Traditionally, the ownership of post-1989 Bulgarian media has been a well-kept secret. It sounds paradoxical, but despite 11 years of EU membership, Bulgaria still trails its peers when it comes to disclosing the ownership of print publications and providing access to reliable official data on newspaper circulation and advertising revenue.
The lack of transparency hurts Bulgaria's media market. It allows publishers to freely compromise on the quality of content, frequently lending their first pages to political and corporate power players. As a result, trust in newspapers is at a record low. According to a Eurobarometer report, in 2018 only 4% of Bulgarians have total confidence in the information they read, well below the EU average of 10%. At the same time, the obfuscation of media ownership allows governments to engage in behind-the-scenes dealings with real publishers. With few exceptions, the press tends to genuflect to the political and power status quo.
These are just some of the conclusions of a study of the socio-political aspects of the local newspaper market conducted by the Association of European Journalists (AEJ) - Bulgaria. The analysis, entitled What We Read, is based on a methodology that uses a sociological, financial and content-related approach. The publications studied are Telegraph, 24 Chasa, Trud, Weekend, Standard, Capital, Bulgaria Today, Monitor, Sega, 168 Chasa. All of them were selected following a nationwide survey of the newspapers' outreach conducted by Market Links research agency and commissioned by AEJ-Bulgaria.
Despite the 2010 legislative amendments requiring transparency of ownership, readers still cannot establish whether the content is dictated by the interests of the publisher, advertisers or a business with influence over the publication.
Some of the publishers are well known. Ivo Prokopiev and Teodor Zahov, owners of Economedia (the publisher of Capital and KQ) have interests in renewable energy, real estate and IТ business. The publisher of Sega, Sasho Donchev, has interests in the real estate and energy sectors. Petyo Blaskov, owner of Trud, and his father, who is editor-in-chief, are working in the construction business with their activities heavily financed by a particular bank, and with the land for their projects is acquired mostly from the Sofia Municipality.
Others, like the publisher of 24 Chasa daily and 168 Chasa weekly - Venelina Gocheva, have no other business but have a history of receiving undeclared support from financial institutions. For example, Corporate Commercial Bank (Corpbank) (now bankrupt) used complicated schemes to transfer funds to 24 Chasa. Bank credits that are not intended to be repaid are a frequent means for actual, behind the scenes, control over media in Bulgaria.
Then come publications like Telegraf or Monitor, associated with media mogul and member of parliament from the Movement for Rights and Freedoms Delyan Peevski. For a very long time Mr Peevski, who is reported to have business interests in cigarettes manufacturing, construction and real estate, even refused to acknowledge that he is at the centre of a vast media group. Officially, his mother - Irena Krasteva owned the group for more than eight years but after Mr Peevski took control in 2015, he made attempts to transfer the ownership to companies having no formal links to him.
The last such effort unravelled several months ago when film company Nu Image Bulgaria withdrew from an agreement to buy 50% interest in Telegraf Media, the publisher of Telegraf and Monitor. Out of the ten surveyed publications, seven are produced in a printing house built with financing from bankrupt Corpbank and owned by an offshore company. Corpbank used to finance the media outlets associated with Delyan Peevski, helping him build a media empire.
Other important issues that remain hidden include the influence on editorial policy from state authorities through the allocation of funds for advertising EU projects; the methods employed by political parties to buy content during elections; what happens when the publisher becomes financially dependent.
The analysis also shows that for years the Bulgarian print media market has been unattractive to foreign investors. Print advertising suffered the most significant decline (-35%) in 2016. If in 2015 the newspapers attracted ads valued at 141 million levs, in 2016 their ad revenue shrank to 91 million levs. In 2017, the ad revenue fell further to 76 million levs, according to the Bulgarian Association of Communication Agencies (BACA). Piero 97 advertising agency noted in a recent report that in 2016 several print editions were discontinued, including Vseki Den, 7 Dni Sport and Novinar newspapers, as well as Tema magazine. At the beginning of November 2018, Standard, one of the first privately held news dailies in Bulgaria, suffered the same fate.
But how do ownership, murky financial dependence, and the advertising market crisis affect content?
The content analysis carried out for this report during April 2017 - May 2018 shows that in most editions there is a tendency to build a positive image of the political and power status quo. If there is criticism, it is muted. The government is usually painted in bright colors, which is associated with its role as a key advertiser in recent years.
The content analysis also revealed that there is a major crisis in authorship stemming from the increased difficulty in producing original journalistic content. Instead, media relay information from the institutions of government, political and business groups.
Iliya Valkov is a political journalist and teaches public communications at Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski. He has worked in various media outlets in Bulgaria. Most recently, he hosted a talk show on the now-closed BiT TV. Mr Valkov is member of the Association of European Journalists and coordinator and managing editor for the What We Read report.