Protests at the Bulgarian National Radio 2001

Poly Stancheva, the new Director General of the Bulgarian National Radio, has promised to oversee the return of journalists sacked during the spring protests.

Journalists and staff at BNR had been protesting against the appointment of Ivan Borislavov as the New Director General since the 6th February. This had lead to the dismissal of 19 journalists between March and April.

In April, the Supreme Court ruled that Mr Borislavov's appointment had been illegal and he should be replaced. After loosing its' appeal the National Council for Radio and Television appointed Ms Stancheva at the end of May.

The IFJ plans a mission to Bulgaria in September that will review causes of the crisis at BNR and develop strategies with the journalists unions on a campaign of reform for public service broadcasting.

For further details of the BNR crisis see below.

Introduction

Protests by journalists at the Bulgarian National Radio (BNR) have been ongoing since 6th February when the National Council of Radio and Television (NCRT) announced the appointment of Ivan Borislavov as the new Director General.

Journalists rejected his appointment on the grounds that he had failed to present a serious plan for the development of BNR into a public service broadcaster, that he was inexperienced and eminently ill qualified for the job. The NCRT had also overlooked a candidate supported by the journalists and the Bulgarian Media Coalition. They fear that Mr. Borislavov can only have been selected in order to further a hidden political agenda.

Protests at first were restricted to statements and declarations over the radio. However, after forty days, due to the refusal of the NCRT and management to listen to their arguments, the journalists announced an action of Civil Disobedience. They planned to remove all talk shows and political analysis from the radio and broadcast only the news and music.

On Monday 19th March, the day the civil disobedience was planned to begin, the police were called in and all protesting journalists were barred from the station.

Their pogrammes have since been taken over by journalists employed by the Demokratsia, a daily newspaper close to the governing party.

By 3 April the management had removed 13 leading protesters either through dismissals for violations of discipline, or by refusing to renew their contracts.

Following strong protests from the Union of Journalists of Bulgaria -Podkrepa, the Union of Bulgarian Journalists and the IFJ, the NCRT has declared itself against the dismissals of journalists by the management and established a contact group of 'independent experts' to facilitate negotiations between the journalists and management.

On 5 April the Supreme Court declared that the appointment of Ivan Borislavov was not in compliance with the law. If there is no appeal, the protesters may finally see the removal of Borislavov and the managing board.

The Managing Board, lead by Alexander Brazitsov, responded to this apparent legal setback by sacking a further six protesters on April 10, bringing the total to 19.

Meanwhile the listener ratings have collapsed.

Summary

The crisis in the Bulgarian National Radio centers on questions of political interference in the management and the transformation of the national broadcaster into a public service broadcaster. It also reveals how laws regarding public broadcasters can nominally conform to international standards, while in practice the workings of the broadcaster are still subject to the culture of political interference and corruption.

The main areas of concern raised by the crisis include:

The right of staff to proper consultation on the future development of the BNR

The right of journalists to protest

Job security for protesters

The crisis mirrors similar developments in the Czech Republic and Hungary. As in the Czech Republic, journalists rejected the appointment of a new Director General and questioned the procedures and the independence of the body responsible for the appointment. As in the Czech Republic, the new Managing Director rapidly retired from the scene for health reasons. Meanwhile, the illegitimately installed managing board assumed control. As in Hungary, the loss of credibility of the radio undermines its' long term viability.

On paper, the rules governing the Bulgarian National Radio conform closely to international standards. However, as the report reveals, the letter of the law rarely reflects practice on the ground. The nomination of Mr. Borislavov as a candidate was falsified and yet the National Council for Radio and Television did not see this as sufficient reason to review his appointment. An appeal over the legality of the decision made to the Supreme Court should have immediately suspended the appointment, yet Mr. Borislavov was able to take immediate control. In breach of the regulations, Mr. Borislavov was able to appoint a new managing board without having received his own contract. Despite this, the NCRT saw fit to confirm the new board, again, in breach of regulations.

The journalists' right to protest and control over their editorial content is supported in the law governing the national radio and television. However, this is worth little when journalists can be easily dismissed or their contracts simply not renewed.

Nomination irregularities aside, the selection and interview process was conducted in a relatively open and transparent manner. Despite this, the NCRT succeeded in selecting a candidate considered by the professional journalists community to be wholly inadequate for the job. His election, therefore, cast serious doubts over the motivations and independence of the Council.

Following the example of successful protests in the Czech Republic, the protesters have refused to be bowed. Through solidarity with their colleagues, the support of the two journalists unions and international protests, they have forced the authorities, including the NCRT and the President, to distance themselves from the actions of the management.

Finally, the events in the BNR and in particular the involvement of journalists from the Demokratsia, are all the more disturbing in view of the parliamentary elections due in June of this year.

Conclusions

The current dispute undermines the credibility of the BNR as a provider of objective and accurate information. Unless the BNR is freed of political interference and starts meeting the standards required of a public service broadcaster, its' long term future, as in Hungary, will be threatened.

The government has an obligation to promote and sustain public service media that reflect and promote national culture, provide independent news and current affairs, expand the interests of audiences through education programmes, and that maintain high standards of tolerance and decency. Therefore, it must, in close cooperation with the journalists and media professionals, establish a clear plan for the transformation of BNR into a public service broadcaster.

These plans should introduce

rules and procedures which ensure the full consultation of staff in the decisions of management, particularly in view of the anticipated restructuring that will take place,

editorial statutes that ensure editorial independence over programme content, high ethical and professional standards and internal pluralism,

transparent and accountable methods of management and financial administration,

enhanced employment rights and greater job security.