On March 22, 2012, the expert discussion “Regulation and Freedom: The future of Media Legislation in Bulgaria” was held in Sofia. The event, which gathered at one place journalists, media experts, representatives of the NGO sector and the National Parliament, was organized by Foundation Media Democracy and Konrad Adenauer Stiftung Foundation.
The main topic of the debate was whether self-regulation can guarantee the high quality of the media sector in Bulgaria, or some form of regulation has to be introduced in order to improve the value of journalism. If we opt for regulation, what exactly should we regulate and by that legislative means?
In Bulgaria there is a Law on Electronic Media, where the executive body is the Council for Electronic media. However, there are no regulations with direct legal effect in regard to the press. In 2004 an Ethic Code was introduced by the publishers of the biggest press groups, but at the current moment it is being breached regularly by numerous editions, especially by the tabloids which gain more and more influence in the society due to big circulation. Recently a second media union was created – New Media Union, aimed at being an alternative of the currently existing Union of Bulgarian Publishers. The new body announced that it is working on a new ethics code as well. The creation of 2 unions marks the growing war between the two biggest media groups in Bulgaria – Media Group Bulgaria and New Media Group, which more and more are using their media for aimed attacks at each other.
To sum up, the paradox is that 2 ethic codes will soon exist in the Bulgarian media environment, neither of which having good prospects of improving the quality of the press or ensuring better protection for the freedom of speech. Thus, the debate on future legislative regulation is quite essential for the future of Bulgarian media.
Main problems raised and conclusions of the debate
“Self-regulation turned into a problem of the Bulgarian media landscape, but on the other hand, any legislative regulation, especially when it comes to the press, can lead to limitations of the freedom of speech”, said Orlin Spasov, Director of Foundation Media Democracy, summarizing the main collision of the debate.
“A direction has to be given to media freedom, which is not only a matter of responsibility, but a matter of legislation”, pointed out the Director of the Media Program South East Europe of Konrad Adenauer Stiftung Foundation Matthias Barner. According to him, there is a major need of monitoring the whole architecture of the Bulgarian media environment.
Georgi Lozanov, Chairman of the Council for electronic media, gave his support for working on a project for legislative developments, as the market self-regulation in the past 20 years did not lead to building up of a healthy media landscape. “20 years later we are realizing that the market is interested exclusively in the product, and therefore we need instruments to guarantee the rights. In any case human rights will be in conflict with the commercial interests so deregulation is not the right way for the future of the media”. He added that if regulation is to be introduced, it has to cover all the media platforms, as the electronic, press and online channels are more and more becoming one. “The separate regulation for each of these platforms contradicts their very content”, he added.
In conclusion, Lozanov proposed that: “There has to be created one common regulation for each of the spheres f the media, which by itself is close to a self-regulation. The law should be governed by certain bodies which protect the self-regulation”.
Lozanov’s proposal is similar to the concept, embraced by the federal State of Brandenburg which has introduced liberal press legislation, which is aimed not at limitations, but at protection of the media liberties. This model of regulation was presented by Prof. Dr. Johannes Weberling, who participated in drafting the proposal. There are 16 press laws in the 16 German federal states, covering the online media, too. In their nature they do not introduce further regulations, but draw the framework which has already been enshrined in the German Constitution and the Charter of Human Rights.
A very important article of the Brandenburg Law on the Press is art. 2(2), guaranteeing the freedom of distribution. Any publishing company, breaching this freedom, is being held accountable. Such a measure will be quite useful for the Bulgarian media reality, where the danger of monopolization of the circulation is one of major problems. The relations between and editor and a publisher are also being regulated – again a problem which lacks a solution in Bulgaria. Moreover, the media ownership is being kept transparent by the provision that the ownership has to be publicly announced in each 6 months – not only for the media in question, but also all the shares in other media and its branches.
The press should not create, but contribute for the formation of the public opinion, Weberling stressed.
One main tendency occurred at the meeting – when whether they support such regulations, the owners of paper editions were unanimously against it, whereas the heads of electronic media expressed their support, aiming at equality. Anyway, the publishers’ unions a re quite influential and judging by their position, they will hardly let the proposal pass.
The independent experts supported the self-regulation, however the provision for more authority and instruments to enforce the existing legislation. Such instruments are the Competiton Law, the Penal Code, the Law on Editorial Activity, the Trade Law, etc, each of which incorporates provisions regulating the problems that occur mostly in the press: the lack of transparency in media ownership and the danger of monopolization of the circulation.
Another major problem is the one with advertising the electoral campaigns, which reached its top at the latest presidential elections. The advertising activity is regulated by the Electoral code, which allows the risk of domination of certain candidates with better financial recources. In this way, the independent candidates are being kept “out of the game”. Moreover, many newspapers adopted the corrupt pratice of publishing PR materials for certain politicians without mentioning that the articles have advertising purpose. Therefore better regulation of this practices has to be developed and adopted.