A lot of work left to be done: The Commissioner for Human Rights on Media in Bulgaria

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Depositphotos_43888703_sFollowing a visit in spring, the Commissioner for Human Rights of the European Council published a new report on the human rights situation on Bulgaria, including a broad section on media freedom.
The Commissioner Nils Muižnieks and his delegation came to Bulgaria from February 9 to 11, 2015 to discuss human rights issues with Bulgarian authorities and various non-governmental organisations. In his recently published report on this visit, he strongly criticises the current situation of media in Bulgaria and calls upon the authorities to make a change in the working conditions of journalists.

The full report can be downloaded here.

In his report, Muižnieks focusses mainly on the obstacles which prevent a free and pluralistic media landscape. Even though the Bulgarian media landscape seems to be diverse with 354 newspapers, of which 57 are dailies, 87 radio and 114 television service providers registered, this number is misleading. Instead of many different media companies, conglomerates dominate the market. Thus, the big number of existing media does not guarantee for diverse points of view. The concentration of ownership to only a few actors endangers the pluralism of opinions and hinders the balanced and complete information of the public. Even though the Bulgarian Commission for the Protection of Competition theoretically could take care of this issue, the Commissioner of the Council of Europe doubts that this institution is able to take effective measurements against the media concentration existing in Bulgaria.

Lack of transparency

In relation to this, Muižnieks also faults the lack of transparency in ownership of the Bulgarian media outlets. Even though this information should be published according to several laws, the newest of which is the 2011 Law on Mandatory Deposition of Press and Other Works, it remains unclear in most cases by whom media outlets are owned and how they are financed. The Commissioner was informed about cases of nominal or anonymous media owners despite the duty to name owners to the Bulgarian Ministry of Culture. As a result, it is hard to make correct statements on the existing horizontal and vertical concentration in the Bulgarian media landscape. Thus, the public is not able to evaluate and contextualise the news given by the media as long as owners – who might have an influence on the information published – remain obscure.
In the current state, the Commissioner states, the media are not able to fulfil the right to information of the citizens. He therefore appeals to the Bulgarian state as actor who should guarantee this right and finally act instead of only acknowledging the mere existence of such problems in the media sector. Muižnieks suggests to create an independent monitoring mechanism to guarantee the transparency of ownership and financing. In form of a newly designed authority it should ensure the freedom, pluralism and independence of the media market. However, this institution needs to be powerful enough to be able to fight against and correct the current obstacles. Concerning the concentration of ownership, he reminds the authorities that the media market needs regulation different from other markets. Media are not just a product for the economic market, but have to fulfil certain tasks in society. To be able to guarantee this, the state needs to adapt the current legislation to this special situation of the media market. Since media pluralism is seen as basic requirement for media freedom, this is one of the biggest topics Bulgarian authorities need to deal with as soon as possible.

Strong political and economic influence

In addition, the Human Rights Commissioner is worried about the independence of Bulgarian media. He found media outlets to be under strong influence of both political parties and private companies. Being under big financial pressure, media outlets strongly depend on advertising commissioned by the state, local authorities and companies. Those actors use the desperate situation of media companies to put them under pressure. Advertisements are commissioned under the condition that they can exert influence on the content published and, for example, suppress certain opinions and information. Moreover, advertisement is often not marked as such and appears as objective journalistic content, which is misleading for the public.
The Commissioner is concerned that hardly any neutral political content can be found in the Bulgarian media. Not only because of commissioned advertising content, but also because there exists a strong regime of self-censorship among journalists and media outlets when it comes to information about Bulgarian authorities. As the state institutions distribute different kinds of financial aid, for example EU-funding, most media actors hesitate to take a stand against state authorities, because they are afraid not receive any funding. A proof for this was found by the Commissioner in a cut in funding for public media by almost BGN 5 million. This is seen as a political statement and reaction to the coverage of the anti-government protests in 2013 by public media outlets.
Bulgarian authorities thus need to end the misuse of the powerful position of the different financial backers. Funding and advertisement must not be used as a tool to put media outlets under pressure. It has to be ensured that the process of allocating advertising revenues and funding needs to be transparent and be carried out according to objective criteria. Also the use of hidden advertising needs to be controlled to make sure that the public receives unbiased and objective information, especially when it comes to reports on political activities.

Administrative pressure

Another topic criticised by the Commissioner is the use of fines and other sanctions imposed on journalists. The cases mentioned in the report mainly refer to journalists who have been brought to court because of publishing information on the financial and banking sector. Being aware of the fact that the financial sector is a sensitive topic in Bulgaria, the Commissioner nevertheless fears that the current practices lead to a strong self-censorship. However, in the interest of the public, such topics need to be covered in some cases. It is therefore important to find a balance between the importance of the public interest in reporting on the economy and the restraining of certain information to maintain the confidence in the security of transactions, which is often named as main reason not to publish every information on the current financial business. In the same context, journalists were often asked to reveal their sources. Even though told not to be forced to disclose information about their sources, some media outlets were fined for not having published their sources.

A call for decriminalization of defamation

Journalists can also be fined for defamation or libel as making injurious statements about another person is still considered a crime. This strongly interferes with the freedom of expression. When such cases are brought to court, journalists are not sanctioned too heavily, but the Commissioner for Human Rights still calls upon the authorities to decriminalize defamation. Such statements should be allowed under the rule of the freedom of expression and only be penalised in exceptional cases.
If journalists are strongly restricted by law or have to fear prosecution, this will lead to an even stronger culture of self-censorship, the Commissioner fears. Furthermore, the media are not able to fulfil their role as watchdog that supervises and uncovers practices of public and political affairs. Existing rules and laws therefore need to be applied with extra care and always under the regard of the special position and tasks of media in a democratic society. The Commissioner clearly appeals to Bulgarian authorities to review the existing legislation. Both journalists and their sources need to be secured, otherwise it is not possible for them to fulfil their task as counterbalance to the state.
Creating an environment in which journalists can work is clearly the duty of the Bulgarian state authorities. They have to ensure that media actors are able to work freely, without fearing physical attacks or prosecution. In case juridical charges are brought against journalist, the Commissioner emphasizes that every sanction imposed on media actors needs to meet the regulations of Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which secures the freedom of expression and states that this right might only be restricted in some few cases.

Support needed

To be able to reach all these aims and to establish a free, pluralistic and fearless media environment, the Commissioner for Human Rights strongly encourages the Bulgarian authorities to seek support. On the one hand it is necessary to start a dialogue with the civil society and media professionals to identify the problems and find quick and effective solutions. On the other hand it is also stressed that the authorities are insistently invited to seek advise from the Council of Europe, where not only several guidelines but also bodies dedicated to media pluralism already exist. This could help to transform the current media laws and institutions into a properly working and forceful institution that is able to guarantee media freedom and regulate the media landscape in Bulgaria.
The full report can be downloaded here.