A necessary upgrade and restart of the media self-regulation process in Bulgaria

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Ivan Radev, AEJ-Bulgaria

In recent years, Bulgaria is constantly losing ground in the rankings for freedom of speech drawn up by reputable international organizations. This negative trend is evidence of an acute problem with the media environment in the country. One of the essential characteristics of this environment is the lack of uniform rules applicable to all media. This deficit has an adverse impact on public attitudes towards the media and towards journalists as a whole – public credibility of the media is not especially high.

Existing legal framework and system of self-regulation decidedly ineffective

Since 1998, there is a Law on Radio and Television, as well as a Council for Electronic Media, which monitors compliance with it. At the same time there is no law to regulate the activities of print media or those operating on the Internet. In 2004, a Code of Ethics of the Bulgarian media was adopted. The Ethical Committees that were set up to oversee compliance with this code, however, rule only on cases related to media that have signed the document. Thus emerges the paradox having binding rules only for radio and television, but not for print media, and rules valid only for signatories of the Code.

This is how a considerable number of media outlets fall outside the scope of both legal regulation and self-regulation. This concerns mostly print and online media that are not signatories to the Code of Ethics. Naturally, the latter are obliged to abide by the laws of the Bulgarian state yet national legal norms have proven unable to guarantee that the Bulgarian media abide by at least the minimal ethical standards. Expiry of Committees’ mandates and poor disclosure of their activities effectively block the process of self-regulation that should instead be restarted and upgraded.

Earlier this year, the Bulgarian Media Union published a Code of Ethics and Professionalism of the Bulgarian Media. The document repeats the wording of the Code of Ethics from 2004, which the media gravitating around New Media Group persistently refused to sign. Drafting a new document instead of joining the existing one is likely a sign of the ambition of these media owners to personally set the rules of self-regulation. The existence of two alternative codes can hardly be taken as a positive development but rather a step towards imposing self-regulation for the private benefit, for protection of personal interests and for a crackdown on competition.

Does the new Press Law offer a solution?

Proposals for changing the described situation are most often linked to the adoption of the Press Law, which would extend to the media not covered by the Law on Radio and Television. The idea of ​​such a law is, however, far from universally accepted by journalists and publishers, not to mention that any attempt to regulate the Internet raises much controversy – not only in Bulgaria but worldwide. Many members of the guild are of the opinion that such a law would only aim at reining in the freedom of speech. Furthermore, the fact that the last few National Assemblies have not taken any concrete steps for the adoption of a law on the press is proof that the political class realizes that any attempt to pass such a regulation carries significant risks.

One of the major controversies refers to the fact that without the establishment of a specialized body to monitor compliance with the law, the latter would remain merely exhortatory, but the creation of such a body will inevitably lead to criticism that an attempt at censorship is being made. Judging by recent precedent in Hungary this would not be accepted by the European Commission.

A significant disadvantage of the possible adoption of a press law is that the radio and television, on the one hand, and newspapers on the other, will again be subject to different rules. This is hardly justified when most media are already interactive – almost all radio and TV stations have websites which publish articles or analyzes – genres previously associated only with print media. At the same time, many newspapers publish video and audio recordings in their electronic editions, or even broadcast live – an area once reserved for radio and television. A potential draft law would be faced with the difficulty of defining the term “media” when it comes to blogs or even social network profiles.

Whether a political consensus on the issue of regulation is reached (President Rosen Plevneliev recently urged for the adoption of a law on the media) or the idea is dropped, the media environment in Bulgaria needs an improved and extended model of self-regulation. It is important to emphasize that the talk is of the 2004 model since despite all its defects, it is not being suspected of serving the interests of only one part of the sector.

Self-regulation can and does deliver

For this purpose, above all else it is important for all stakeholders in the media process to be identified – journalists, publishers (owners), customers, advertisers, institutions. If all of these parties are involved in a voluntary system of self-regulation, it is likely to be an effective one.

The current model of self-regulation seems to be primarily aimed at media owners, each of them deciding whether to sign the Code and if they do it becomes mandatory for journalists working in their media outlet. If any of these journalists, however, transferred to work under another employer who has not signed Code of Ethics these same journalists will no longer be obliged to comply with it.

Consumers (readers, listeners, viewers) may refer to Ethics Commissions, however there is no case recorded of a media’s audience having decreased due to the fact that its owner has not signed the Code of Ethics. The signing or not signing of the Code does not seem to exert any effect on advertisers either. When deciding where to advertise, they are led by statistics on the number of consumers and not on whether the media comply with ethical norms.

Institutions which offer a serious source of financing for the media also do not differentiate based on this characteristic. It so turns out that funds from the national and EU budget are directed towards media, that have no commitment to ethical standards, that often permit themselves the use of hate speech and repeatedly violate professional standards of journalism. Part of the European and state financed media are breaking the law by refusing to reveal their true owner or by hiding behind proxy individuals or companies. Many of the journalists working in these media are socially insured based on lower wages than their actual pay, thus being put in a position close to serfdom.

The situation may change if action is taken to stimulate a greater spectrum of media outlets to sign and abide by the existing Code of Ethics and also not to violate or circumvent the laws of the state of Bulgaria. This can be achieved if the state and the European institutions agree to maintain the highest level of cooperation only with media that comply with ethical principles and laws. The technical question is about the exact meaning of the term “highest level of cooperation” but it should most importantly contain a range of incentives for responsible media. For instance, these rules should be a mandatory requirement in the public procurement procedure for media coverage. Also, the government should only publish adverts in those media outlets that have signed the Code of Ethics and abide by the law. This will put an end to any suspicions that certain ministries and other institutions prefer to cooperate with media sympathetic to the government while ignoring more critical outlets.

It is important to attract advertisers to this process. No doubt companies who uphold ethical principles must also be aware of whether a particular media abides by the same rules. Promotion among consumers is also necessary – a media campaign to attract consumers’ attention to this process and to educate them to distinguish the media that abide by ethical norms. A distinctive sign or emblem could be developed to demarcate these media.

The biggest advantage of the proposed model is that it does not limit the freedom of speech – it does not outlaw media outlets but encourages them to comply with ethical principles. In such an integrated system of self-regulation there will be no need to define the concept of media – there should be a possibility for the Code of Ethics to be signed by both media owners and journalists, as well as bloggers or active citizens who will personally commit to complying with its principles. This model will require the creation of a council to monitor compliance with the norms by those who have declared that they will comply, and which consequently warns and sanctions them; also, upon repeated violations the council should be able to exclude the transgressors from the group of ethical media and journalists. This council must be composed of representatives of all groups involved in the process – journalists, publishers, consumers, institutions and advertisers.

Undoubtedly, such a broad involvement of all parties in the process of the mass media seems quite difficult to achieve. However, it certainly carries advantages over the imposition of self-regulation, dominated by a group of publishers, especially in an environment where there are concerns about the concentration of ownership. Broad consensus is indispensable for the improvement of self-regulation because its absence will inevitably create a sense of enforcement of regulations for private interest.

The analysis is part of the project “Mediator” funded by America for Bulgaria Foundation. The responsibility for the content of the whole project is held by The Association of European Journalists – Bulgaria.