2016 according to the media experts

76

experts collage“How should I know what I think before I have seen what I want to say?”, goes a saying frequently cited by media experts. How can we understand the role of the media in today’s world when they increasingly represent the interests of the political and corporate elites? How can we talk about trust and values when traditional understandings and norms take a course of their own or are carefully and skillfully directed by sophisticated manipulators of people’s fears? In 2016, a year of massive divisions, “the magic bullet” of propaganda ran not only through the traditional media, but also online. The social media grew from a public opinion laboratory into a driver of disinformation and the spread of fake news. The media produce news we can do without. What is the role of the audience which has seemingly given in to the “magic flute” of fear and hatred and prefers to remain sheepishly silent when the media transform personal tragedies into nationwide mourning.
The Association of European Journalists – Bulgaria has decided to ask prominent Bulgarian media experts and journalists to share their views on the media developments in 2016. You can read their comments and assessments in two separate articles. The first one offers the media experts’ analyses.
To fight propaganda, we need more effective Internet regulation
Betina Zhoteva, journalist and member of the Council for Electronic Media (CEM)
If we are to keep up with the European trends regarding regulation, as well as with the social media’s intentions to effect change, one of the major priorities of the CEM and the parliament for next year [2017] should be the adoption of legislation aimed at protecting the real and authentic information and intellectual property rights online.
“If you don’t follow the news, you are uninformed. If you follow the news, you are disinformed,” the famous actor Denzel Washington once told a journalist. This statement more or less describes 2016 in Bulgaria when it comes to information. Indeed, information has long stopped being the valuable currency it used to be because politicization, propaganda, and corporate interests have devaluated it.
There are opposing views on every single topic. On the one hand, this is good for the plurality of views. On the other hand, however, the absolute rejection of views different from our own and the absence of a civilized dialogue polarize the society to the extent that a lot of people do not trust any of the information they have access to. Fake news, the trademark of the Russian propaganda machine, play a major role in this process.
In recent years, the producers of fake news have focused entirely on discrediting the European institutions and the Transatlantic values, and imposing a false understanding of global events more generally. Social media, which came into being for a very different purpose, are the first speaking trumpet of false information, which may lead to changes in the political order, preferences, and even one’s worldview.
On a more positive note, the social media’s owners and managers have realized the danger that aggressive populism poses and started reforming the rules to limit the dissemination of fake news. A similar drama is also evident in some “information” websites. As a weapon in this hybrid war and without owners and identifiable employees, these websites disseminate lies and poison for a short period of time after which they disappear, only to be replaced by hundreds of other similar websites.
We should immediately start thinking about introducing regulations for online information, as all civilized countries have already done. This will, to a large extent, protect us from fake news and guarantee intellectual property rights, which have come under great strain due to the completely unchecked stealing of written and video content. Currently, there is no Internet-specific legislation in Bulgaria whatsoever – neither laws nor rules, nothing! We need to have a broad public debate on the possibilities we have so that we can come up with as good regulations as possible because people all over the world have tended to prefer online information more than the information provided by other publications.
Unfortunately, the aggressive lies and intentional manipulations circulating online often become major news in the so-called mainstream media. As a result, these pieces of “news” often lead the public to focus on unimportant topics at the expense of important social and political issues. This “news” monopolize the public agenda in the country whereby the authorities and those affected start putting forward one explanation after another, while an army of people who repeat the same well-crafted “arguments” take over TV studios and print publications.
I think it is totally unproductive when traditional media quote news from social media and hybrid websites without first verifying the information. The same goes for comments where trolls with dozens of fake profiles do their best to generate publicity for a specific position. In other words, if we are to keep up with the European trends in the field of regulation, as well as with the social media’s intentions to effect change, one of the major priorities of the CEM and the parliament for next year [2017] should be the adoption of legislation aimed at protecting the real and authentic information and intellectual property rights online.
2016 was a hard and bloody year marked by terrorist attacks, natural disasters, human mistakes, and irresponsibility. Hundreds of people lost their lives and thousands of others have had to cope with loss and grief. One of the huge challenges for the media is precisely how to report on such events and especially people dealing with such tragedies. The delicate line of humanity and dignity has been crossed multiple times. AEJ-Bulgaria deserves praise for publishing A Practical Guide for Covering the Stories of People in Distress as a Result of Incidents. I hope it helps! Because what is the point of reporting “first” if you lie or cause pain? There is not a single media organization or cause worthy of our losing our humanity.
Bulgarian media are controlled by political and corporate interests
Nelly Ognyanova, professor at Sofia University, media expert, and former member of the Council for Electronic Media (CEM)
The intrusion in people’s private space and the search for sensation is now an everyday practice common not only for the well-known yellow media but also for media organizations that have signed the Ethical Code of the Bulgarian Media, including TV stations with large market shares.
2016 was a disquieting year for Bulgarian media not because Bulgaria dropped even further in the global media freedom rankings but mainly because there are problems regarding the rule of law and the consolidation of European democratic values. In the absence of the rule of law, the standards for independence, freedom, and pluralism exist only on paper, and the context Bulgarian citizens live in is one marked by political and corporate interests taking control of a large number of media organizations.
The ruling elites around the globe have always cared about their image in the public media and that is why the independence of these media’s management benefits the citizens and guarantees the right to information. In 2016, we saw how the parliament and the CEM together tried to delay the election of the new management of the Bulgarian National Television (BNT). The Radio and Television Act was amended twice and the CEM, referring to these amendments, came up with reasons not to open a procedure for the election of the new BNT management several times. Such decisions also put into question the principle of mandates, CEM’s independence, and even BNT’s independence in the future.
2016 saw the continuation of the practice whereby media organizations receive funding from EU programs without a competition. Still more important, in relation to Bulgaria’s upcoming presidency of the Council of the EU and the media coverage of this event, state funds were distributed among those media that violate ethical standards most frequently and publish openly anti-European stories, such as PIK and Blitz.
The space for quality journalism shrank even further. The intrusion in people’s private space and the search for sensation is now an everyday practice common not only for the well-known yellow media but also for media organizations that have signed the Ethical Code of the Bulgarian Media, including TV stations with large market shares. The new Bulgarian International Television (BiT) is an example of a media organization producing quality journalism.
In 2016, we saw how a popular TV show evolved into a political project. We saw how the team behind this show identified certain figures as enemies of the people and demonstratively tore a picture of the Bulgarian president. This year we are going to see the results of the unimpeded use of television as a stage for political projects.
The hybrid war spread globally, had an impact on important decisions, and reached the Bulgarian media. Anti-European and pro-Kremlin propaganda is present either in covert or overt forms. Toward the end of the year, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on combating propaganda, in which it outlines the huge Russian investments in propaganda activities and the role of propaganda in undermining democracy. Bulgaria is an EU Member State which, by joining the community, has accepted its values. Thus, allowing the spread of such propaganda has nothing to do with pluralism and should not be tolerated.
Neo-patriotism and “post-truth” make the media look almost like party publications
Orlin Spassov, media expert and CEO of the Media Democracy Foundation
The familiar relationship between media attitudes and political success was practically replaced by a new logic that we still have to decipher. Social media were flooded with racism and xenophobia. A large number of the media are more and more uncritical and follow people’s fears.
2016 brought about important changes. Many of these changes came as surprises. Throughout the year, Bulgarian media offered more foreign news than they usually do. The domestic political calendar came to be increasingly designed according to this kind of news. June brought about Brexit, and November saw Donald Trump winning the U.S. presidential elections. These two events happened despite the forecasts, generating discussions about the role of both traditional and new media in shaping public opinion. “Post-truth” was selected as the word of 2016 by the Oxford Dictionaries. This phenomenon, while hardly new, reminded us that the media are no longer what they are, including in Bulgaria.
During the presidential campaign in Bulgaria, Tsetska Tsacheva and Rumen Radev were the media’s favorites but one of them lost, whereas the other won the elections. Both candidates were ridiculed on social media, yet they registered completely different electoral results. The familiar relationship between media attitudes and political success was practically replaced by a new logic that we still have to decipher.
In 2016, the Bulgarian media grew even more polarized and many of them began to look like party publications targeted at a specific audience. The nationalistic discourse, disguised as patriotism, moved closer to the center of the media’s agenda. This neo-patriotism did not face resistance even from the more liberal media, most of which opted to remain neutral on this issue. Hate speech spread to the mainstream media. Many journalists started using it as often as, if not more often than, politicians. “A migrant hunter” became a protagonist in bTV’s coverage of the migration crisis and featured prominently on TV screens across the country.
Social media were flooded with racism and xenophobia. The attempts to monitor the forums linked to online media practically capitulated under the weight of the growing hatred toward any difference: ethnic, political, cultural. The uncivil society – which tolerates violence, verbal or physical, in the name of security – started speaking louder.
Nothing of this, including post-truth, was completely new. Nevertheless, 2016 surprised us with the tidal wave of increasing insecurity. A considerable chunk of this wave came from outside as a result of Brexit, Donald Trump, and terrorism. We ourselves also generated insecurity. The rational and the irrational merged in the discourse in the Bulgarian media more than ever before. Fewer and fewer media tried to explain the world critically and instead offered more and more of what people wanted to hear to suppress their fears. What gave rise to these fears, is a topic for another discussion.