Monday, December 4, 2023

As media independence backslides across the EU, will Brussels act?

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In a move reflecting the anti-corruption agenda of Bulgaria’s new government, the parliament passed a bill that will abolish “golden passports” – a scheme allowing people who invest more than half a million euros into the economy to become Bulgarian citizens, and with that, citizens of the European Union. Bulgaria’s golden passport programme had been a thorn in the side of the European Commission, which has long regarded it as a risk for the EU in terms of “security, money laundering, tax evasion and corruption”. 

The current government under Prime Minister Kiril Petkov, which took over on December 13 of last year, came to power promising stability, economic revival and ending corruption. In that context, the abolishment of the golden passport scheme is a first hopeful indication that Bulgaria, the poorest country in the EU, will finally tackle the numerous illicit activities ranging from monopolizing the media and graft to all kinds of organized crime that are crippling the economy and civil society alike. 

There are no illusions about the fact that a lot needs to be done. Bulgaria has for years been regarded as the EU’s “most corrupt country” by Transparency International, while the European Commission, in its most recent progress report in 2019, on reforms in Bulgaria, the paper particularly highlighted the absence of an independent and pluralistic media environment as a serious concern for the way this negatively impacts the judicial system and the rule of law. 

Indeed, this assessment comes at a time when press freedom in the country has hit a low point as rich business tycoons have increasingly bought up the media industry. Consequently, the independent media space has shrivelled away, instead replaced by monolithic media conglomerates beholden to their owners’ interests. Operating to project-specific agendas by adhering to a highly biased production, these conglomerates have turned Bulgaria’s mediascape into a playground for the rich to further their own schemes. 

Ivo Prokopiev: The blind spot in Bulgaria’s mediascape 

Emblematic for a tycoon-led media conglomerate of that kind is Economedia, Bulgaria’s third-largest media group and run by businessman Ivo Prokopiev, one of the country’s most dazzling oligarchs who found his fortune during the rampant privatization drive of Bulgarian state assets during the 1990s. Economedia unites more than 25 publications under its umbrella, and Prokopiev has been shown to use his media control to carefully curate the information reported on his business ventures to serve his own ends. 

This became apparent in 2012, in the wake of drinking water pollution caused by one of the mines belonging to Kaolin mining group. The unfolding events were covered by most Bulgarian media outlets – except, notably, by those belonging to Economedia. A closer look revealed this to be no coincidence, given that Prokopiev had acquired Kaolin mining group in 1999 under opaque circumstances involving a deliberate under-valuation of assets through one of his own investment vehicles. In turn, this allowed Prokopiev to acquire the firm for much cheaper than its actual worth. 

A controlling stake of Kaolin was sold off to German miner Quarzwerke in 2012, not long after the pollution story broke, yet the Prokopiev example provides an inkling of how well-connected and powerful businessmen blatantly attempt to skew the public narrative on important issues ranging from the environment to political decisions. 

Andrej Babis: Media tycoon and prime minister

Bulgarian media may be hamstrung by what in many other EU countries would be seen as crippling conflicts of interest, but it’s hardly the only EU member with such problems. With Andrej Babis, media mogul, the country’s second-richest man and Prime Minister of the Czech Republic until December 17, 2021, the country had a leader who illustrated concerns about abusing the “independent” media for PR purposes like perhaps no other in the European Union. 

Babis began acquiring a host of media outlets in 2011, shortly after the creation of this political party ANO that would catapult him to the premiership in 2017. By 2015, it was noted by foreign observers that media owned or otherwise controlled by Babis began to cover him in a sympathetic light while using the same outlets to target political rivals. 

As Prime Minister, this pattern largely continued, aided by the fact that Babis had significant stakes in the country’s most influential media players, including, among others, “the national dailies MF Dnes or Lidove Noviny, but also the Metro daily or the radio station Radio Impuls or music TV channel Ocko.” In 2019, it was estimated that his messaging reached 70% of all Czech media consumers on a weekly basis. 

Brussels needs to act

With Babis no longer holding the premiership, the Czech Republic may have a chance to reclaim at least some of the independent media a democracy requires – even if his influence will likely linger. In the meantime, Brussels is hard-pressed to hit back at those who seek to monopolize the media sector or undermine its independence, be it in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary or Poland. Brussels is set to adopt the European Media Freedom Act at the end of this year, which is meant to lay down “rules for the independence of media regulators, promotes transparency of media ownership and recognises that editorial decisions should be free from interference.”

It is partially a response to the declining media freedom in the EU’s former Eastern Bloc members and is supposed to serve as an anchoring mechanism of sorts for media regulators. However, whether another supranational law will suffice to change entire ways remains to be seen.

In Eastern Europe, Brussels is seen as too far away and media observers on the ground harbor no illusions that legislative tweaks will be able to defang the power of local media overlords.

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CEO, co-founder and editor-in-chief of NE Global. Mr. Waller is a veteran journalist, analyst and political advisor, having spent 25 years covering the former Soviet Union, Europe and the Middle East.


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