Intimidation, violence, smear campaigns, state-perpetrated harassment and politically-motivated prosecutions. These phrases summarize the state of press freedom in Bulgaria as described in this year's World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters without Borders (RSF). The index ranked Bulgaria 112th in the world, the third-lowest among European countries, after Russia (150) and Belarus (158).
In late October most eyes were set on the Balkan country's third parliamentary vote this year. Another election which could turn the tide for press freedom took place in the background. After only a year in office the chairman of the executive board of the Bulgarian National Radio (BNR), Andon Baltakov, resigned in August and the Council for electronic media, a semi-political body, was tasked with electing his successor. The council is made up of 5 members, three of which are elected by simple majority in Parliament. The other 2 are presidential appointees. The stakes were particularly high given that Baltakov's resignation came at the heels of a two-year long crisis which had seen 3 other chairmen come and go.
Milen Mitev, a lawyer and administrator who had worked closely with Baltakov, won the election. In the short term he is faced not only with the challenge of stabilizing the radio but also with repositioning it as a trustworthy source of COVID-related information. In the long term, Mitev has to secure BNR's independence and accelerate its transition to digital. While it is still too early to evaluate Mitev's progress towards achieving any of these goals, looking more closely into the challenges ahead of him charts a possible way forward.
The heavy crown of public service media
BNR is designed to be an outlet for public broadcasting, much like the BBC or NPR, which set national standards for high-quality, fact-based news and provide a venue for meaningful debate. In Bulgaria, where most other outlets are controlled by a handful of crime lords, and perpetrate false information on a regular basis, the public service media have an especially important role to play.
In fact, two years ago political power brokers close to the oligarch Delyan Peevski, currently sanctioned by the US under the Global Magnitsky Act, attempted to infiltrate BNR, too, by securing the appointment of their preferred candidate as chairman of the executive board. The impostor was expelled only after a core of independent journalists at the radio station rebelled against him.
BNR's independence and stability, however, were not the only things at stake in October's election. Public service media providers have become especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic with large streams of misinformation on vaccination, masking and other preventative measures flooding the news landscape. While Bulgaria has some of the lowest vaccination and highest mortality rates in Europe, during the months leading up to the chairman election BNR failed to convey expert opinion and even occasionally channeled COVID disinformation.
BNR in the time of COVID
"During a pandemic public service media have the responsibility to orient people. There are no excuses for the misperceived pluralism, which media outlets use to justify in giving voice to individuals who directly undermine the efforts of resolving the crisis," Nelly Ognyanova, a prominent media law expert and professor at Sofia University, told "Capital Weekly".
BNR has several advantages in the fight against disinformation. Data from the 2021 Digital News Report, issued by the Reuters Institute at Oxford, indicates that the radio is the media outlet with the highest trust rating in Bulgaria. In other words, BNR enjoys a greater authority when it comes to distinguishing facts from unproven hypotheses.
Private media outlets depend on audience ratings to a greater extent, as a result of which they are tempted to give voice to controversial speakers who attract more attention. "We don't have to pay such close attention to audience ratings. It's not fatal if some segments are not as widely listened to," said Silvya Velikova, a long-time radio host at BNR.
The weak link
In theory, the radio's chairman and executive board cannot interfere in its programming or its editorial policies. In practice, the independence of any public interest media outlet, including BNR, can be sacrificed by the appointment of a more amenable chairman. The Council for electronic media', election of Emil Koshlukov, who has ties to the former ruling party GERB, as chairman of the main public TV channel, is an example of this. A report on the first parliamentary elections cycle this year by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) shows that BNT provided GERB with disproportionately large coverage.
"Senior management does not get a direct say in what we cover or how we cover it," Velikova said. Nevertheless, the radio's programming directors are direct appointees of senior management. According to Velikova this is a source of easily abused indirect influence. Another structural issue stems from the fact that the chairman's term is not synced with that of the executive board. This can easily result in managerial stalemates. One reason for the more independent Baltakov to quit the job in August was that he came into sharp conflict with the executive board appointed by his predecessor who, as already mentioned, had ties to the oligarchy.
BNR is losing the media race
"BNR's mission is evolving with society and the shift in media capabilities," professor Ognyanova says. In any case, to fulfill its mission, the radio, which still mostly relies on analog technologies, needs to enter the digital age.
"The radio's lack of relevance is particularly noticeable during election campaigns. We are not an outlet politicians care about," Velikova said. She thinks that a stable leadership with a focus on digitalization could go a long way towards regaining the radio's relevance. "We need to focus on popularizing our shows online, so that people share and repost them," adds Velikova. This undoubtedly requires investment in podcasting, which would give radio segments a second life in social media. Podcasts, however, present their own challenges and require new journalists and editors, trained in making them. "The issue with young journalists is that they want to work in television. That makes sense because they get much more exposure there," concludes Velikova.