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Bulgaria: Media Reform Urged

TV management crisis highlights need for overhaul of broadcasting laws.
By Albena Shkodrova

The resignation last week of the recently appointed director general of state television - which has been struggling to make a genuine transition from a state-controlled to a public broadcast service - could provide the final impetus for a reform of broadcasting legislation.

Professor Emil Vladkov, whose appointment sparked protests among staff, attributed his decision to resign, after only 40 days in the post, to difficulties in implementing structural changes, conflicts with the management council and health problems.

His short tenure as director general was characterised by an unsuccessful attempt to bring the news service under the personal control of the director of programmes, reduce the accountability of independent producers and finalise an equipment purchase deal which is now under investigation by prosecutors.

These latest management difficulties can be traced back to the much criticised Radio and Television Law, passed in 1998, which has left public broadcasting in Bulgaria still vulnerable to political pressure.

Under the law, the director generals of both Bulgarian National Television, BNT, and Bulgarian National Radio, BNR, are chosen by a regulator, the Electronic Media Council, EMC. The managing councils of BNT and BNR are proposed by their director generals and then approved by the EMC.

However, the EMC is chosen partly by the president and partly by the national assembly, which means that its members are political appointees. Similarly, the director general of the Bulgarian Telegraph Agency, BTA, is appointed by parliament.

In March 2003, the director of BTA, Stoyan Cheshmedzhiev, was forced to resign after two months in office. A highly unpopular choice, he presided over a management crisis so severe that the agency was forced to suspend its service for the first time in its 100-year history.

The current director of BNR, Polya Stancheva, is Bulgaria's longest surviving electronic media director. Appointed in 2001, she survived the change of government the same year, which many feared would be followed by a purge in the state media. Her predecessor Ivan Borislavov resigned, faced with a major strike by journalists after barely two months in office.

Journalists stridently opposed the 1998 broadcasting law, which has since been amended several times, but never in consultation with professional journalism bodies.

"The recent problems at BNT point up two weaknesses: regulation and management," said Vessela Tabakova, professor of journalism at Sofia University. "Emil Vladkov tried to bring BNT journalists under tighter control, while giving independent producers a blank cheque to do what they want. His proposed changes would have placed independent producers above the law, creating a potential propaganda arm for certain political interests."

Tabakova, who is regularly consulted by the Council of Europe, thinks that Vladkov was acting under a combination of political and economic pressure from independent producers.

Politicians have never created a proper regulatory framework for the former state media because that would involve relinquishing some of their existing power and influence, according to Georgi Lozanov, a former EMC member.

"The 1998 law was adopted as a kind of fig leaf to pacify European institutions - it was never intended to guarantee independence for the media," he said. The key reform required to turn a state media into public broadcast service, the separation of management and editorial, was not included in the law.

European institutions are equally unimpressed by Bulgarian media regulation. During last year's crisis at BTA, the legal chief at the European Broadcast Union, Dr Werner Rumphorst, criticised an amendment then underway, saying that it made an already bad media law even worse.

Last month, prominent Council of Europe official Josette Durrieuidentified the unreformed media as one of the main problems facing Bulgaria.

However, Georgi Lozanov, a former member of the EMC, says the crises of the last few years may have served to persuade parliament that the current situation is not sustainable, "I think they finally understand that the current status of the media is being exploited by those able to use the various loopholes to pursue their own interests - which may not coincide with the interests of MPs."

Lozanov is part of the Bulgarian Media Coalition, BMC, an influential professional broadcast organization, which is drawing up a new draft of radio and TV law intended to address the existing problems in the regulatory framework.

Their bill seeks to introduce a public input into the EMC, to restructure BNT and BNR, separating the management and editorial functions and to introduce a financial watchdog.

State subsidies would be authorised for use only in public broadcasting. Currently, such funds may be spent in the advertising market, creating huge scope for corruption.

The BMC hope to bring their bill before parliament by the end of July.

If successful, it would be the first Bulgarian media law conceived by journalists, not politicians. The coalition is cautiously optimistic. "We've had some preliminary talks with MPs and we see a ray of hope," said Lozanov.

Albena Shkodrova is a freelance journalist based in Bulgaria.

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