Will the State give up its control over the media?
The ministries keep allocating huge amounts of financial resources from European programs to the media. Just for the first eight months of 2017 the electronic media received EUR 3.4 million. For the first time, however, the Council of Ministers adopted regulations for spending this money. Will the state give up its chance to coerce the media using these financial resources?
Two characteristic remarks by Deputy Prime Minister Valeri Simeonov made in October 2017 about two of the most popular TV stations in Bulgaria give solid evidence of the political class’ vicious attitude towards media and media freedom.
“It is high time we had regulations regarding media ownership. This is what I am going to propose, I hope it will be adopted by the National Assembly. The second thing that I am considering proposing for discussion at the Council of Ministers with Prime Minister Borissov himself concerns sponsorship–it has to do with “quite a lot of millions” which go to those two TV stations (bTV and Nova TV). Thus, they end up being sponsored to a great extent by the government. We should consider if this practice should continue to exist in the way it has existed so far.” Deputy Prime Minister Valeri Simeonov said at an interview on another competitive media, Bulgaria On Air TV.
The reason for Simeonov’s remarks was that he had previously appeared on the Nova TV morning show hosted by Viktor Nikolaev. This resulted in a media scandal. Nikolaev’s colleagues could not remain indifferent to the threats he received on air for the questions he had asked. One after the other, the former GERB member, Anton Todorov, and Deputy Prime Minister Valeri Simeonov dropped clear hints about the host’s work, talking about the empty seat of his colleague, Anna Tsolova, who was no longer his TV partner, and warned him that his seat could be vacated, too. Simeonov even noted that someone could organize a “Viktorgate”. Because of Anton Todorov’s remark, the Parliament voted for his resignation. Valeri Simeonov’s case is different.
After this event and the resulting severe reaction by most of the leading media, which warned that the people in power had no right to threaten the media because the law defends the freedom of expression, Simeonov requested an apology from Nova TV (as well as some other media–bTV, the Bulgarian National Radio (BNR), and the Bulgarian National Television (BNT)). Then, using the website of the Council of Ministers, Simeonov threatened that he would also demand that Nova TV would no longer receive money from the European funds. In this way, he proved the strong suspicion that EU funds were being used by the state to put pressure on the media. This was also noted in the 2017 Freedom of Speech Report by Reporters Without Borders. According to the report, Bulgaria in 2017 ranks 109th out of the 180 countries analyzed; in comparison, Bulgaria ranked 35th in 2006, a year before its accession to the European Union.
What is it all about?
For years the state has been giving the media millions of euros to advertise the achievements made with the support of European funds. The point of such investments is debatable, and they have turned into a way by which the state secretly subsidizes particular media outlets. That was the main reason for the adoption of the regulations in 2016. They were expected to guarantee, at least to some extent, that the government did not “buy” a lack of criticism from media by using European taxpayers’ money. After what Valeri Simeonov said, it became clear this was exactly what was happening.
The amount of money that the state paid to 25 regional and national radio and TV groups (Table 1) within just 8 months (January 1, 2017–August 31, 2017) is EUR 3.4 million. This is according to the latest published data for the implementation of the communication plan under the European operational programs (1). This money was spent for purchasing airtime on TV channels and radio stations. The two largest private national TV stations, bTV and Nova TV, as well as the public broadcaster Bulgarian National Television (BNT) received the largest amounts of money.
If we include additional services, such as the preparation of advertising materials and logistics for events, and if we include data about funds granted to the media up to January 1, 2018, the total will surely be far more, exceeding EUR 6 million. (This amount includes all payments made during that period, some of which were made under contracts dated earlier). The accounts of these communication strategies under the operational programs still do not include the print media and the electronic websites because according to the law, they must participate in a competition in order to be granted state funding. Despite that, for a year now there have been rules and conditions that they have to meet in order to receive funding from the European programs.
In 2013, state funds given to the media reached its peak–EUR 16 million of European money were spent on advertising the European funds. In the period between March 2015 and January 2016 the amount was three times less–EUR 5.8 million. According to official data from October 2017, in the period January 2017–August 2017, the amount was EUR 3.4 million.
What is the problem?
There are two problems with regards to the EU funds for the media. The first one is minor, while the second one is major. The minor problem is that some part of the money is given on the basis of direct negotiations with television and radio stations. There is no need for public tender. The major problem is that all of the money is given without a clear purpose and instead of efficiency, so far they have only provided comfort for politicians and businesspeople.
Thus, at the end of June 2016, the government focused on these two problems and posted new rules on its website about the allocation of European money. This was the first attempt by the government to introduce a methodology and rules for the allocation of these EU funds. The drafting of the rules took around three months after Deputy Prime Minister Tomislav Donchev announced that he had imposed a moratorium on the contracts for purchasing airtime on TV channels and radio stations because of protests by some of the print media.
The direct negotiations with the electronic media, which enables the ministries and other agencies to purchase airtime directly, was a common practice during the whole first programming period 2007–2013 and is also included in the new Public Procurement Act. It was based on the belief that these were the most popular and accessible media and if the goal was to promote European programs, it was important that there were shows and commercials funded by European money in those media. The government did not abolish this but did introduce a limit on the direct negotiations. The text said that the maximum threshold of the money used for direct purchase of airtime on TV and radio would be up to 30% of the available annual resource for awareness and publicity. Another change was that within that 30%, 80% had to be used for national electronic media while 20% for regional electronic media. According to official data, in the period January–August 2017, the government managed to keep the balance so that the European funding was given both to the national and to the regional media.
In addition to the funding threshold rule, measuring the efficiency of the funding was also introduced. The process of planning and valuation media campaigns on channels that were part of the people-meter system had to be linked to clear mechanisms for measuring the efficiency of the media campaigns. Such mechanisms would be the total of the ratings of the campaign in the target audience, the rating point price, etc.–all of these are indices that might be measured based on data from the people-meter agency. It is widely known that in the last two years, the television market has been working with two agencies. Nova TV, together with the group of 16 channels that it represents, has been working with Nielsen Admosphere, while bTV and BNT have been using data provided by GARB. The government would also have to work with these two people-meter agencies since the market has not yet picked only one of them. Therefore, it is quite questionable whether the amount of project funding that is granted is proportionate to the true rating of the radio stations and the TV channels. These imbalances may be clearly seen in the table after this text.
The real revolution, however, that the 2016 regulations brought about was the methodology for the planning and valuation of media campaigns in print and online media. This was a breakthrough in the manner of working with that kind of media. Simply put, if the funding for electronic media has been easy to follow so far, it has not been possible to follow the funding of the other media. That would predominantly pass through consortiums with the media or PR agencies, so it was not clear what the amount of funding was and which media received it. On the one hand, the funding could not be traced and it was impossible to have a public register of these funds. On the other hand, the print media was often unhappy that a bigger percent of the negotiated money was left for the intermediary agencies.
From now on, in procedures for print media campaigns under the Public Procurement Act, the service provider’s offer will be required to feature a contract or a letter of intent with specifications. The print media is now committed to provide a certain number of publications, pages, appendices and inserts about the respective program. The content of the publications will also be agreed upon in advance.
An Outwit Race
It is curious that now the print media are required to provide data about their annual average circulation. Since Bulgaria no longer has an independent calculating agency (after closing down the circulation audit bureau), this data cannot be verified, which means that this system will become a race to outwit each other. In the process of planning campaigns in online media, the allocation of resources should happen according to objective systems for measuring the number of visitors such as Gemius, Alexa, etc. The service provider will be required to provide data for the number of visitors in the online media that feature in the media plan. According to advertising agencies, the fact that the market has no single database or metrics to provide the circulation and the rating information causes a problem in how to measure the efficiency of publicity campaigns.
A good start after all
Having certain rules is thought to be a good start. Playing by the rules, though, is something else. However, Bulgarian institutions are quite creative in this game. The allocation of that EUR 3.4 million between January–August 2017 happened by the new rules. But the state has yet to provide an official account of what has been given to the print media and the online media so that the process can be transparent.
Transparency is something positive when it gives information about what the different operational programs include and which sectors they support through the media. This is also required by the European Commission. The problem is that so far, the money has been granted to media randomly and with no rules. The choice has been up to the respective ministry and its minister. The main loophole might be found in the Public Procurement Act which lays down no criteria for a transparent process. Purchasing radio and television airtime happens directly–the media receives money from the operational program in return for good coverage. The media often covers not only the European projects but also the general activity of the ministry for quite some time. The situation concerning the print media is not very good either–they ostensibly take part in competitions which, however, are difficult to follow up. It is also a real danger that politicians might have a certain influence on journalists.
Despite the new rules, the allocation of European funds in the media sector remains almost non-transparent and keeps being perceived as a way in which those in power buy influence for themselves, especially after what Deputy Prime Minister Valeri Simeonov said.
Bulgaria will be holding the presidency of the Council of the EU in the first half of 2018. Therefore, the government had to allocate funds for communicating the process in the media. Even when the funds were part of a draft budget, doubts emerged that they would turn into another instrument to influence the media. Only time will tell.
By: Velislava Antonova
Single Information Portal–EU Structural Funds, http://www.eufunds.bg/programen-period-2014-2020/natzionalna-komunikatzionna-strategiya/spravki-za-izpalnenie-na-komunikatzionnite-planove-po-op
“The Black Book of Government Waste in Bulgaria 2016”, p.69, How those in power purchase media with our money, Sofia 2016, ISBN 978-619-90549-3-2
Capital weekly, “Valeri Simeonov gave an ultimatum to the media to apologise”, 8 October 2017
Capital weekly, “What is the reason for the scandal that caused Anton Todorov’s resignation”, 9 October 2017
You may find the table data following this link: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1DRJALM9S0vt6QiaXMGIF5gqL83Jp8Fw7SNtZLEvTdIY/edit?usp=sharing