The “Pressure culture” in the Bulgarian media is on the rise. There are stable tendencies of control and restriction of media pluralism, evidence of which can be observed in the survey on the freedom of speech in Bulgaria for 2015. The survey was conducted online among 143 journalists at national level by the Association of European Journalists – Bulgaria (AEJ – Bulgaria). The majority of the respondents – 53.8%, admit that they were personally prevented from freely exercising their profession, while 72% say they witnessed colleagues of theirs to be subjected to undue pressure. A new leader rises among the forms of pressure in 2015 – rumor spreading and slander of journalists – marked by 40.6% of all respondents.
The survey of the freedom of speech in Bulgaria was held by AEJ-Bulgaria team for the third time in 2015, preceded by similar studies in 2011 and 2013. The survey is not representative. It was conducted online among 143 journalists during the period June 19 – July 30 2015. It was anonymous, but if so wished by the respective journalist, she/ he could have disclosed her/ his names. A total of 122 respondents opted not to hide their names. However, their identity will be kept confidential. The trend for coming out of anonymity was first observed in 2013, when 144 out of 169 journalists choose to share their names with the AEJ – Bulgaria team. The survey was conducted with the support of the “America for Bulgaria” Foundation. Statistics were processed by “Alpha Research Ltd.”. Author of the analysis of the survey results is Iliya Valkov, a journalist in BIT TV and lecturer at the Faculty of Journalism and Mass Communications of the Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”.
In addition, the AEJ – Bulgaria team circulated a survey on the state of regional media to 50 journalists, 31 of whom were interviewed online for specific local problems. An informal meeting was held with regional journalists who commented on the results of the survey and shared problematic experience from their work and that of their colleagues. (See conclusions below)
Evaluation of the media environment
The answers to the traditional question “How would you rate on a five point scale the freedom of speech in Bulgaria?”, fluctuated between “satisfactory” (31.5%) and “bad” (42%) in the 2015 survey. In 2013, 52% of the respondents rated the freedom of speech in the country as “bad” and 40% as “satisfactory”. In practice, in 2015, there was a relative improvement in the sense of freedom of speech, although the survey indicates deepening trends of self-censorship and concentration of media ownership.
Pressure on journalists is on the rise
Positive (“yes”) and negative answers (“no”) are represented almost equally when it comes to personal experiences of the respondents with undue pressure on journalism (the term “undue pressure”, used in the survey, was defined in the questionnaires as a threat to the physical, financial and moral integrity of the respondent). However, those who say they personally became subject to pressure in their work prevail – 53.8 %. Another 46.2% deny having had such experience. Compared to the results of the 2013 survey, around 8% more of the respondents recognize undue interference with journalistic work – back then the percentage was 46.15. The majority (72%) reported that they witnessed pressure being exercised on their colleagues.
Survey data suggests that the impact of external and internal sources of pressure on editorial teams was spread equally. Curiously, however, the economic pressure on editorial content outweighs that exerted by politicians and media owners. Economic subjects (69.2%) and advertisers (60.8%) are the new rulers of media content, the study found. Still, serious influence of political parties (67%) together with state and municipal institutions (42.7%) is observed. Some respondents clarified that “political parties often represent the state, but also economic subjects and employers.” Editorial content appears to be influenced even from “other media owners”, which reinforces the impression of thematic uniformity and the existence of a guard of honor media, comfortable for the power, political and economic status quo.
Self-censorship – a way to avoid pressure
Only 9% of the respondents declared that they themselves regularly halted their publications/ reports to avoid discussing one or another important public topic. 46% of the respondents report that this has happened to them, although rarely, and the remaining 45% deny experiencing self-censorship. Factors such as pressure from owners, fear of sanctions, financial income (advertising), laziness, conformism and inert behavior of journalists with the objects of their work are among the reasons pointed for the existence of this phenomenon.
Main problems of the media environment
Opaque ownership (65.7%), monopolization of the media environment (82.5%) and the merger of political and economic interests in the management of the media (83.9%) are the three most frequently mentioned issues of Bulgarian media. Low educational and practical training of journalists are listed as serious system flaws (62.9%). Every second respondent considers as a problem the ineffectual self-regulation in the sector.
The most common measures for improvement of the media environment indicated by the respondents are: adoption of practices against concentration of ownership and distribution of the press (76.9%); exposition of ownership (65.7%); training of journalists (60.8%); creating new forms of independent media (60.1%).
Threats of prosecution – most common at regional level
More than half of the regional journalists, which AEJ-Bulgaria contacted, were personally threatened in regards to their profession. The most common ones are: threats to be prosecuted, followed by threats of dismissal, physical threats and threats against relatives of journalists. The top sources of threats are political figures mentioned by 26% of the respondents, local businessmen (23%) and municipal authorities and criminal organizations (17% each).
Media content at local level was commonly influenced by contracts for provision of informational services. Some of those contracts would include provisions, regulating the “protection of the good public image” of the administrative authorities for three to five-year period. Seven journalists from the town of Kazanlak admitted that they were summoned to the police to sign a police warning that they will not report on the mayor and the municipal authorities in a negative manner.
According to 81% of the respondents, regional media are under censorship that spreads mostly on materials of a regional nature, reflecting the business-economic (50%) and the administrative-political issues (40%). Nearly one third of the respondents, admit that they impose self censorship on themselves.
The following measures for improvement of the journalistic work were identified by the regional respondents: providing legal advice and assistance, organization of training seminars and conferences at regional level, support for investigative journalism by the national media, and the need for rapid reactions and more solidarity within the guild itself.