Freedom of speech within the Bulgarian press

On Tuesday the 25th of June, from 10-12am, the status of Freedom of speech within the Bulgarian press was discussed at The Red House Centre for Culture and Debate in Sofia. This debate took place in Bulgarian.

AEJ freedom of speech survey, 2013

A culture of pressure and self-censorship appears to dictate the Bulgarian media landscape. The results of the latest AEJ [Association of European Journalists] survey on the freedom of speech within the Bulgarian press shows findings, which would appear to provide further justification for the ongoing protests in Sofia.

According to the survey, journalists are regular victims of, or witnesses to, undue political or economic pressuring within the workplace. This pressure is both internal (as practised by editors and owners) and external (through the direct influence of advertisers and political and economic players) in origin and widespread in its proliferation. This has led to the creation of a well-developed “culture of pressure” in the Bulgarian media landscape, including well-integrated and institutionalized channels, through which these external influences are directly transmitted into newsrooms and onto Bulgarian journalists.

These are the main conclusions of the latest survey into the state of media freedoms in Bulgaria. The survey was conducted by the Bulgarian branch of the Association of European Journalists with a group of 169 reporters between the 10th May and the 10th June 2013. The results of the survey suggest a disintegration of democratic institutions in Bulgaria and provide more fuel for the already fiercely burning fires of national indignation.

The study, whose primary goals were to identify the main problems experienced by the Bulgarian media sector, will serve as a solid basis for a more extensive and representative survey due in 2014. Although the questionnaire provided an option for anonymity, it is remarkable that 144 out of 169 respondents chose to reveal their names to the research team. AEJ guarantees nonetheless the anonymity of all the participants.

The term “unregulated pressure” (as used in the survey) was defined as “a threat to the physical, financial and moral integrity of the respondent”. Based on this description, a shocking 86.98% of participants agreed that attempting to influence the content of journalistic ventures is standard practice in Bulgaria’s media sectors. None of the respondents defined the pressure on the media and journalists as being a “non-existent phenomenon”.

Questions about undue pressure as experienced in a journalist’s current workplace disclose different trends. A little less than half of the respondents [46.15%] admit to having been subject to pressure, because of their journalistic work, while 53.85% claim that it is something that they have never experienced. It is worth mentioning that journalists who only started their job in the last two years seem to be under more pressure than their colleagues who have spent more time in that particular media outlet. However, this is not just a problem for new employees, a stunning 2/3rds of  all respondents claim to have witnessed cases of their colleagues being subjected to pressure. 

The clear statistical relationship between pressure on journalists and their personal income is particularly alarming. Over the last five years, journalists, who have experienced pressure at work, have characteristically also been subject to declining incomes. Meanwhile, their colleagues, who claim that they have never suffered from any undue pressure at work, tend to have benefitted from clear pay rises.

According to 70% of the journalists questioned, the most common kind of pressure is that stemming from outside of the workplace, but exercised internally by employers and owners, who seek to defend the interests of close political and economic allies. However, internal pressure is obviously also common practice for resident editors in chief, with over 60% of respondents attesting to this being an issue. Another 30% confess to not needing to be reminded of what is “right” to do, as they practice self-censorship on a regular basis.

Netizens survey

Parallel to the survey for practising journalists, AEJ Bulgaria also approached netizens [world wide web using citizens, who actively produce media content through blogs and other internet platforms] to ask for their opinions on the Bulgarian media sector. A total of 50 netizens were invited to take part in the survey and 26 of them accepted their invitations. 96.2% of respondents said they make use of blogs, while 76.9% of them use Twitter and Facebook. The majority [83.3%] of netizens questioned have also produced content for traditional media. A total of 73% said that they contributed voluntarily and a huge group of 69.2% declared that receiving a paycheck was not something they worked towards, even though 3.8% would nonetheless still appreciate being paid for their work, were the opportunity to arise.

A total of 80.8% of netizens say that they are motivated to produce media content, because this allows them to focus on topics of personal interest. Over 82.6% of respondents believe that the role of citizen journalism is to compensate for the weaknesses currently found in traditional Bulgarian media formats. About half [52%] of those who replied believe that the freedom of expression in Bulgaria is poor, while 40% say that it is “satisfactory”. 46.15% of respondents claim that they have been subject to undue pressure to present certain points of view, while another 53.85% say that their have been no violations of their freedom of expression.

The results of the survey were presented at an open debate with the participation of Boris Gurov, sociologist, Nelly Ognynova, media law expert, Spas Spasov, correspondent for Dnevnik and Capital in Varna and Konstantin Pavlo-Komitata, blogger. The Bulgarian National Radio journalist, Irina Nedeva, moderated the debate, which took place at The Red House in Sofia on the 25th June. What follows is a snapshot of the opinions of those attending pursuant to the results of the AEJ survey on press freedoms in Bulgaria.

“I would like to focus on the relationship between money, media and power and the ways in which it has deformed the media market in Bulgaria. There is no doubt that the number one problem is the concentration of specific media outlets and the related lack of transparency in media ownership.”, said Nelly Ognyanova.

Spas Spasov meanwhile stressed his disappointment that “…there is [such] a radical difference between the quality of journalistic work found in the national media and the respective conditions for their regional representatives…”.

According to Konstantin Pavlov-Komitat, “…the survey gives a picture of Bulgaria as it was several weeks ago [end of May/beginning of June 2013], and it helps us to observe the media landscape in a pre-revolutionary situation.”.

Finally, Maria Cheresheva, Vice President of AEJ Bulgaria, called upon the participants in the debate to stand up for their rights, saying that it would be good if “…we [could] all stand for initiatives based on the problems identified by this survey.”. She added that “AEJ Bulgaria would be happy to work with people and organisations that share the same ideas [as them].”

AEJ Bulgaria’s survey was made possible by the financial support of the Embassy of the United States of America in Sofia and the media partnership formed by Bulgarian National Radio, Dnevik, Offnews and Profit.