The implementation of the MPM2014 for Bulgaria shows a medium/high risk for media pluralism in the country. In general, the risks to media pluralism in Bulgaria are divided as follows: 32% (11) of the indicators fall within the zone of high risk; 53% (18) indicate medium risk, and 15 % (5) refer to low risk.
Legal Type of Indicator Assessing Risks to Media Pluralism
Low risk has been identified in the following indicators: Regulatory safeguards for access to airtime on PSM by the various cultural and social groups (7); Regulatory safeguards for locally oriented and locally produced news delivered by PSM channels and services (10); Fair, objective and transparent appointment procedures for PSM professionals and management boards (17); Regulatory safeguards for the distribution of public interest channels on cable, DSL and/or satellite platforms (18).
The indicators concerning PSM fall into this group with one exception (indicator 19 Regulatory safeguards for the objective and independent allocation of adequate, consistent and sufficient financial resources to PSM). The formerly state-owned radio Bulgarian National Radio (BNR) has been transformed, relatively successfully, into a public radio with seven regional centres in the country and one regional radio programme for the capital, Sofia.
The formerly state-owned television, Bulgarian National Television (BNT), has four regional centres situated in the cities of Blagoevgrad, Varna, Plovdiv and Russe. BNT and BNR have regional correspondents. PSM are regulated by the law both strictly and in detail. A broad spectrum of measures aimed at transparency and grounded on objective criteria for appointments and dismissals in PSM have been implemented. Nevertheless, the independence of PSM is still not fully protected in practice. The effective implementation of the legal safeguards for appointment and dismissal procedures in PSM is a function of the independence of the Council for Electronic Media (CEM) and varies according to its composition.
The legal measures are also effective – must-carry and must-offer rules were introduced at the initial stage of the liberalisation of the market for the main programme services of the PSM (cable and satellite must-carry). BNT and BNR provide at no charge (FTA) programme services to their cable, satellite and digital terrestrial broadcasting.
A large number of commercial TV programme services have been licensed for mandatory DTT transmission. Nevertheless, the absence of must-offer obligations for commercial TV stations, combined with the high costs of DTT transmission, is reducing the number of commercial FTA programme services that are transmitted terrestrially.
Medium risk has been identified in the following indicators: Regulatory safeguards for freedom of expression (1), Regulatory safeguards for right to information (2), Recognition of media pluralism as intrinsic part of media freedoms and/or as a policy objective of media legislation and/or regulation (3), Regulatory safeguards for the journalistic profession (4), Policies and support measures for media literacy (and digital literacy in particular) among different groups of population (6), Regulatory safeguards against high concentration of ownership and/or control in media, high degree of cross ownership between television and other media, for transparency of ownership and/or control (12–14) and policy measures for the impartial circulation of internet data, without regard to content, destination or source (20).
Communication rights are explicitly recognised in the Constitution. Bulgaria has signed and ratified the relevant Treaty obligations with no significant exemptions. According to these, the press and the other mass information media are free and shall not be subjected to censorship. Individuals have criticised the government without official reprisal. Freedom of expression online is generally respected. The media’s regulatory environment is generally accepted as meeting international standards, but observers point to a continuing trend to biased implementation of the rules protecting media freedom. The existing laws do not provide fully effective protection for the access to information— the rules are bypassed, or they are selectively implemented.
As a policy objective, media pluralism is envisaged in the Radio and Television Law concerning PSM only, according to which PSM shall reflect the different ideas and beliefs in society. The Constitutional Court recognises media pluralism as an intrinsic part of media freedoms. However, the principle of media pluralism is not respected in practice. A main problem is the lack of effective legal remedies against media concentrations and the non-transparency of media ownership. According to the European Commission’s first EU Anti-Corruption report, media ownership in Bulgaria is increasingly concentrated, thus compromising editorial independence.
Access to the journalistic profession is open. The protection of journalistic sources has generally been enforced. The ethical codes envisage a clear distinction between editorial decision-making, the commercial policy of the media and the protection of the editorial independence. Nevertheless, infringements of the rules are commonplace; self-regulation has proved ineffective in raising the standards of professionalism among journalists, as had been hoped.
The promotion of media literacy is not the statutory duty of the media regulatory authority in Bulgaria. Academic centres and NGOs provide the specific knowledge that is necessary for different types of digital competency and media literacy.
The risk in the field of media concentrations is medium. This conclusion is based on the fact that the media sector is not excluded from the scope of the implementation of the competition law. According to public opinion, however, non-transparent media ownership and the concentration of media outlets within a few conglomerates remain the weakest features of Bulgarian media, and the problem has continued to become more acute. Hidden forms of media ownership and control accompany the process of the liberalisation of the Bulgarian media market. No sector-specific competition measures are envisaged in Bulgarian law. The media have no obligation to publish their ownership structures on their websites or in documents that are accessible to the public.
High risk has been identified in the following indicators: Regulatory safeguards for the independence and the efficiency of the relevant national authorities (5), Regulatory safeguards for minority and community media (8), Regulatory safeguards and policies for regional and local media (9), Regulatory safeguards for the universal coverage of the media (11), Regulatory safeguards for fair, balanced and impartial political reporting in media (15), Regulatory safeguards against excessive ownership and/or control of mainstream media by politicians (16), Regulatory safeguards for the objective and independent allocation of adequate, consistent and sufficient financial resources to PSM (19).
The Council for Electronic Media (CEM) is defined by law as being an independent specialised body, which is guided by the public interest, protecting the freedom and pluralism of speech and information and the independence of media service providers. The competencies of the Council are sufficient, but some additional areas of competence are under discussion, such as: media pluralism evaluation, new media services’ evaluation in the context of the remit of PSM, etc. The members of the media regulator have often been nominated by civil society organisations and then elected after public hearings. The competition regulator in Bulgaria is the Commission for the Protection of Competition (CPC). The regulator in the area of electronic communications in Bulgaria is the Communications Regulation Commission (CRC). The risk of political and economic influence over the regulatory bodies varies, but their independence is generally assessed as being problematic. Apart from the political leanings of some members of the regulatory authorities, there are also cases when political pressure is suspected.
Ownership of media by politicians is not explicitly prohibited or limited in Bulgaria, but interference is generally prohibited by law: The Radio and Television Law guarantees the freedom of media service providers and of the activities thereof from political and economic interference. When politicians are public office holders, in terms of the Conflict of Interest Prevention and Ascertainment Act, they have an obligation to disclose any private interest.
Another domain of high risk is PSM funding. BNT and BNR are being financed via a state subsidy, defined year-on-year in the respective annual State Budget Act. BNT and BNR are allowed to include in their programming services a very limited amount of advertising. The state subsidies are calculated according to a ‘per hour of programming’ principle as detailed in the law. The Vice-President of the European Broadcasting Union, Claudio Cappon, during his visit in 2014, urged Bulgaria’s top politicians to ensure sufficient and sustainable funding for PSM. “Bulgarian public radio and television receive only a quarter of the EU’s average public funding, which i about 30 euros per capita. PSM need funds in order to be able to carry out their mission – something topical for all states in the European Union”, he said. Budgets for public media are insufficient and their remit cannot be realised with the current level of funding, warned the President, Rosen Plevneliev. The National Assembly’s President confirmed that the Parliament is aware of the problem and is committed to finding a solution.
Media law does not contain specific provisions for minority and community media. The Council for Electronic Media is obliged by the law to grant individual radio and television broadcasting licenses to radio and television broadcasters for national/regional programming services. The Bulgarian legislation does not envisage the reservation of frequencies for regional and local media, or must-carry rules for such media. Experts from CEM declare that, in practice, the specific experience of applicants from corresponding regions has been taken into account. There are regional newspapers in the major cities throughout the country, as well as local newspapers.
Fair, balanced and impartial representation of political viewpoints in news and current affairs programmes on PSM channels and services is subject to regulation by the Radio and Television Law. There are no specific requirements concerning impartiality in news and current affairs programmes on the commercial channels and services. The access of political actors to airtime on PSM during election campaigns is not covered by media legislation because the election campaigns are regulated by the Election Code.
Economic Type of Indicators Assessing the Risks to Media Pluralism
There are significant economic risks to media pluralism in Bulgaria. Four of the six economic indicators are indicative of high-risk domains. There is one medium-risk domain. One indicator is evaluated as low risk, but its evaluation is under the circumstances of data shortages and lack of ownership transparency, which is a risk to media pluralism in its own right.
Low risk has been identified in the domain of 26 Centralisation of the national media system. Regional media are relatively well developed in terms of the numbers of titles and outlets. According to data from the National Statistical Institute, the proportion of regional and local TV and radio channels to national channels is above 80% of the proportion of regional to national population. The proportion of existing regional and local newspapers to the national newspapers is under 80% of the proportion of regional to national population. The audience share of local and regional TV stations is estimated by the Council for Electronic Media to be between 5-15% and the audience share of local and regional radio stations is estimated to be between 10-30%. Although general evaluation is of low risk, the lack of accurate data on all aspects of media system centralisation is already indicative of structural deficiencies within the system.
Medium risk has been identified in the domain of 24 Availability and quality of broadband. Fixed and mobile broadband penetration in the country is below the EU average. The quality of available broadband, however, is of a high level. Both download and upload speeds are higher than the EU average. In addition, the country is among the top 3 member states within the EU with the highest growth rates in fixed broadband penetration.
High risk has been identified in the domains of 21 Media ownership concentration; 22 Media audience and readership concentration; 23 Number of sectors in which Top 8 firms/owners are active; 25 Minority and community media.
Concentration of media ownership is very high. The Top 4 major owners in the television sector have an aggregated market share (based on advertising revenue only) of 93.35%. The Top 4 major owners of daily newspapers have an aggregated market share of 79.7%. The Top 4 major ISPs have an estimated market share that is above 50%. The market shares of owners of radio stations cannot be evaluated.
Audience and readership media concentration is also very high. In television, the Top 4 major owners have an audience share that is above 70%. An aggregated audience share of the Top 4 major owners in the radio sector is 83.16%. The Top 4 major newspaper owners have an estimated readership share between 25-49%, and the subscription share of the Top 4 major ISPs is estimated to be above 50%.
A precise evaluation of cross-ownership is difficult to track due to deficiencies in the data. As far as the data that are available are concerned, they point to the assessment that the Top 8 major owners have a market share that is above 70% across the different media sectors.
Minority and community media development is another high-risk factor. There is no television or radio channel that is dedicated to ethnic, linguistic or national minorities. Existing minority newspapers are very few and far smaller than the proportional size of the minority population.
Socio-political Type of Indicators Assessing Risks to Media Pluralism
Policymaking in regard to the promotion of access to media content and services by special needs groups is underdeveloped. There is a national strategy that envisages an effective legal framework obliging all media to provide content in an adequate and appropriate way to people with disabilities, as well as access to all types of media content (print, broadcast, audio, audio-visual, online). Such standards, however, have not yet been effectively introduced. As a whole, access to television content by people with hearing disabilities is limited.
The universal coverage of PSM and broadband networks in relation to geographical coverage faces some difficulties. It has been calculated that less than 98% of the population (96.2%) is covered by the public TV channels’ signal (terrestrial broadcasting). Some compensatory measures are being taken by the state to guarantee access to digital television for those individuals who are deprived of the free television signal. More than 99% of the population has access to public radio broadcasting. The rural coverage of DSL is less than 75%. The rural coverage of cable modem exceeds 15%. The relatively low general internet penetration in rural areas remains a problem.
The evaluation of political bias in the media during the election campaign for the European Parliament in May, 2014, indicated that the selected media represent the main political actors in a relatively balanced manner (one group – “other actors” – is more than 20% above the balanced representation of 25% per group, but this fact can be assessed as being a reflection of the presence of a wide variety of opinions). The proportion of the one-sided portrayal of political actors in the selected media items is low (under 25%).
Data on the political affiliations of media owners are generally insufficient. There is a deficit in transparency in regard to media ownership (especially of the press). A precise evaluation of the market shares, based on the total revenues of the media companies operating in Bulgaria, is hardly feasible. As a whole, the politically affiliated owners of leading media distribution networks who have been identified tend to occasionally discriminate against other market players.
The ratio of the state advertising and the audience share are relatively balanced in television and radio; there is no transparency for the press. Public service media receive comparatively low funding. A relatively small number of companies make use of public funds to a greater extent than do others. The law allows (for electronic media) the resources to be granted without public procurement, which is a precondition for subjectivism and political influence. Some of the campaigns have an unproven effectiveness.
Two alternative Codes of Ethics coexist in Bulgaria. As a result, the ethical standards are split according to the interests of different media groups. In practice, professional and trade union protection of journalists is very ineffective. With a few exceptions, there is a lack of confidence in the organisations that have declared such goals. Instead of turning to the trade unions, journalists are increasingly looking for support and protection directly from the NGO community.
The major mechanism for financing the public Bulgarian National Television (BNT) and Bulgarian National Radio (BNR) is the annual state budget subsidy. The state subsidy exceeds 25% of the total budget of both BNT and BNR. The government does not decide on the wages for the PSM’s employees. The wages of the employees are decided by the managing bodies of BNT and BNR.
The Bulgarian Telegraph Agency (BTA), the largest news agency, is owned by the state. The market share of BTA is estimated to be between 30% and 50%. The appointment of key personnel at BTA is considered to be mainly based on professional criteria. The institution has a reputation for high professional standards and political independence. In Bulgaria, there are two large private news agencies. A few more private media organisations call themselves “information agencies”, but they essentially operate as news sites that do not have many of the formal characteristics of a news agency.