Problems of Media or Problems with Media Do we Have?
This was the question that was tormenting me while I was watching the recording [mainly in Bulgarian language] (thanks to the Politikat) of the meeting of Bulgarian publishers and independent journalists with Commissioner Neelie Kroes. This is a very important question the answer to which is yes and yes. Yes, indeed media have problems of their own, although they can be divided into several groups which I don't think would be of much interest. On the other hand, media create problems for society by retreating from their main function. The latter, in fact, had to be the essence of the meeting with Commissioner Kroes, who is responsible for digital agenda and media. I will not go into details about the meeting because too much was said and written. But I would like to draw your attention to what was not said there while it should have been and because of which I myself signed the letter, together with a group of independent journalists, asking for that meeting. And moreover, I signed the letter in my capacity of editor in chief and founder of euinside.
The media environment in Bulgaria is just as much sick as all the other areas, some of which are still (for five years now) under the permanent monitoring of the European Commission (CVM). And its sickness is revealed by a number of symptoms, some of which were mentioned during the meeting, like the lack of transparency of media ownership and financing of media. And in fact, this is a problem which is quite visible - how so there are so many media outlets per capita in the country, given that there is no market-determined reason for that? And here we come to one of the important symptoms, which was not mentioned at that meeting - the advertisement market. As a matter of fact, it was mentioned but only on the sidelines by the editor in chief of the Standard daily, Ms Slavka Bozukova, who said that the revenues from advertisement have fallen by 50%. Regretfully, she did not quote any specific study in this sense, nor did she present any viable data, which is why we have to presume that she was speaking only of the outlet she represented.
And if her numbers are true, this is a significant drop which additionally enhances the question - how then do you survive? A fact we have checked ourselves is that the advertisement market is closed for new players in Bulgaria because it is owned, just like a large part of media in Bulgaria, by 2-3 people and is practically monopolised. Any market principles are irrelevant on this market, where ensuring revenues from advertisement is often due to contacts rather than merits or economic logic.
Another symptom I'm surprised was not mentioned by neither of the publishers or representatives of pioneer media in democratic Bulgaria, is directly related to democracy, of which Commissioner Kroes spoke extensively. And this is the work of journalists with Bulgarian institutions at any level. As a significant part of our work on this site is to present positions of member states on important EU issues, we often clash with the totally non-transparent way such positions are formed in Bulgaria. The Council on EU Affairs briefly was fully opened to media, thanks to the then deputy foreign minster Krassimir Kostov, who headed it.
After he was removed from this position because of affiliation with the former communist state security service, the Council was completely closed to the public, as even briefings after the once per week sessions were removed. In addition, the Council of Ministers closed its press centre and the government has no official spokesperson. Working with the press centres of individual ministries is often a mission impossible if a journalist does not have a well established contact but even if he or she has, it does not prevent the ministry to announce a media pause, as was the case with the Ministry of Finance precisely when there were many questions whether Bulgaria would take part in the fiscal compact. And the problem of journalists being able to receive adequate information about the work of the government is substantial for the freedom of speech and the accountability of the authorities before their voters.
The third problem, which euinside often is a victim of, is the theft of content and the total incapability of the relevant legislation to protect own content. In Bulgaria we were very happy with the dropping of ACTA but a person who does not produce own content, who has not "starved" that content (often literally), which is not result of his or her permanent education and informing and in general everything that fits in being a professional journalist, offering much more than information "from news agencies", would find it hard to understand the price of own content. Yes, you might say, reprinting of someone else's texts could be viewed as advertisement for the author but in our contemporary digital world, this is often not the case. The existence of equal texts on the Internet is not among the things search engines stimulate and has a negative impact as on media, so on the "thieves".
It is true that nowadays it is extremely hard to survive, as influential publishers like Tosho Toshev, Slavka Bozukova, supported by Irena Krasteva and the man for whom memorials from paper were built - Petyo Blaskov - said, whose outlets often resorted to our labour and refused to pay for it. Not only have they refused, but they also refused to even respond to our polite e-mails inviting them to do so. Not one or two are the outlets which without permission or often without even quoting the source have "stolen" from our labour. And by the way, mentioning Petyo Blaskov, the champion of free and independent press, one of the foundations of our profession is when you use content that is not yours and you change its title, you should at least note explicitly that the title is yours.
More than three years ago I created euinside thanks to the Internet. Internet provides exceptional opportunities for people without financial means to offer something new, to fill a niche or to express themselves freely, without being subject to the restrictions of editorial policy or the censorship. After the enormous efforts we invested, the personal and professional skills of our team, euinside has lined up among the influential media that have an expertise to talk about European issues. A media that is being read all over Europe and beyond.
Therefore, I find it difficult to understand how is it possible all those people who spoke with self confidence that they had created profitable media outlets, did not raise the issue of protection of own content. May be because they know that for a small medium it would be hard to stand up in court (monitored by the EU) to defend its rights? Or may be because they rely on the abundance of information in our digitalised world because of which no one might notice? Or may be because it is cheaper to steal and if caught to pay rather than cultivating your own skillful journalists and to maintain your level high no matter the hardships?
I am also surprised that many of the eminent media in question, which enjoy the attention (as declining as it may be) of the advertisement market, rely on EU funds. And the statement of Ms Bozukova in this sense was indeed outrageous. Beyond the arrogance of the statement, however, lies the healthy financial logic and it is an evidence that if one relies on funding from European programmes, then indeed we have a distorted market. Every media that has its own audience, offers own content, works in a competitive and unmonopolised environment, should be able to survive without the need of systemic EU injections. After all, the purpose of these funds is different and they are a temporary solution. After all, this is about specific projects, not about allowance.
What we need (the independent media) and what I personally want is equal opportunities. From then on the market will show who is better and who will survive. This is precisely why I proposed to my colleagues from the group that sent the invitation letter to Ms Kroes media environment in Bulgaria to be included in the Control and Verification Mechanism (CVM) because many of the problems it monitors directly affect and depend on media. As Ms Kroes herself said, there is no democracy without free media, and the feeling in Bulgaria of a return to authoritarian rule is growing by the day. The most circulating media have turned into spokespersons of the government and no longer feel shy to turn their back on the even most basic standards of journalism. This devalues the journalistic profession in Bulgaria and has turned the word 'journalist' into a synonym of 'prostitute'.
This has also created an environment for the birth of civil journalism which, as a phenomenon, is very good but poses risks as well, because no one makes these people abide to the journalistic rules, a major one of which is unbiasedness and objectivity. It is an illusion to think that something can be solved with a piece of legislation. As it is noted in the reports under the CVM, the legislation is at hand, it only needs to be implemented. This is what Ms Kroes emphasised in her introductory remarks at the meeting, saying that "A country can have a good law – but if it is abused or not enforced, or there is a culture that encourages forms of self-censorship, or there is a lack of transparency about how the sector operates, then the law alone cannot solve that problem".
It is ridiculous, after 20 and more years of transition toward democracy and market economy, people who not just have the pretence but the responsibility to form the public opinion and be part of that transition toward democracy and transformation of the economy, speak of measures - and not any measures but European ones - to protect printed editions, to reduce VAT for newspapers and speak against reading from an IPad or any other e-readers. The world is evolving in a digital environment and this is a process that is lagging behind in Bulgaria for one very simple reason - here the market mechanisms do not work because if they did then there wouldn't have been fear from the digital but it would have been perceived as an opportunity. And if we all had equal opportunities, then the best would have survived, while we are watching a restoration of people from the distant past which we have vowed to turn our backs to as something bad in the beginning of the 1990s.
In fact, this appeal of the dinosaurs of the journalistic business is a call for help. Their time is passing because their incapability to adapt to the new realities is obvious. The question is what, or may be who, will fill the gap in. And here comes a golden opportunity for the democratically thinking and market-oriented part of society with the help of the EU. It is now that a reform must start of the legislation so that light is cats over media ownership, the ways of financing and their main mission in society. It is high time to create a real market environment in the advertisement sector, as well as to better protect copyright in media. It is madness to ask for funding from the EU, called correctly by Ms Kroes subsidising. We need an equal start, no matter whether we are a big or a small medium.
And here comes the role of the CVM to ensure that such a legislation will not be patchworked to fit a certain group of people or interests and to insist in implementation. I am happy that my idea was supported by my colleagues and was included in the proposal [in Bulgarian] to Commissioner Kroes. As a founder of an indeed independent outlet with a European dimension I commit myself this proposal to be taken seriously by the European institutions and the member states.