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Bulgaria: Anti-Monopoly Commission Disciplines German Media Company

Sofia, 22 December 1998 (RFE/RL) - A conflict between the Bulgarian government and an aggressive foreign media investor has sharpened in recent days.

The government's Commission for Safeguarding Loyal Business Competition, an anti-monopoly watchdog, decided earlier this month to prohibit the simultaneous publication of an advertisement in the two national newspapers with the largest circulations, "Trud" and "24 hours." A year ago, both dailies were bought by the Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, a German newspaper and media company.

Commission Chairman Nikolay Pavlov said that running the ad in the two papers simultaneously would "not only reinforce (media) concentration, but would also extend the limits of what is permitted by the law."

According to the commission, the German owner forced its clients to advertise in both newspapers, paying twice as much as a single ad. This, it says, violated the principle of free business competition and curtailed the advertiser's freedom of choice. For the Commission, Westdeutsche is close to holding a monopoly of the Bulgarian advertising market, with a 70 percent share of all ads. "Trud" and "24 hours" together receive 50 percent of all advertising revenue.

Dimitrina Aleksandrova, editor in chief of the daily "Sega" ("Now") expects the Commission's decision to improve the situation in the advertising market. She says:

"It's important now to see what the practical consequences will be. The Commission made a decision in principle, which in the case of Westdeutsche represents a break-through."

Petio Blaskov, editor of the daily "Monitor," says: "The decision is an honorable one and is in the interest of both advertisers and publishers in Bulgaria."

Last year, the German company first bought "24 hours" and then "Trud," the two Sofia tabloids that had been in a continual fight to be number one in popularity. After the second purchase, however, the anti-monopoly commission took the deal to court. The Commission asked for an annulment of the contract to purchase "Trud," under which a Trud Publishing House had already been set up. After several postponements, the case is now scheduled to come before the judges in March.

The German company said it would appeal the Commission's decision to the High Court of Appeals. A representative of Westdeutsche in Sofia, who asked that his name not be used, told RFE/RL that Chairman "Nikolay Pavlov is playing the role of the almighty and thinks that only his decisions are fair." Other Germans in the company reject criticism of their alleged aggressive conduct in the local media market by repeating a familiar refrain: "The Bulgarians want foreign investors out, but is this the way to get into the European Union?"

(Petko Bocharov regularly contributes to RFE/RL from Sofia.)