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site.btaThe Day BTA Rebelled against Its Boss

The Day BTA Rebelled against Its Boss
The Day BTA Rebelled against Its Boss
Striking BTA staffers block beleaguered Director General Stoyan Cheshmedjiev's access to the agency, Sofia, March 17, 2003 (BTA Photo)

The dateline "Sofia, March 17" is missing from the records of the Bulgarian News Agency (BTA) for 2003.

Twenty years ago on this day, the national news agency stopped work indefinitely for the first time in the 105 years since its establishment in 1898.

The reason was not a technical failure or lack of newsworthy stories. The staff cut off the newswire to press demands for the departure of the agency's Director General Stoyan Cheshmedjiev.

Unlike ever before, BTA was not covering a domestic or international crisis - the crisis at hand was its own predicament. For once, the agency did not supply the rest of the media with headline news - it made the headlines itself.

The unprecedented strike came as the climax of a three-week-long stand-off with the BTA management over ill-advised reforms, arbitrary firings and hirings, and flagrant mismanagement of the agency's finances and real estate.

The person whose actions precipitated the protest - Stoyan Cheshmedjiev (1950-2012), was elected by Parliament to head the news agency in early October 2002. An obvious political appointee, he did not hide his mercenary motives: BTA was, in his words, his "second best option" after the Bulgarian Telecommunication Company (BTC). With a background in radio engineering, he neither understood nor cared about the specificities of news agency journalism. Instead of focusing on BTA's core operation, he planned to launch home-made audio-visual products. He laid off over 100 employees without any justification (a "politically motivated purge", as the press described it) and replaced them with people who were loyal and submissive to the boss. The director general's top priority was apparently to squander the agency's budget and lay his hands on its lucrative seaside and mountain recreation facilities (he was allegedly experienced in such abuse in his previous capacity as director of Radio Varna). During his half-year tenure, he never once switched on his office computer, according to the system administrator's records.

BTA staffers - otherwise educated, well-mannered and peaceful people, had had enough. They would not be bribed into acquiescence by a lump-sum "anniversary" bonus of BGN 105. The desperate situation called for desperate measures.

Cheshmedjiev adamantly refused to step down. His sneering attitude and arrogant manner of communication with the staff added insult to injury.

After token protests and picketing of the agency's building did not work, the employees decided to take industrial action by an overwhelming majority at a general meeting on March 14. Initially, the newswire was suspended for seven hours on that day and, after an interruption over the weekend, the work stoppage continued indefinitely on March 17, the only exception being made for coverage of the unfolding crisis in Iraq.

Pump Shotguns vs. Pickets and Placards

After the general meeting, the director general tried to drive a wedge between the protesters. One by one, he summoned the department heads to his office. When my turn came, I was shocked to find out that the anteroom, where the boss's personal assistant had her desk, was now occupied by a bunch of mean-looking muscular thugs in black tee shirts, armed with pump-action shotguns! Cheshmedjiev's point-blank demand that the External Service translators stay out of the strike met with my point-blank refusal.

A small number of employees siding with the boss did not join the industrial action. The striking staff promptly disclaimed responsibility for their dubious output.

The unprecedented protest elicited unprecedented support. Colleagues from other media showed massive solidarity. Apart from covering the crisis, journalists joined the pickets, including the correspondents of foreign news agencies, radios and TV stations, quite a few of whom had previously worked at BTA. So did retirees and redundancies from the agency and even employees on maternity leave with their babies. Zoya Hristova of the Balkan News Desk remembers that when she and another victim of the summary dismissals, Kalina L. Stoeva, appeared in a radio show, they were told that the BTA staffers' protest and the backing they got was indicative of the emergence of civil society.

The anti-management drive brought together people from all news desks and office staff regardless of their political persuasions. At one point, cleaners smuggled out the contents of the deputy director general's waste paper basket and gave it to the strikers in the hope of helping their effort.

Otherwise rival trade unions joined forces to steer the industrial action towards victory. Presidents Zhelyazko Hristov of the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions and Konstantin Trenchev of the Podkrepa Confederation of Labour were present in person when the strikers tried to prevent Cheshmedjiev from reaching his office and clashed with police.

The powerholders at last realized that the director general had become a liability. He was given to understand that he should resign, and he did so on March 19.

The March 2003 strike at BTA and the dishonourable discharge of its head left an indelible imprint on Bulgaria's media landscape. It remains a caveat against any self-seeking attempts to disrupt the normal functioning of a century-old institution and encroach on the freedom of its competent professionals to do their job in good faith.

/LG/

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By 07:42 on 03.10.2023 Today`s news

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