Where is the EU in the Bulgarian media campaign for the European elections?

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Panoramic picture of the Hemicycle of the EP in Strasbourg.Ralitza Kovacheva
The obvious answer to the question “Where is the EU in the media campaign for the European elections?” in regards to Bulgaria is that it is non-existent. However, beyond the evident, interesting processes and tendencies in the affairs of media and the behavior of politicians (which is a subject of a different analysis) are revealed.
The main conclusions that are observed regarding the media coverage of the campaign preceding the elections for the European parliament on the 25th May 2014, are:
 

  • There were no immediate debates neither between the leaders of the main parties nor between the leaders of their poll tickets. In the main TV stations the leading candidates appeared predominantly one by one in the so called “paid forms” or rarely in twos. In joint debates were involved mainly the small parties and the independent candidates.
  • There were hardly any clear, distinct these and messages in connection to the EU and the Bulgarian membership in it. Unanswered remained the key issues in regards to the future of the EU and the direction of its future development.
  • There were not enough analysis and comments both from journalists and experts.
  • In result of the above mentioned there were no (again) wide public debates on important European topics. 

The intermediate results of the media monitoring of the Institute for Social Integration as of 10th May show that two weeks after the beginning the campaign is mostly lethargical and the elections surely are not in the focus of the public attention. “The campaign is not focusing on messages and themes of wide European importance but it is rather looking similar to a campaign for local or parliamentary elections. Big number of the leaders actually declared that they would not go the European parliament if they are elected which leads to further lack of motivation and loss of interest.”

Similar conclusions have been raised towards the midway of the campaign by the experts of the Civil Initiative for Free and Democratic Elections (CIFDE) regarding the coverage of the campaign in online media:
“In accordance to the expectations we discovered a decisive presence of Bulgarian subject-matter in comparison to the European one in the field of the Bulgarian online media. It looks like the European subject-matter is not equally covered.”
Of course, those conclusions cannot refer to all media with equal strength but there are some common tendencies. As part of a research devoted to the coverage of the European themes in four British and four Bulgarian media I am observing the websites 24chasa.bg, Trud.bg., Sega.bg and Dnevnik.bg. The research is due to finish in the end of June with the results ready in the fall, therefore at this stage I can only comment on
certain common tendencies.

  • The informational materials are positively dominating over the analysis and the comments. In May the informational materials are on average five times more than the analytic ones while before the beginning of the campaign the difference is even more drastic and in some media it reached 10 to 1 in favor of the informational level.
  • The main speakers on European topics, quoted in media, are the national politicians. It is obvious that the experts, the non-governmental sector, the political leaders from other European states and representatives of the European institutions are absent (the European Parliament and the European Commission are often mentioned as institutions only in regards to topics connected to Bulgaria (for instance – “South Stream”), decisions of the institutions and the crisis in Ukraine.)

This tendency is more visible in 24chasa.bg and Trud.bg rather than in Sega.bg and Dnevnik.bg. Dnevnik.bg is the media with the largest number of news from and for the EU and different member states and has the biggest variety of themes including “exotic” topics for the Bulgarian media as the bank alliance, the tax on the financial transactions, the idea of energy alliance and etc. It is quite interesting that in 24chasa.bg and Trud.bg (which are having almost identical informational pages and there are only certain differences in the analytic materials) in April, before the start of the campaign, the European institutions are decisively prevailing as main figures in the news related to the EU – close to three times. The grounds for this are the dominating themes – the crisis in Ukraine and the last session of the European Parliament. The picture changes rapidly in May when the campaign has already started. At that point the national politicians are standing out with a huge lead. With Sega.bg and Dnevnik.bg there is no such tendency. Furthermore, during the last two editions even though that the political speakers are growing in numbers there are considerably more such speakers from other EU-member states and European institutions and the representation of Bulgarian politicians is relatively balanced.
However the predominant part of the news in 24chasa.bg and Trud.bg related to the European elections campaign at home are devoted to the campaign of two parties – Bulgaria without censorship (BWC) and mainly the Bulgarian socialist party (BSP). One of the main reasons for such a lack of balance is the opportunity for the media to conclude contracts for paid coverage of campaigns of particular political powers.
The paid content however is not always properly designated and differentiated from the editorial content.
“The monitoring shows that the paid content is clearly designated mainly in TV stations. In the rest of the media – newspapers and online publications, a different approach is used – either there is no designation or there is only a highlighter on the pages of the newspapers and the online publications where there are paid reports and other materials according to an agreement with the participants of the elections. For instance, a sign “Elections 2014” is in place but there is no clear designation of every paid material. Often at pages, marked with the rubric “Elections 2014” there is a mixture of paid content and editorial content.” (Institute for Development of the Public Environment).
“In its electronic publications the daily newspapers are not designating the paid campaign materials – we have not registered even one specially designed and used symbol. The solution of two of the online media is to initiate a rubric “Elections 2014” or “European elections 2014” in their main menu where both paid and not paid materials in connection to the campaign of the candidates for members of European Parliament are published” (Citizen Initiative for Free and Democratic Elections – CIFDE).
These findings are confirmed by my research too. I registered for the first time the designation “Paid content” in campaign news in 24chasa.bg and Trud.bg on 12th May. Until then the messages related to the campaigns of the indicated parties were not only presented as unpaid but also as editorial content as there was no sign that those were messages of the press centers of the party – this became evident when the same information word by word is found on the websites of certain parties or in other media.
The practice of not marking the paid content and its mixture with the remaining informational stream as well as the practice of not indicating the origin of the information
is having a few substantial consequences.
First of all, as noted by the experts of the CIFDE it is misleading the reader who is not informed that this is a paid material published by the media under contract and payment and not because it is the media’s assessment that those are news which coverage is of importance for the society. On top of that, particularly in cases when due to concluded contracts in the informational stream predominates the coverage of certain parties and personalities, they are taking away from the media the key function of setting the agenda – they are imposing what is written and how it is written. As a result on a substantial level we can define a few main messages produced by the Socialist party with which the readers of 24chasa.bg and Trud.bg have been “irradiated”:

  • Until now Europe (EC) has been placed to the right and was working for the banks not for the people. We need new, social Europe.
  • Until now Bulgaria was treated as a second-class country, on the outskirts of Europe. If we win Bulgaria would become a full member of the EU.
  • We have to work for the national interest in the EU.
  • The European Commission is the government of the EU. Choose our candidate for a chairman of the EC so we would be able to define EU politics.
  • If Martin Schulz becomes a chairman of the EC, Bulgarian would join the Schengen area.

Those “pillars” of the socialists that are neither challenged by other political theses, nor by the relevant editorial content like news and analysis, are leaving the reader with the impressions that this vision of the EU is without an alternative. This unbalanced coverage of the campaign is also visible on a commentary-analytic level.
An interview is a preferred genre by media, analysis (on topics connected to the EU) are rare and the editorial comments even less visible.
In May (until 25th May) on the website of 24chasa.bg 8 interviews on the elections campaign with politicians from Coalition for Bulgaria are published. For comparison: BWC – 2, DPS – 1, GERB-1 (after 12th May they are marked as “paid content”).
Similar observations can be made in regards to the website Trud.bg – 6 interviews with politicians from the Coalition for Bulgaria and 1 with “Attack” (after 12th May they are marked as “paid content”). The ground for the increase of the analytic materials in the two media lays precisely on those interviews.
Sega.bg has published two interviews with candidates for members of the parliament from GERB.
Dnevnik.bg published 3 interviews with the leaders of the tickets of BWC, GERB and the Reformers block (RB).
The analysis and the comments are confirming the tendency that on the informational level
the media are engaged predominantly the internal political dimensions of the European elections.
As far as the European topics are concerned they are largely connected to the rise of the populist and anti-European parties (Bulgaria does not differ from the general picture – everywhere in Europe that was the main topic) and in a huge percentage they have been republished from foreign media. Bulgarian journalists prefer not to make analysis, to comment and even less than that to declare positions on major European issues like “more or less Europe”, “two-speed” Europe, free movement, economical integration, foreign policies, energy policies.
Even though that there are materials devoted to the lack of European debates in the campaign (“The promises are Bulgarian but the elections seem to be European” – Trud.bg, “I am in the EU but the parties are not here” – Sega.bg) media themselves are also focused on the internal political problems and rarely provide to their audience analytic materials and comments that are to help them better orientate in the European issues. As far as analysis regarding the major issues for the EU (“Battles for the European Parliament at various fronts” – trud.bg) and the membership of Bulgaria in the context of the European elections (“Truths and lies about the EU”, “European choice in the mix of Balkan-pro-Russian outrage”, “European or Eurasian union – what will we choose?” – dnevnik.bg) are ever published – they are the work of freelancers.
The lack of journalistic analysis and comments (which is not only typical for the European elections) brought us to the fact that the media is decisively stepping back from defining the topics and theses in favor of the politicians. Even obviously false and misleading claims regarding the EU (“Bulgaria is losing money from its membership”, “The European Commission is the government of the EU”, “Bulgaria is not an equal member of the EU”) were left without being challenged and commented on by the media.
The result is that it does not only create false impressions in the citizens but rather creates wrong and unrealistic expectations from the EU that would eventually lead to disappointment and lack of trust. I would like to stress that I am not saying that Bulgarian media should be executing the role of a PR of the EU and advocate for European theses and feelings – right on the contrary, it is important for the citizens to have access to exact information and different opinions as the argues and the debates would present an opportunity to the reader to draw an informed opinion.
For instance, I would like to provide some examples from the British newspapers The Telegraph, The Guardian. Unlike the Bulgarian media, with them the ration between informational and analytic materials is equal. It is not a rarity an editorial to be published on a European topic even in the period preceding the beginning of the campaign. The comments and the analysis are mostly personal (signed by journalists from the media) and the topics are largely connected to the membership of the UK in the EU, the necessity for reforms in the EU and the democratic deficit of the EU. The newspaper is providing a space for politicians to declare their positions and to comment on current topics – mostly the conservatives that are close to the media. In the same time there are lots of journalistic comments and positions as well as materials of freelancers in support of other parties such as “Why would I vote for…”. In the work of different journalists and on editorial level, the media is not scared to express opinion. Nevertheless the division of the information from the comments is strictly observed. Among the freelancers there are analysts, journalists, economists and etc.
Even more interesting is the picture of the pro-European The Guardian. This newspaper gave a voice to different people and ideas in the context of the European elections – university lecturers, activists, representatives of ecological organizations, women rights activists etc. The Guardian celebrated 9th May with a series of publications, prepared together with 4 major European newspapers which were devoted to the EU, European Parliament, the pros and cons for the politics of budget reductions (dominating topic for the media where it clearly and consistently defends its position against the budget reduction and in favor of stronger European social policies) and etc.
In the context of the European elections, both newspapers are putting in the focus of the readers’ attention the topic for the collapse between the political elite and the citizens, the problems in the functioning of the democracy not only in the EU but also at national level and that includes the issues about the position and the responsibility of the media in those processes.
Conclusion
To draw a conclusion I would say that unfortunately the European elections campaign did not lead to an increase in the information neither about the EU and the Bulgarian membership that are reported in the Bulgarian media (its quality is another topic) nor in the analytic materials and positions. In result there were no public debates on European topics that would help the citizens to make a well-informed choice on 25th May. However, it was clearly demonstrated that the politicians and not the media are those setting the agenda, theses and the messages. Especially in regards to the European topics, the media are still owing a lot to their audience.