Director of Bulgarian national radio denounces political and economic interference

When Andon Baltakov announced that he was resigning as CEO of Bulgarian National Radio (BNR), he hoped that it would serve as a catalyst for change when it came to the independence of the press in the country.

“For a CEO to resign nine months after taking office … something is wrong,” he said.

The director general has told Euronews that he is very upset with the hypocrisy that, according to him, the government shows to prevent real changes from taking place in a country described by Reporters Without Borders as “the black sheep of the European Union”.

However, Baltakov says he has received little support for his initiative, beyond his colleagues at BNR, and he has also not seen any strong views expressed on his position.

The manager’s main motivation was the fact that, according to him, a part of the draft amendment to the Bulgarian Law on Radio and Television that had been proposed by a group of industry leaders before it was submitted to consultations was deleted public on the website of the Ministry of Culture.

The bill regulates the financing of public service media and the deleted text referred to boards of directors, their mandates, obligations and their control, according to the BNR.

“A politician cannot change a draft and remove sections, remove the opinions of experts,” he said.

“For me it was a clear sign that there was no political will to really transform the public service media into truly independent organizations … to grow independent from organizations of political and economic interference.”

The Bulgarian Ministry of Culture told Euronews that the working group was formed to give “all parties the opportunity to freely and broadly conduct the debate on the media without imposing their own position or policy.”

He added that the amendment is currently under public discussion and that “the opinion of all those interested in the process will be taken into account.”

Since then Baltakov has withdrawn his resignation due to what he describes as an emotional outpouring of staff, he decided to stay and “keep fighting” for his station to be independent, “free from political and economic influence”, but what is he facing?

What is the situation in Bulgaria?

Since 2011, when he first conducted field research in the country, James Dawson says it is “clear that freedom of the press in Bulgaria is on the decline.”

In fact, since 2013 Bulgaria’s position in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index has dropped 24 places, standing at 111th in 2020.

The organization cites several incidents that justify the low score on its barometer, including the suspension of prominent journalists and the ownership of some major media outlets.

The two most popular media groups in the country – NOVA Broadcasting Group and BTV Media Group – changed ownership and shortly thereafter, investigative reporters Miroluba Benatova and Genka Shikerova were forced to leave NOVA, according to RSF.

Dawson, who is now a professor of comparative politics at Coventry University, says: “Bulgaria is the kind of place where you have to pay attention to social media and forget about the major newspapers if you really want to know what’s going on.”

In his opinion, the leaders of investigative journalism in the country are online media that are financed by contributions from users, but he says that “journalists who do this kind of thing are personally harassed.”

The International Press Institute (IPI), a global network for press freedom, asked Bulgaria’s chief prosecutor in July to ensure a transparent investigation into the death threats to investigative journalist Nikolay Staykov.

Staykov, a well-known Bulgarian journalist who was a co-founder of the NGO Anticorruption Fund, said that in June he received threatening phone calls as part of a “coordinated” campaign of harassment that he claimed was related to an investigative documentary he had produced on the alleged corruption of the State.

But according to Gergana Dimova, a professor at the University of Winchester, although “most of the traditional media are controlled by the government and pro-government oligarchs”, it is important that there are “some ‘islands’, where they live and sometimes independent journalism thrives. “

Although he says that the degree of censorship and self-censorship is difficult to measure, he adds that beyond the conclusions of the RSF report, the situation in Bulgaria is more nuanced.

“Certain online media allow free and often politically heated discussion in the comment section, which is really where the crossover of political segments of the public occurs,” according to Dimova.

“The bottom line is that if you are unhappy with the government, and you come home after a hard day’s work, you can choose to watch news and political analysis on TV or on your computer screen.”

How do we get here?

Dawson told Euronews that since the pro-European center-right GERB party came to power in 2009 with Boyko Borisov as prime minister, “they have been doing a lot of things that essentially caused their assessment of the level of democracy to plummet.”

“Perhaps the most serious thing they were doing was clearly repressing the media,” according to the researcher.

Dr. Maria Spirova, Associate Professor of Comparative Politics and International Relations at Leiden University believes that the phenomenon started much earlier, there has been a general decline in freedom of the press in the last 15 years, “she says.

In the private sector, he attributes it to “a very high concentration of media ownership in the hands of a few people … which, of course, contributes to influencing not only personnel decisions, but also editorial decisions “.

As for national radio and television, he says that the channels have “more or less transparent political ties with the government because they are run by boards that are in turn appointed by the various political actors.”

“If you add links between the economic sector and the government, things get complicated. I think it is the current situation and what has happened during the last four or five years,” adds Spirova.

Is change possible?

Baltakov says it takes the government’s will to make the changes and transform the BNR into a public service media organization.

“We have to put the house in order to move forward,” he said, adding that many journalists in Bulgaria “need to go back to basics” by prompting them to use “truth, questioning and fact-checking.”

It says that the BNR published the entire law, along with the sections that were supposedly suppressed, and invites people to comment on it through social media and its website, promising to submit comments to the Ministry of Culture – the deadline for submitting responses. and opinions on the amendment is November 18.

But is a change possible at the level that Baltakov wants?

Spirova believes it will be difficult as links between the economic and political world in Bulgaria “were not built in the last half year.”

He thinks that the economy, the government, the property situation in the media, and practical issues like the availability of investigative journalists willing and not afraid to do their job are obstacles to change.

Dawson believes that “the pressure is building from below.”

“The old and very redundant narrative of being pro or anti-communist is receding into the dustbin of history,” he said, “and now it’s more about whether you believe in democracy and openness and justice or not.”

Whatever the obstacles to a breakthrough in media freedom in Bulgaria, Baltakov is convinced of one thing: “A free press works.”