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Bulgaria: Media Law Has Lessons For Czechs

  • Ron Synovitz

A controversy surrounding the selection of the next director of Bulgaria's National Radio has spotlighted the country's broadcast media laws. Current Bulgarian legislation contains the same kinds of provisions now being called for in the Czech Republic after a crisis over alleged political influence on public television. But RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz reports the Bulgarian law may not be functioning fully as intended.

Prague, 19 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- About 200 Bulgarian journalists signed a petition this week to protest the way the country's broadcasting council is handling the selection of the next director of national radio.

The journalists are demanding the resignation of the seven-member National Council for Radio and Television. They say that after one failed search for a new radio director, the council has proven itself unable to fulfill its duties. The journalists also accuse council members of violating procedures that are outlined in Bulgaria's state broadcasting laws.

Bulgarian media law now looks very much like what striking public TV journalists in the Czech Republic would like their country to adopt. But the Bulgarian variant does not appear to be working well in practice.

Members of Bulgaria's broadcast council are nominated by non-governmental organizations from a broad section of society. They are supposed to be journalists, critics or artists. Four of the seven council members are appointed by parliament and three are named by the president.

But Bulgarian journalists say the law, although good on paper, has not prevented partisanship from creeping into public media.

Earlier this month, the Bulgarian council rejected five candidates who were nominated for the job of directing National Radio. As called for by law, each candidate was nominated by a non-governmental journalist organization. Among those rejected by the council was outgoing National Radio director Alexander Velev, whose term of office expired this month.

Journalists complain that the council exceeded its powers by naming an interim director while it conducts a second search. There also are complaints that some candidates in the first round of nominations were rejected because of their political affiliations rather than on the basis of their ability to do the job.

Opposition members of parliament have called for an extraordinary meeting of the legislature's culture and media committee to look into the matter. In making the call for the sessions, commission deputy chairman Dimo Dimov said concerns have been raised about the possibility that the next director of National Radio may be chosen on the basis of political affiliation.

Dimov says the parliamentary committee meeting should take place before a final decision on the next National Radio director is reached by the council. He also says the commission's session should be open to members of the broadcasting council as well as to National Radio journalists.

To be sure, no one in Bulgaria questions the fact that political affiliations play a role in the appointment of national media directors. Bulgaria went through a series of short-lived governments in the early 1990s. In every case, one of the first steps of each successive government was to replace the state's previous radio and television directors with their own appointments.

President Petar Stoyanov's chief spokeswoman, Neri Terzieva, knows from her own personal experience during the early 1990s about the political nature of the top state broadcasting posts. As a pro-Western reformist who openly supported the anti-communist Union of Democratic Forces, or UDF, Terzieva was the manager at state TV responsible for creating the country's second national television channel, Efir 2, in 1992.

Terzieva attempted to foster a new kind of journalism in Bulgaria based on Western standards of objectivity rather than on the political patronage system of the totalitarian era. But Terzieva herself was forced to leave her state TV director's post after the resignation of UDF Prime Minister Philip Dimitrov in December 1992.

In the mid-1990s, the former communists in the Bulgarian Socialist Party passed laws giving the legislature power to directly appoint state broadcast media bosses.

The current media law was passed after UDF election victories in 1997 gave anti-communists control over both the parliament and the presidency. At first, the law gave the UDF-dominated parliament the exclusive right to name the bosses of state radio and TV. But complaints from journalists led to the creation of the National Council for Radio and Television as a way of reducing parliament's control over broadcasting.

Terzieva told RFE/RL that in the current case President Stoyanov thinks the laws have been followed properly by the council. She says regulations on the appointment of a National Radio director allow the possibility of a candidate for the post to be nominated or chosen through a contest with rules that are specifically created by the council. But Terzieva says President Stoyanov acknowledges that he has no right to deliberate on the activity of the council because it is an independent public body.

The media crisis in the Czech Republic sparked mass street protests numbering in the tens of thousands. Public anger grew swiftly after striking journalists alleged that a new public TV director was in effect a political appointee made by the Czech TV Council, whose nine members themselves are named by parliament's lower house.

The public outcry over the scandal has brought about the dissolution of the Czech TV Council and sparked debate on the need for a new law covering public TV.

The Czech Senate this week rejected a government-proposed bill that would have created a new 15-member TV council. Under the bill, TV council members would be nominated by civic groups, but parliament's lower house -- the Chamber of Deputies -- would still have the final say on council membership.

The Senate called for a new law to be written on state TV, a process that could take up to two years. In the meantime, the upper chamber called on the Chamber of Deputies to approve the appointment of an interim director for state TV.

The chamber is expected to overrule the Senate and push through a version of the bill it originally approved last Saturday (13 January). But under Czech law, the lower house cannot reconsider the bill for another 10 days.

A spokeswoman (unnamed) for the Bulgarian president says the difference between the problems in the Czech Republic and Bulgaria is obvious. In Bulgaria, she says, the council is waiting for journalist groups to nominate a qualified candidate to head National Radio. She says this provision in Bulgarian law appears to be similar to what Czech public TV journalists have been demanding from the beginning of their protests.

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