come across information about deviations from normal journalistic processes. Several years ago, the politician and businessman Delyan Peevski and Domuschievi brothers who are business millionaires in other economic spheres and viewed as close allies of the then prime-minister Boyko Borisov, were the biggest media tycoons in the country. In January 2021, Advance Media Group owned by Kiril and Georgi Domuschiev sold Nova to the Amsterdam based conglomerate United Group which provides telecommunications services. In 2020, Peevski sold his media assets (predominantly print media) to the same group and emptied a space for new players to enter the market. His name was also associated with other successful business projects in the media field including Lafka – a huge distribution chain for newspapers, print editions and lottery tickets – which was never proven.
According to reports from the beginning of 2023, United Group is among the largest media and telecom investors not only in the region but in Bulgaria as well. The company, established years ago by Dragan Šolak in Serbia (who continues to be a shareholder in the group), owns here the telecommunications company Vivacom, Nova TV, Net Info, newspapers and radio stations. In recent years, it bought the regional TV and Internet providers – Sofia’s Net 1 and Plovdiv’s N3, and at the end of 2022, it became clear that it also financed the acquisition of Bulsatcom by Spas Russev, in exchange for which it received the fixed and mobile operator infrastructure. The deal was challenged by the competitors of Vivacom – A1 and Yettel Bulgaria- in the Commission for the Protection of Competition (CPC) for possible disruption of competition. Articles claim that United Group’s activity declined in 2022 while its debts had risen.
The opinion of Victoria Boklag, chief executive director of United Group, is that the telecommunication operator Vivacom is the leader in the market of pay TV and Internet, and Nova TV is the leader in terms of television viewership. The company plans to invest new 600 million euros in the next three years to expand its business in Bulgaria. (Nikolov, 2023). This will result in even higher market concentration.
Print media reaches nearly the whole country and the entire population and there are no reports of discrimination. According to the National Statistical Institute the annual circulation for 2021 is 119,588,000 and print media progressively losing influence.
The PPF Group acquired bTV in October 2020 after CME was bought by the late Czech businessman Petr Kellner. The Czech investment group PPF being active investor has additionally expanded its business by acquiring a 9.1% stake in the German broadcaster ProSiebenSat.1 as Bulgarian media reported in February 2023. In Bulgaria, PPF owns the media group bTV and the telecommunications operator Yettel since 2020 through its company Central European Media Enterprises (CME). In Bulgaria the PPF Group also owns one of the country’s three major mobile carriers, Telenor Bulgaria (Yettel), which it acquired in 2018 as part of a 2.8 billion euro deal to buy the Nordic company’s operations in four Eastern European countries. Through the above mention transaction, PPF enters the German media market and becomes the second largest investor in Munich-based ProSiebenSat.1 after the family of the former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Their MFE (MediaForEurope) has expanded its stake to 29.9% in recent months and has become the largest shareholder in the German company (Minkov, 2023). The group operates in 25 countries in various fields – from media and telecommunications to financial services, technology and real estate. Apart from Bulgaria, PPF and its subsidiary CME manage television and online media in Czechia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania and Croatia.
All these changes mark significant shifts in media property and alignment of Bulgarian market with international media markets. The flow of foreign investments in the national media market can be considered a step towards diversification of the media landscape and replacing internal business schemes and political-commercial ties with new economic relationships. However, media specialists remain skeptical about positive outcomes. It can be recalled that Bulgaria has already a long experience with the presence of big foreign investors in the media sphere, but their role is dubious. “The role of foreign investors in the Bulgarian media sector is ambivalent. At the start of the changes, Bulgaria needed role models of quality independent media. Predictably, those role models came from major foreign players which entered the Bulgarian market. All this, however, came at a price. Through their strong dominance on the market, the large foreign companies long suppressed the possibilities for normal development of the Bulgarian media industry” (Spassov, 2021: 74). Another point is that the usual practice after such transformations is to make changes in staff. Sometimes, prominent journalists are fired from media as in the case of the Domuschievi deal. As a result of management interference, reputable investigative media professionals and commentators were dismissed. This poses a threat to the independent production of content serving the public and not political and business circles.
National media are public institutions that rely predominantly on state funding (plus advertising, sponsorship and income from its own activities which do not bring much profit). The Bulgarian National Television (BNT) has four channels. Financial indicators for 2019 and 2020 show that 45% of the national television’s 2019 deficit stems from programme distribution fees, and only 5% of the money goes to the creation of internal and external productions. The financial deficit of BNT at the end of 2019 amounted to over 43 million leva (about 21 million euro). A huge share of the BNT subsidy covers the distribution of the TV signal through the multiplex – about 9million (4.5 million euro) per year. That’s why the BNT announced radical measures and removed some programmes from the multiplex – an action that saves money but leads to a decrease in public value content.
Currently, the Bulgarian National Radio (BNR) has nearly 160 VHF transmitters. The coverage with the signal of national programs Horizon is 97% and Hristo Botev 95% by population. In addition to the VHF, there are FM broadcast transmitters and one MW transmitter (located in Vidin). The Bulgarian National Radio has sound broadcasts in foreign languages, the information programs “Bulgaria Today” in 11 languages (Bulgarian, Albanian, English, Greek, Spanish, German, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, French and Turkish), which are available for listening at www.bnr.bg (https://www.predavatel.com/bg/radio/bnr_bulgaria). The BNR programs (national and regional) are also available through satellite broadcasting.
From all media broadcasting, television maintains its leading position in news provision. 86% of Bulgarians use television for news consumption and 34% – radio. 60% of the respondents use online media for news information (Eurobarometer, 2022). However, the Reuters Institute Digital News Report (2022) stresses that online media (incl. social media) remains the leading news source (88%), social media (72%) and TV (84%) while print media continue to decline (23%). Bulgarians still have low trust in media regardless of a slight increase seen in 2022. Our opinion is that Reuters Institute data (used in our survey) is more relevant in this respect.
As far as relationships between big platforms and local media are concerned the Google’s Digital News Innovation Fund amounting to 150 million euros has supported 662 digital news projects across Europe. Among them only 24 chasa (Smart24chasa is a unique platform for journalism and expression of free opinion by topic) benefits from the innovation funds. Other projects in Bulgaria also get financing but they do not relate to the studied sample. Despite the existence of a commercial agreement between Google and Bulgarian news media (BNR) for the rights to publish their news as a result of the search, there is no indication disclosed by Google about this.
BNR is the most cited Bulgarian media out of 14,000 sources for the period December 2021 – November 2022. For comparison, BNR is cited by 8.9 thousand sources, bTV – by 7.1 thousand, Nova – by 7.6 thousand and Darik – by 6.7 thousand. BNR has an official page on Facebook and accounts on other digital platforms – Instagram, Viber, Telegram, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube. During the period November 2022 – April 2023 BNR social media have developed with a constant growth of average 20%. In the official BNR profiles on social media, a new authoritative and credible language has been introduced and entrenched as a tone of voice. Binar is an Internet channel of BNR and expands as an online platform for podcasts, music and audio-visual content. Google Analytics data shows that binar.bg is a preferred platform by people in active age (18–64 y.o.).
Such transformative activities are carried out by BNT as well. Through the special platform You.bnt.bg viewers can participate in real time in surveys and contribute to the morning news program “The day begins”. BNT Facebook page regularly publishes studio coverage and talks while three new YouTube channels have begun operating at the BNT regional centers of Blagoevgrad, Russe and Varna. Under upgrading are the platforms bntnews.bg and bntsport.bg.
On the other hand, the budget of the two public broadcasters is inadequate and additional funds should be secured for their digitalisation. In 2021, the then government formed by GERB party reduced funding to BNR, BNT and the Bulgarian New Agency (BNA) in order to save costs. Later BNA and BNT received money to meet their public obligations. Thus, in reality, only BNR relied on a smaller subsidy during difficult COVID and post-COVID times but gradually the situation normalised though media specialists and journalists considered it a sanctioning measure on the part of the government put in place to stifle the independent critical voice of national radio. By and large BNT and BNR are still heavily dependent on state subsidies, and this presupposes political influences and pressures.
The general observation of experts is that the radio market is shrinking. From the beginning of 2022, gross investments in radio advertising decreased on average by 2.3% compared to the previous year, amounting to 14.2 million euros. According to the audience measurement service GARB data provided by the media agency Argent, until July 2022 the radio station with the highest rating has traditionally been Vesselina (music), followed by the First Programme of BNR Horizon. From all radio stations, Darik has attracted the biggest share of advertising of gross 3.4 mln euros in 2021 (Hristova, 2022).
Against the background of these dynamic broadcasting media reforms the print media’s market presence seems very modest.
Though multiple providers operate according to the Digital Economy and Society Index (2021) the proportion of households in Bulgaria (84%) with subscription to Internet in 2021 showed the lowest rate of the internet take up among the EU Member States. The urban-rural divide in the internet use persists. Only 31% of the population possess at least basic digital skills. Bulgaria has the lowest rates of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) digitalisation.
The internet audience increases, and according to Gemius and Google Analitics 24chasa.bg is the largest news site in Bulgaria with over 250,000 unique visitors per day.
The TV infrastructure in the country is diverse. There are two national operators of FM radio broadcast stations in the whole territory of the country (three national programs and nine regional programs) and 57 operators of local FM broadcast stations. However, official statistics of coverage for any of them are missing. Coverage maps (predavatel.com) for these stations by field strength and by territory are available. These maps present a conditional coverage of the radio network without a statement of technical precision (https://www.predavatel.com/bg/karta/radio_networks). The national regulatory authority in the field of communications networks – the Communications Regulation Commission (CRC) does not report content discrimination or similar infringements.
According to the Annual Report of the Bulgarian Communications Regulation Commission (2021) there is an increase in the number of subscribers and in their relative share in the total number of subscribers of pay-TV in IP television which reached 33.1%. Nevertheless subscribers of satellite television still take the largest share, 42% of the total number of pay-TV subscribers, while the number of cable TV subscribers has reached 25%. As for digital terrestrial television, there is only one operator of one national MUX with coverage of 96.74% of the population with six programmes on it and one regional MUX for Sofia region with four programmes. It is extremely insufficient for the territory of Bulgaria. Only 4% (145,782 households) of the population receive digital terrestrial television (DVB-T) because of the lack of coverage, low quality signal and poor reception in rural regions (Ipsos, 2021).
One of the biggest telecommunications operators Vivacom is also a big mobile operator. Vivacom is the former Bulgarian Telecommunications Company AD (BTC) and the country’s former state telecoms monopoly. Vivacom Bulgaria officially became part of United Group in 2020, the leading telecommunications and media operator in Southeast Europe as mentioned, the majority share owned by BC Partners. This is an example of the fusion of business in the media and telecommunications sectors.
Central to media operation are journalistic activities and journalistic output and in many cases their interests diverge from the interests of the owners. The Radio and Television Act (Art.11 para 5) recommends journalists to adopt statutes for journalistic work with the owners or media boards with whom they have concluded contracts, but the requirement is implemented (if at all) only in the broadcasting sector. These acts are meant to protect freedom and personal inviolability of journalists and may provide for the establishment of conflict-resolution commissions. From our survey it remains unclear whether commercial media also use the provision as a basis of their internal editorial processes. The acceptance of the norm is vivid only about the two national broadcasters since it is reflected in their publicly accessible regulations. However, there is no information in the BNT and BNR reports on how such internal organisational rules actually function and what their impact on media governance is.
The general impression is that the work of the editorial or other boards including ethical commissions at public service media remains unclear and there is no information at all about the practices at commercial media.
Other noticeable negative tendencies relate to journalistic freedom. Though not often publicly announced, almost every second journalist underlines that she has personally been subject to undue pressure because of her work (47.5%). Since 2017, self-censorship has grown by an average of 5% according to the polls conducted by AEJ-Bulgaria. A new phenomenon is also emerging – online harassment, insults and threats on social networks and forums. SLAPP cases are increasing though officially only 300 cases have been reported and a special platform for registering lawsuits in which media and journalists are involved has been set up at the High Court of Cassation in order to enhance transparency.
The main targets of improvement in the media sector should be the regulatory framework of media transparency and competition and the registries in force. An efficient regulatory measure could be a special chapter on media ownership and cross ownership to be included in the Protection of Competition Act. This will allow for the establishment of clear thresholds and conditions for transactions in the media sector respecting transparency and media pluralism. Second to that, such amendments will serve as a basis a consistent national practice to be developed. It should be recalled that in the deal of Nova TV the CPC took two controversial decisions in a very short period of time (raising a grounded suspicion of political interference) without any argument premised on the protection of media freedom principles. Firstly, it issued a prohibition to the Czech billionaire Petr Kellner’s PPF Group to buy the media outlet. The state regulator’s rationale was that Nova Broadcasting Group had a large market share, which would give it a substantial advantage over other media service providers if property is changed. The decision was appealed, but Swedish owner MTG terminated the deal before waiting for the case to begin. A month later it was confirmed that the Domuschievi would be the new owners. This time the CPC approved the deal, although the brothers’ huge business in other spheres had already become a part of the television market since they held the rights to broadcast the domestic football championship, of which Nova TV was the buyer.
Registries also need reforms to become reliable and easy to use. For the time being, the most helpful registry is the Commercial Register and Register of Non-Profit Legal Entities. Other specialised registries – at the Ministry of Culture and the Council for Electronic Media refer to it but there is no good harmonisation between the three allowing easy cross-referencing. Information is also not regularly updated. With regards to print media in Bulgaria, information about the ownership of media enterprises is accessible to the public, but share ratios are not, meaning that one can identify whether a person holds an interest in a certain enterprise, but not the extent of this interest. Information on circulation is also obscure.
The Open Parliament blog, a platform of the non-profit Institute for the Development of Public Environment, has carried out independent survey (2021) of the role and outcomes of the Mandatory Deposition of Print and Other Materials Act registry at the Ministry of Culture and has come to the conclusion that it features many problems instead of fostering transparency. Assessment of the data shows that the register reflects the so-called financing and the value of contracts concluded with public institutions. However, the commercial transactions of the media with private legal entities are not covered either, insofar as the latter constitute a trade secret and are protected by the Law on Protection of Competition. The total amount of funds which is reflected in the register is therefore much lower than the real funds which are at the disposal of the media. A serious drawback which hampers analysis, for example, is filling of declarations without adopted uniform standards. We agree with all these inferences.
In Bulgarian legislation, there is no provision about measures of support for the visibility of public interest content published on internet platforms. There is such provision (art.8b RTA) about media services and it is declaratory. However, public service media reports provide information about pursuing policies towards increasing their availability and visibility online.
A positive step in the telecommunications sector is the procedure for quality improvement of communication services.
The relatively lower number of proceedings in 2021 compared to 2020 is a clear trend of decreasing cases of referral requests to the CRC for dispute resolution in connection with access to physical infrastructure. In order to facilitate the parties to dispute pursuant to the Law on Electronic Communications Networks and Physical infrastructure (LECNPI) by Decision No 357 of 14.10.2021, CRC adopted draft Rules of Procedure of the Communications Regulation Commission for dispute resolution under Chapter Eight of the LECNPI, which was discussed through a public consultation procedure with the sector and other interested parties.
In progress is the Mechanism for Measurement and Monitoring of Quality of Service Parameters for Internet Access to be approved for the purpose of the implementation of Art. 4(4) of Regulation (EU) 2015/2120 as a remedy in the event of a continuous or regularly recurring discrepancy between the actual speed indicators of the internet access service or other quality of service parameters and the indicators announced by the internet access service provider.
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Country report published in September 2023