Controversial Media Ownership Amendments have been adopted by the Bulgarian Parliament

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abundance-blur-bundle-167538On July 4th, Bulgarian parliament adopted, on the first reading, some general amendments regarding media ownership with 92 votes in favour, 12 against and 28 abstentions. In February, the bill was submitted to parliament by four MPs from the Movement of Rights and Freedoms (MRF), among which was Delyan Peevski, media mogul, owner of several key medias in Bulgaria and numerous businesses.
The amendments concern only print media and are incorporated in the Mandatory Deposition of Print and Other Works Act (MDPOWA). In Bulgaria, there isn’t a specific separate act for media ownership transparency, which is considered as a major obstacle to media pluralism and freedom of speech.
Partial solution was found in 2010 when amendments in the MDPOWA were made. According to the new provision of Article 7a the publishers of print periodicals produced in Bulgaria are obligated to publish information about the actual owner in the first issue for every calendar year, and any change made throughout the year must be published in the first issue of the print periodical following the change. In addition, within seven days of releasing the first issue of the periodical for every calendar year, the publisher must submit a declaration to the Ministry of culture specifying the practical owner. The Ministry must publish the information contained in the declaration on its website within 10 days after receipt. The publisher must ensure that information about the actual owner is kept up to date on its website, if applicable. The fine envisioned for publishers failing to provide this information is fixed at BGN 1000-2000 for the first offence and to BGN 3000 to 5000 for the second.
However, ever since the amendments were adopted in 2010 their implementation and control has proofed to be inefficient. The regime of imposing sanctions by the major of the municipality is not clear enough. The lack of procedure in which the sanctioning body will be informed of the violation of the provisions and the wide administrative discretion leads to lack of effectiveness.
Another problem is the possibility for the owners of the print media to be also distributors. As a consequence, it becomes extremely hard especially for small publishers and small editions to have sufficient access to the distribution network and to be competitive on the market.
Now, the new bill aims at disclosure of the beneficial (real) owners and financing sources of media organizations by adopting a new article 7b. The MPs behind the legislative proposal stated that the amendments intend to bring full transparency in the media sector, especially in the light of the recent problems with online media outlets, whose owners and financing are unknown. However, the bill requires disclosure of all sources of financing of media organizations other than the proceeds from advertising and bank loans, as well as the – according to the proposal – “normal” market practices.
In the motives of the draft, the MPs claim their aim is to give transparency of media organizations which receive funding or donation from foreign grants and organizations. However, according to the law already there is a mandatory condition for every media which receives grants to state their source on their website. In this matter, the amendments are selective and discriminatory by excluding government funding, bank loans and advertising, and do not contribute to the transparency of the media sector.
The bill also enshrines the obligation of the media service providers to declare the beneficial owners and the sources of their finances, as well as declaring this information on their websites.
As a result, the bill suggests a few solutions, as well as numerous problems. The decision to include more provisions in the Mandatory Deposition of Print and Other Works Act which has completely different subject is controversial and do not offer a sufficiently holistic approach. The main problem is the division which the bill establishes between two different categories of medias – on one hand those funded by grants and on the other hand those which receive revenue from their “normal/typical” market practices and bank loans and which are not obliged to declare them. Such differentiation is by no means justified.
Declaring only a certain type of income could result in simulated transactions, which avoid the actual source of the declaration. The full transparency of media funding should also be subject to wide public debate as it will conflict with the underlying principles of a business initiative, such as trade secrets, which may lead to unfair competition.
Some critics claim that by passing the bill the Parliament is being used in an attempt to give Peevski’s image a whitewash. Nevertheless, a detailed, consistent and efficient regulation regarding the media transparency and media ownership in Bulgaria is strongly necessary. Even if the bill could be considered as a step in the right direction, it does not offer a robust and effective legislative framework.
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