Public TV’s biased election coverage highlights urgent need for strong safeguards in Bulgaria

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on the political forces in Bulgaria’s new parliament to carry out deep-seated, systemic reforms to strengthen public media independence after Bulgarian National Television (BNT) violated its legal obligation to provide unbiased coverage of the campaign for the snap parliamentary elections held on 11 July.

According to a report on the election by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), BNT failed in its duty as a public service broadcaster by giving more airtime to GERB, Bulgaria’s ruling party until last April.

“On BNT1, during the morning and evening prime time news, all contestants received only a combined total of 28 minutes, which was largely focused on GERB (17 minutes), mainly positive in tone,” the OSCE report said.

BNT’s failure to observe neutrality and equality in its presentation of the competing political parties was all the more brazen because, shortly after the parliamentary elections held on 4 April, then Prime Minister Boyko Borisov’s government allotted the equivalent of an additional 10 million euros to the broadcaster to cover its accumulated debts. Some of the OSCE’s interlocutors “perceived this allotment as a reward for favourable editorial policy,” the report noted.

The BNT’s bias triggered a clash between culture minister Velislav Minekov and BNT director-general Emil Koshlukov, a political appointee who used to be a programme director at the far-right political party Ataka’s TV channel. Minekov called for Koshlukov’s resignation on the grounds that BNT had broken the law by favouring GERB and, as a state entity, had threatened national security.

Afterward, on 28 June, Ivelina Dimitrova resigned as a member of the Electronic Media Council (CEM), the broadcast media regulator, saying it had proved powerless to do anything about media bias before the elections. “Personal attacks fail to create an atmosphere encouraging the search for answers to questions that society expects,” she said.

BNT’s lack of independence is compounded by its unjustified refusals to extend work contacts and the dismissals or forced departures of dozens of staff members under Koshlukov. Since June, former BNT journalists including Iskra Angelova, whose contract was suspended in 2019, have been demanding the resignation of all of the CEM’s members and a change to CEM selection rules, so that it includes people without political links who are recognised for their professional abilities.

“We support these journalists in their efforts to achieve a reform of this public service broadcaster, one that deserves consideration by the authorities,” said Pavol Szalai, the head of RSF’s European Union and Balkans desk. “It is time for the parliament elected in the last election to finally carry out thorough, systemic reforms to address the public broadcaster’s lack of independence. We also urge legislators to take up the proposals made by RSF before the elections with the aim of extricating press freedom from the dead-end it has reached in Bulgaria, which has the lowest ranking of any EU country in our Press Freedom Index.”

Among its many recommendations in March, RSF said that the independence of the public service media should be reinforced by guaranteeing their financial independence and greater transparency of spending and changing the procedure and criteria for choosing their executives to ensure that they are media professionals with no political ties.

In the rule of law report that it published on 20 July, the European Commission came to the same conclusion as RSF as regards press freedom in Bulgaria and criticised the country’s authorities for their lack of response to RSF’s proposals.

Bulgaria is ranked 112th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2021 World Press Freedom Index.

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Updated on 10.08.2021