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Bulgaria: Government Cancels TV Political Satire

Sofia, 13 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A media scandal threatens to undermine Bulgaria's government's image as a champion of freedom of speech.

The scandal erupted at the beginning of this week following a cancellation of a popular satirical Sunday evening television show critical of the government.

"Hushove" was aired on prime time television and showed this week Prime Minister Ivan Kostov as a thief who steals German Chancellor Helmut Kohl's wristwatch and Foreign Minister Nadezhda Mihailova as a striptease pole dancer (in Bulgarian, 'pole' puns with Kohl).

The next day, various government agencies in charge of Bulgaria's as yet unregulated media threatened to take the show off the air because of alleged denigration of state authority.

The Prime Minister himself said he didn't care. But both the National Media Council and the State TV and Radio Administration were said to have been outraged by what they called vulgarity and bad taste.

And yesterday the National Media Council confirmed the TV administration's decision to cancel the "Hushove" contract.

The decision was based on an argument that "Hushove" is in breach of current regulations as it used an unsanctioned sponsor. The council also stopped other externally financed TV programs in order to check whether they live up to their economic obligations. But most shows were later put on back on track.

Many observers see other causes than just financial impropriety. The "Hushove" sponsor was Overgas, a large energy company linked to Multigroup. Multigroup is a foe of the current Bulgarian government as it is believed to have been started by former Communists and secret agents and to have created a Mafia-like structure that in some areas substitutes for state authority. The government is engaged in finding legal proof for these allegations and says it has waged a war against Multigroup. Therefore, observers reason, Multigroup might have used the immensely popular TV show to hit back at the government in anticipation that the government would stop it. Which is what happened.

But what many Bulgarians feel now is that regardless of the show's artistic qualities, "Hushove" was basically a satirical program that used its constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech.

The show's producers appear set to seek alternative channels for its distribution. As it is a watched by most Bulgarians, it may turn out to be a factor of political significance that the government must reckon with. But what has happened this week leads many Bulgarians to believe that the government may prove itself to be intolerant to media criticism.