(Non)Uses of Freedom

12 март 2012, Автор: Gergana Kutseva
Публикувана в 2011 Media Monitoring Report

Macro-Framework: Dependences

The analysis of Bulgarian news sites in 2011 begins where the summary for 2010 ended: from the point of intersection of two competing but interconnected trends and the impossibility to determine which was dominant. The trends in question are the ‘mediatization’ of politics and the ‘politicization’ of media content. The 2010 monitoring study of Bulgarian news sites highlighted the mediatization of politics, and its effects: negativization of political messages, speaking in soundbites, personalization of politics, and so on. The mediatization of politics was defined as follows: instead of serving as mediators between political institutions and citizens, the media are increasingly becoming a key player in the political arena. In this sense, the 2010 analysis was rather an attempt to reveal the media dependence of political acts.

In 2011, however, we witnessed an even more dangerous convergence of the political and media spheres which ultimately degenerated into an unhealthy symbiotic relationship between them. The process of politicization occurred and is occurring at several levels. One of them is the discursive level: the change in the political status quo after GERB’s victory in the July 2009 parliamentary elections brought about a lasting change in media coverage of politics. Today, too, the political gestures of those in power, irrespective of their scale, invariably remain in the focus of media interest but the actual standards of news value have changed.

Politicization, however, did not occur only at the level of media content. In 2011 the Bulgarian media had the coveted (given the economic crisis and declining advertising budgets) opportunity to ‘capitalize’ their key role in serving those in power, a role they have readily accepted to play of late. In 2011, because of the impending elections, we witnessed a redistribution of the media market. We witnessed a growing concentration of ownership in the hands of a small number of owners and the launch of new media unquestionably designed to yield certain financial and, probably, political dividends. The lack of transparency regarding their ownership, and hence, regarding their political biases, affected the pluralism of opinions, the quality of journalism, and access to publicity. At the level of media dependence and bias, politicization degenerated into partisanship – biased reporting about the different candidates according to different commitments, and dominant coverage and favouring of definite political actors.

The boom of the yellow press – the launch of new newspapers in 2011 precisely in this segment, but also the growing ‘tabloidization’ of Bulgarian media as a whole – can be explained with the devaluation of information. Although the yellow press has an enviable readership at present, its aim is not just to make a profit but rather to serve concrete interests, both political and economic, and to ‘capitalize’ them.

For their part, those in power left a deep imprint on media discourse through the new Electoral Code. Since it does not provide for free airtime in the public-service media, all campaign broadcasts had to be paid for according to a predetermined tariff. This undermined the responsibility of the public-service media to ensure balanced and comprehensive coverage of the elections, and led to an almost complete absence of independent journalistic coverage of the election campaign. Without being obligated to follow the same rules as Bulgarian National Television (BNT) and Bulgarian National Radio (BNR), private radio and television stations, the press and news sites adopted a similar approach in covering the campaign. And as some political analysts felicitously put it, this turned them into ‘taximeters’ charging the candidates for every word.

All this points to the general conclusion that it is increasingly difficult to define the Bulgarian media environment as a platform for the clash of ideas and a sphere for control over those in power.

In Focus: Elections 2011

The observations on the Bulgarian news sites are interpreted through the prism of the more general conclusions noted above. In 2011, two main discourses were dominant in them: the elections for president and for local government in Bulgaria, and the economic recession in the eurozone. Although they were distinctly different, those two discourses often intertwined in media contents. More specifically, the local political narrative drew arguments, comparisons and a potential for extension from the supranational narrative (about the economic and political future of the European Union). The all-European economic troubles and Greece’s bankruptcy, as well as the Dutch veto on Bulgaria’s and Romania’s Schengen accession, at last focused the gaze of Bulgarian media on Europe, its institutions, and individual European leaders. The European topic earned a subordinate but visible and permanent place in the corpus of international news.

Still, local politics failed to earn a dominant place in the corpus of news items partly due to the exceptional international events: along with the political uncertainty threatening the European project, media interest naturally focused on the social and political revolutions in the Arab world, and the natural disasters such as the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. The reason for that ought to be sought also in the way in which the election campaign was organized and conducted. Although the issue of the elections appeared at the very beginning of 2011, it did not grow into a real debate on concrete policies even at the height of the election race.

Media coverage of the elections was hollow and superficial, focusing on the ‘technology’ of the election process – registration of parties and candidates, publication of electoral rolls, reporting on the work of electoral commissions, and other such. The absence of editorial coverage became visible in the mass reporting of one and the same press releases provided by the candidates’ campaign staff, as well as in the extremely low percentage of analytical items. The other issue that generated a significant amount of news items was ‘vote-buying’ and voting irregularities. It became the focus of criticism. It was also entirely in harmony with the traditionally high media interest in crime and conflicts. The Bulgarian media began commenting on the election process only in the period between the two rounds and especially after the second round, when the number of analyses and commentaries increased significantly.

Paid coverage of the election campaign was dominant de facto, without being clearly identified as such. In addition to misleading the public about the nature of the content, the obliteration of the difference between journalistic articles, news, and paid political advertisements had a negative effect on the quality of information offered to voters. The Bulgarian media abdicated from their responsibility to help form an informed and rational, not emotional and unprincipled, vote.

The reason for the lacklustre coverage ought to be sought also in the absence of political ideas and projects about the future, in the unclear platforms and messages of the candidates, and especially in the absence of outstanding individuals. Ultimately, the election campaign was reduced to a vote of confidence on the Borisov government, and the rivalry in these elections was between the major political parties, not between the multiple contenders.

Institutional coverage dominated the news and gave the ruling party a significant advantage in the media. The Bulgarian media system once again demonstrated its inclination to be biased in favour of and loyal to power and the powers that be.

Whereas the informational dependence of Bulgarian media on the statements and appearances of Prime Minister Boyko Borisov became the norm in 2010, it turned into a diagnosis in 2011. Thanks to his unquestionably successful communication strategy, Borisov asserted himself as an inevitable initiator of news in every sphere of society – from the strictly political to the economic, financial, criminal, and even to the sports sphere. Bulgaria’s prime minister was nominated for Football Player of the Year; he actively set out to find sponsors for emblematic football clubs; he was even said to have ordered a police operation in the headquarters of one of the most influential football fan clubs in Bulgaria because fans had chanted opposition slogans, at least according to the managers of the club. Borisov’s media image was fleshed out and expanded to the point of filling all spheres of social life and the whole media landscape, continuing to assert his anti-elitist, populist and, ultimately, anti-political image.

Conclusion: The Internet and Freedom

This analysis is based primarily on a monitoring study of Bulgarian news sites via EMM (Europe Media Monitor), which monitors online versions of traditional media, news-producing sites, and media outlets. Despite that, it outlines a more general picture of the Bulgarian media based on the fact that Bulgarian online media rarely produce their own content. As they are 24-hour news portals seeking to publish topical information nonstop, they mostly reproduce opinions and analyses which were expressed on television or were published in the press. Bulgarian news sites seek to be information outlets (supermarkets for fast-selling information) rather than to produce their own news, the exception being the online versions of print media and news agencies. The present state of the Bulgarian online media does not coincide with the widespread romantic view of the internet as a space of freedom and pluralism. This view is valid only insofar as users themselves (partly) have the freedom to share their opinions (most often) anonymously.

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