site.btaUPDATED Panel Discussion on Journalists' Freedom of Choice Held in Kazanlak
A panel discussion on Journalists' Freedom of Choice was held here on Friday within the 18th World Meeting of Bulgarian Media, organized by the Bulgarian News Agency (BTA). Following are tidbits from the speakers in the panel.
Bulgarian National Radio (BNR) Director General Milen Mitev said: "We as media must ensure a calm and free environment for journalists, to enable them to feel safe and secure." A journalist who is concerned every time they write a story whether their boss is going to fire them for is doomed to self-censorship. It takes a long time to build that kind of trust between journalists and their managers, to make sure that journalists have the freedom to speak their minds, the freedom to choose their interlocutors, the freedom to do stories on subjects they find important and valuable," Mitev said, adding that he believes that in Bulgaria the media can achieve this and should strive to make journalists feel safe and calm to do their job.
"Perhaps we sometimes forget that freedom as we understand it today, in what we like to call the Western world, is an achievement of the last 50-60-70 years. It is only by putting it in this context that we can realise how fragile this freedom is and how we owe it to ourselves every day to continue to protect it and develop it, because we can very easily lose it," the BNR Director General said.
He raised the question about what is needed to achieve media freedom in practice. "First of all to overcome our fear - both to overcome our fear of difference and of different opinions, and to overcome the fear of economic coercion or, unfortunately, physical coercion. Because, I suppose, there are journalists who are also worried about that the moment they set out to investigate and expose some murky situations in society," Mitev added.
Journalist Vasil Hristov, Honorary Secretary at Foreign Press Association in London, said that most journalists should realize that they have the free choice to turn off their camera or microphone for any self-absorbed politician or businessman. “In the early days of 2020, shortly before the start of the pandemic, several reporters with critical attitude were asked to leave a government briefing at 10 Downing Street. Since then, all fellow journalists, government reporters and correspondents left Downing Street and refused to cover [Boris] Johnson government's activities”, Hristov recalled.
He also mentioned the case in which Kostadin Kostadinov, leader of the nationalist, pro-Russian and Eurosceptic Vazrazhdane party, dared to expel a journalist from a press conference of the party held at BTA’s National Press Club in Sofia. In his words, this case shows that Bulgarian journalism is not active in its reactions when basic principles of communication are violated, Hristov argued.
Hristov also drew attention to the problem of low pay for journalists.
Anton Hekimyan, Director of bTV Media Group’s News, Current Affairs and Sport, said that freedom is something we all dream of but are indifferent towards when we need to solve a problem. In his words, this phenomenon is often related to the fact that additional effort is required: to do something, to go somewhere, to knock on someone’s door. “We want very much the responsibility for freedom, and then we do not know what to do with it precisely because we have to bear its weight, which is related to following rules,” he commented.
He expressed the hope that we will not be indebted to the next generation of people, who will ask us why we have not talked about the problems and tried to solve them. “I would very much like to believe that we are of the kind of people who solve the problems today,” Hekimyan said.
Zhivka Milova, Editor-in-Chief of BG Factor, an online media of Bulgarians in Cyprus, said that country currently ranks 55th for freedom of speech, compared to 24th-25th place years ago. In her words, this deterioration is not felt on site, because the matter of journalists’ and media freedom has different dimensions there. There is an official line regarding the problem with the occupied northern part of the island, and there is a silent agreement to not cross that line in view of the relations with Turkiye and Greece; anyone who dares to express a different opinion or attitude is immediately declared a traitor.
Milova went on to say that the two parts of Cyprus cannot be in synchrony due to the different way of life, the different governance, the different external influence. They do not have that many official points of view, she explained. “That is one of the things that obstruct the freedom of journalism. However, I find far more alarming how the larger part of journalists do not feel limited. They accept this as normal. Because they feel the same way their people feels: for them that is a wound and pain. That impacts on public life itself, not just on journalists’ freedom,” she argued.
She also said that some of the few media in Cyprus depend partially on state funding, so one should be very careful what one writes to not lose the funding.
Prof Veselina Valkanova, head of the Faculty of Journalism and Mass Communication at St Kliment Ohridski University of Sofia, said that independent journalism, pluralism, and freedom are cornerstones of democracy. Media freedom should be upheld daily. In her words, it is important to talk constantly about the topics of freedom of journalism, because journalists are a community that should share problems and seek solutions. “We should talk about journalism of solutions and seek an exit from these problems. That is not easy to make happen,” she noted.
According to her, Bulgaria needs a strong professional community of journalists as well as civil professional organizations that would react in case of illicit interferences that limit journalists’ freedom. A main problem in the media not only in Bulgaria but also in Central and East European countries is self-censorship, she argued.
Aleksandar Todorov, journalist at the FAR multimedia portal in Bulgarian and Serbian, said that, during its seven years of existence, his media has faced different types of pressure from local authorities in Caribrod (Serbia). In his words, FAR constantly faces political pressure, rigged media competitions and unfair distribution of funds, and extortion. The media’s reputation is constantly undermined by some politicians, as well. “This year, the municipality of Caribrod announced a media contest and FAR did not receive a single dinar”, Todorov said. The reason, he said, is that FAR has an independent editorial policy that does not allow anyone to interfere with its editors’ work.
FAR multimedia portal is a bilingual media in Serbian and Bulgarian, based in Caribrod in Serbia. One of FAR’s main missions is to preserve the traditions, language, and culture of the Bulgarian national minority in Serbia and to create a multimedia bridge between Serbia and Bulgaria. The portal provides important information from all spheres of life through various forms of media expression, analytical journalism, and TV production.
BTA Director General Kiril Valchev said that while he heads the Bulgarian News Agency, he will not limit a single source of information. “On the contrary, my big goal is one day BTA to have pieces of information from the national agencies of almost all 200 countries in the world,” he added.
According to Valchev, we might consider some countries non-democratic, but we should be informed about what the thoughts of those we deny. “I do not want us to start looking like those we deny. Stopping, censoring is despicable,” he added. In his words, he has been in countries like North Korea, which have handled the information they consider a lie by simply stopping the access to the Internet. “I do not want us to look like what it was like during communism,” he noted. Commenting on the economic pressure on the media, Valchev said that despite the BTA Act allowing advertisement, he has decided that the agency will not be using ads on its website. He argued that BTA, Bulgarian National Radio, and Bulgarian National Television should not have ads. These media thus free themselves of purely economic pressure and allow the not very big sums of money from advertisement, which before went into public media, to go into private TV channels, radio stations, and newspapers. That will contribute to businesses helping media pluralism more, Valchev argued. The BTA Director General said that he is trying to convince the media no law forbids them from mentioning the name of a company that has made a huge investment in Bulgaria, or of a media that has made a social project or donated money for a performance. “Give journalists in media the freedom to mention names when news are involved, so that the people can orient themselves,” he called on media owners in Bulgaria. Regarding the access to news conferences, Valchev said that access should be given to journalists, and not to people with an opinion on social media, regardless of how many followers these bloggers, vloggers and such have. The big difference lies in the editorial responsibility a journalist bears, unlike a blogger. In his words, when asked by influencers why they cannot attend the BTA-hosted news conferences, Valchev tells them that they will be at the level of journalists when they begin entering the Louvre, for example, with an influencer’s pass.
BTA is organizing the 18th World Meeting of Bulgarian Media in Kazanlak from June 1 to June 4, 2023, with the assistance of the Municipality of Kazanlak, the 13 Centuries Bulgaria National Endowment Fund, Aurubis Bulgaria, Doverie Pension Assurance Company, Post Bank, A1 and Nestle Bulgaria AD.