The New Media Landscape in Bulgaria

Maria Bakardjieva (Simon Fraser University)

Abstract: This article situates the dynamics of the mass media transformations in post-totalitarian Bulgaria in the context of the political and economic conditions specific to the country. After an initial period of proliferation of numerous party and independent publications, the highly liberalized press market has entered a process of concentration. The political parties represented in parliament have established themselves as the only decision-making authority as far as the functioning of the national radio and television institutions and licensing of private broadcasters are concerned.

Résumé: Cet article situe les transformations médiatiques de la Bulgarie post-totalitaire dans le contexte des conditions politiques et économiques particulières à ce pays. Après une période initiale où prolifèrent de nombreuses publications partisanes et indépendantes, le marché de la presse hautement libéralisé entame un processus de concentration économique. Les partis politiques représentés au Parlement s'établissent comme la seule autorité pour la prise de décisions en ce qui a trait au fonctionnement des institutions nationales de radio et de télévision et l'octroi de permis aux radiodiffuseurs privés.

One night in early 1989 the well-known Bulgarian photo-journalist Simon Varsano was shot in the leg by a police patrol while writing Todor Beria Zhivkov with a spray can of hair dye on the wall of a building in the centre of Sofia. (Todor Zhivkov was the leader of the Bulgarian Communist Party who had stayed at the top of the party and the country since 1956. Lavrenti Beria was the Soviet Union's secret service boss in Stalin's time, known for the ruthless annihilation of thousands of people. The fused name was supposed to imply that Zhivkov was similar to Beria.) The irony in this sad episode stems from the fact that although Simon's photographs and texts had been published in the national press for about 10 years, the experienced journalist had to resort to the medium of graffiti in order to give vent to his sincere feelings for the political order in the country. Childish as it may appear from the distance of a half decade, this act was also an outburst revealing the tension under which Bulgarian citizens lived at that time. This tension derived on one side from the wave of Glasnost in the then-Soviet media, powerfully penetrating the country through newspapers, magazines, and television programs. On the other side were the still-intact taboos of the communist-dominated Bulgarian media sphere. The dissent was in place, oppositional thinking was widespread among both intellectuals and ordinary people, but the media for its expression were simply missing. All the existing print and electronic media were under the ever-more-tightening control of the Communist Party.

November 10, 1989, is a landmark date in the new Bulgarian history. It is the date on which the communist ruler Todor Zhivkov was overturned by reformers within the Communist Party itself. This was the beginning of the end of the communist monopoly over state power and the dawn of political pluralism. The repressed oppositional civic organizations could go public--police were less likely to shoot at them. But still, at this time they had only the walls and the city squares through which to speak to the public. The first communication devices employed by the opposition were mass meetings and typewritten newspapers plastered on public walls, which people spent hours reading in the cold winter of 1989-90.

The press

Under public pressure, the new reformist communist leadership started negotiations with oppositional forces. The latter were at the same time rapidly institutionalizing themselves as political parties. The so-called Round Table agreements included a Bill on Parties (passed by the communist parliament in March 1990) which provided that all political organizations be entitled to issue their own newspapers, magazines, and journals. Paper for these publications had to be supplied by the state at subsidized prices.

The first non-communist newspapers to emerge were Svoboden Narod (Free People), a publication of the restored Bulgarian Social-Democratic Party, and Demokratsia (Democracy), a daily paper published by the newly established Union of Democratic Forces--the major political opponent of the Communist Party. Thus, a pluralization of the media scene was set in motion as a counterpart to the political pluralization.

In the same period (1990) some journalistic teams and other private entrepreneurs founded politically independent newspapers under a January 1989 Decree of the Council of Ministers regulating the activities of private and state firms. The viability of these publications was strongly dependent on their supplies of newsprint, which were controlled by the state administration. Many of them were short-lived because of the shortage of newsprint in the country and its high price on the international market. The two main ways to survive were either to be covertly favoured by the respective administrative bodies (and even by individual powerful officials) and consequently to be allocated the paper needed, or to obtain the financial backing of some state-owned or private business organization. Thus, although de jure every citizen could start a newspaper, de facto only those with close connections to the administration or to business were able to remain on the market.

Some analysts (Kolarova & Dimitrov, 1993) see the early liberalization of the press market as a preventive measure taken by the communist establishment against anticipated retributive legislation directed at existing periodical publishers, that is, totalitarian organizations such as the Communist Party, the Communist Youth Organization, the Agrarian Union, the trade unions, and so forth. Under the new legislation, which treated journals and newspapers no differently from any other business enterprises, the print organs of these organizations could easily be transformed into independent publishing companies. As a result, when the law on confiscation of the property of the old-regime organizations was finally passed by parliament in December 1991, it affected other kinds of property these organizations had (such as buildings, equipment, etc.) but not their print media. The publishing rights had been transferred to newly established firms.

The transformation of the established periodical publishers was not limited to ownership form; content also changed. Specifically, ex-totalitarian publications ceased to promote steadfastly the Communist Party's (and its successor's--the Bulgarian Socialist Party's) policy. More than in anything else, their new owners (in most of the cases these were the editorial boards) were interested in ensuring the market success of the companies. The editors of some publications made creative and successful efforts to remain loyal to their traditional readership's populist beliefs while at the same time adopting current political jargon and introducing the pressing issues of the new times. Other established publications could not adapt to the changed social environment and, despite the competitive advantage in terms of financial assets, stock of newsprint, and traditional readership provided to them by their predecessors, either lost popularity or disappeared altogether from the newsstands.

Only the daily newspaper Duma (Word) remained an outspoken tribune for the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP). Now registered as an independent firm, it inherited all the assets of the major communist daily Rabotnichesko Delo (Worker's Cause). Duma thrives on the subscriptions of the BSP-electorate (comprising a significant part of the Bulgarian voters) and on the high professionalism of its editorial staff.

A slightly different case is presented by the private publishing house Media Holding which used to belong to the old trade unions. Currently, it publishes two dailies and a weekly, one of which, the daily Trud (Labour), supports the policy of the reformed Confederation of the Independent Labour Syndicates of Bulgaria, while the others can be categorically defined as "yellow" press.

The proliferation of publications affiliated with political organizations is a phenomenon typical of the post-totalitarian period in Bulgaria. It is true that the strategies of editorial boards were shaped mainly by pursuit of profit. Yet at the same time, it turned out that in a social atmosphere charged with political controversies and heated partisan debates it was often more profitable for a newspaper to take a side rather than to be impartial and neutral.

Among the politically independent private publishers the most successful proved to be the "168 Chasa" (168 Hours) Press Group. It launched its first weekly newspaper (168 Chasa) in 1990 with the financial support of First Private Bank--an institution founded by Bulgarian businessmen whose sources of capital are a matter of controversy. A few months later the daily 24 Chasa (24 Hours) appeared on the market proclaiming itself "A newspaper presenting events the way they are." The well-designed tabloid format and the colloquial, somewhat derisive, writing style of 24 Chasa quickly gained wide popularity. Along with briefly presented news, the daily offers much entertaining reading and some quite insightful analyses. By offering high salaries and relative freedom from party biases, "168 Hours" Press Group managed to attract some of the most talented Bulgarian journalists. It also recruited many young beginning journalists who were trained "on the job" to become stop-at-nothing news hunters (often at the expense of precision). Intellectuals and politicians are tempted to contribute to the press group's publications because of the high circulation guaranteed for their ideas.

Formally free from political affiliation, the press group promotes free-market ideology and the particular perspectives on current social issues taken by First Private Bank and the various business formations to which it belongs (most notably, the Confederation of Bulgarian Industrialists--the so called G-13--an organization uniting Bulgarian big business). Pleading for relaxation of government control over private initiative, the publications of the press group often appear to be anti-government newspapers. They purport to represent the cause of the "honest private entrepreneurs" as opposed to those vested in administrative power. As one might expect, such a stance appeals strongly to an audience tired of years of state arbitrariness. This editorial policy proved to be more commercially successful than overt partisanship, especially at the later stage of the post-totalitarian changes when people became fed up with party scuffles and lost the desire to engage in political participation.

Some commentators on developments in the Bulgarian press characterize the press group "168 Hours" as a fierce enemy of the Union of Democratic Forces and a covert ally of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (cf. Milev, 1994) because its publications used to systematically scalp the government formed by the Union of the Democratic Forces during its rule in 1992. Yet, it can be argued that the actual role that these publications play on the Bulgarian media stage should not be reduced to the existing visible political dichotomy. Through the masterfully edited 24 Chasa and 168 Chasa particular groups of the fledging financial capital and big business elite in Bulgaria exert their influence over public opinion.

Another commercial newspaper proclaiming as its central value the standards of objective journalism is the daily Standard. It was launched in the summer of 1992 with an aggressive and well-financed promotional campaign. Published by a company called News Holding, Standard is backed by another G-13 (Confederation of Bulgarian Industrialists) member--the business group "Tron" (Throne). Unlike 24 Chasa, Standard takes pains to provide impartial reporting and more "serious" reading as well as to release verified and thus more reliable information.

The newspapers briefly characterized so far represent the print media with the highest circulation and the greatest public influence in Bulgaria. Their respective numbers of copies printed as of July 27, 1994, are shown in Table 1.

Table 1 Circulation of Major Daily and Weekly Bulgarian Newspapers
Title Publisher (no. of copies)
24 Chasa
(24 Hours) "168 Hours" Press Group 312,000
Noshten Trud
(Night Labour) Media Holding 100,000
Duma (Word) Bulgarian Socialist
Party's print organ 94,000
Trud (Labour) Media Holding 75,000
Demokratsia Union of Democratic
(Democracy) Forces' print organ 65,000
Standard News Holding, part of
Throne Business Group 56,000
Jalt Trud
(Yellow Labour) Media Holding 330,000
168 Chasa
(168 Hours) "168 Hours" Press Group 54,000
Adapted from "There is newsprint available, only indebted publications are being suspended," Trud, July 29, 1994.

All of these newspapers are printed in the capital, Sofia, and distributed nation-wide. In many of the big cities independent companies publish regional and local newspapers which are well accepted and commercially stable. The emergence of the first newspaper chains can be noted, but their scale is still small.

In addition to these large national enterprises, a great number of low-circulation, topic-oriented newspapers create some diversity in the Bulgarian print media market. A common feature they share, however, is their transient existence. The most resilient among them are the pornographic titles. Even when forced to close by a court ruling, they usually reappear under a different name. As one publisher noted, pornography (understood to be published as a low-quality newspaper) is relatively cheap to produce. Illustrations from Western magazines are simply reprinted and short texts in Bulgarian are added. The readership is always guaranteed.

Publications dealing with culture, art, science, and so forth are less lucky. A very few such newspapers manage to survive thanks to the sponsorship of some foreign foundations. No provisions are made by the Bulgarian state or other national agencies to support high-quality but low-circulation publications. Smaller political parties and civic movements equally seldom find the financial resources necessary to sustain a periodical. For example, the first non-communist newspaper to appear in the country, Svoboden Narod, published by the Bulgarian Social-Democratic Party (BSDP), which was welcomed with so much enthusiasm, now has a circulation of about 7,000 copies and survives only thanks to the sponsorship of some old BSDP members living abroad.

In contrast to the developments in other Central and Eastern European countries such as Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Russia, only a few international media companies have shown interest in buying shares in Bulgarian publications or opening their own newspapers and magazines. Most likely, this is due to the small size of the Bulgarian population (about 9 million) and its low purchasing power. Among the exceptions in this reluctance to invest is the Swiss publishing house Ringier, which launched in Sofia a business weekly named Cash (the title uses the Bulgarian transcription of the English word). Ringier is also active in the Czech Republic, the Slovak Republic, Poland, Hungary, and Rumania. Altogether, this publisher controls 36 titles in Central and Eastern Europe with a total annual output of about 400 million copies (see Colonego, 1994).

The major printing plants in Bulgaria are owned by the state. The one equipped with the most advanced technology and the greatest production capacity is the Rodina Printing Combine in Sofia. More than 200 periodicals, including those with the highest circulation, are printed there. The plant also takes care of newsprint supplies. The prices of production and newsprint are constantly rising, thus representing a serious economic challenge for all periodicals in Bulgaria. It can be argued that the monopolistic position of a few state-owned printing plants like Rodina contributes to this. At the same time it is undeniable that a central reason for rising newsprint costs is the devaluation of the national currency, which makes it increasingly difficult for publishers to sell their product in the country and to pay international market prices for printing paper and technical supplies.

Recently, parliament passed a law introducing a new 18% value-added tax on all products. The print media companies undertook united action against the imposition of this tax on periodicals and Bulgarian literature. They even went on strike, stopping the publication of newspapers and magazines between March 28 and 31, 1994. Two draft laws providing for exemption of the press and literature from paying the tax were voted down by parliament. Consequently, now this sector will have to face more difficult financial problems. Surely, the new tax burden will turn out to be unbearable for many low-circulation periodicals, forcing closure. In this way the process of concentration in the field of the press will be accelerated.

The press interpreted the tax as a "new blow on free speech" and a revenge on the press for its criticism of parliament. Its spokespeople pointed out that the value-added tax would make all periodicals more expensive and in this way inaccessible to hundreds of thousands of citizens. On their part, representatives of government and parliament argued that the introduction of the new tax took place in compliance with the demands of the International Monetary Fund and the general liberalization of the economy. An eventual exemption of the press would impede, according to them, the implementation of the tax in all fields (Kufov, 1994; Neue Zuercher Zeitung, March 30, 1994).

The precarious financial situation in which the press operates leaves its mark on the form and content of newspapers and magazines. The number of newspaper pages is much lower than is the case with Western periodicals of the same kind, and colour printing and photography appear rarely.

Even the papers with the greatest circulation cannot afford to have their own correspondents in other countries or to send reporters to cover events of international significance. As far as international news is concerned, all papers are forced to rely on the information supply coming from a few big Western news agencies--Associated Press, Reuters, and so forth. As a result, despite the great differences in political orientations and interpretations of domestic events, the international news pages of all papers are strikingly similar. For the greatest part, entertainment news is also borrowed from foreign publications.

The electronic media

The developments in the electronic media cannot be understood without taking into consideration the decisive role that radio and especially television played in the political transformations in Bulgaria, as in every East European country, after 1989.

The need for day-to-day information about the rapidly unfolding political events kept people in front of their television screens and by their radio sets for many hours daily. Along with the facts, the electronic media offered definitions and interpretations of the new and sometimes difficult-to-understand social reality. Thanks to the broadcast media the initially small-scale activities of newly born political actors were transformed into publicly acknowledged phenomena and, in this way, their social identities were constituted. New "imagined communities" (Anderson, 1991) of supporters and adherents were constructed at a rapid pace. In some sense, radio and television in those days provided an important dimension of the political process and were widely perceived as political institutions.

The monopolistic control of the Communist Party and the executive power over national radio and television yielded to the pressure of public opinion and the demands of the emergent opposition in early 1990. A new Committee on Television and Radio consisting of members of parliament and prominent intellectuals was established. Radio and TV journalists contributed greatly to the opening of both media to the developing plurality of views in society. Many of these journalists gave overt expression to their anti-communist positions. The TV journalistic staff joined the general strike in November 1990 which resulted in the resignation of the communist government.

The only legislation regulating the field of broadcasting adopted so far--the Temporary Statute of National Radio and Television--was passed in December 1990 by the Constituent Assembly elected in June of the same year. By virtue of this act, pending the passage of a media law, the national broadcasting institutions and the Bulgarian News Agency find themselves under the control of parliament. Although it is not authorized to interfere directly with program content, the Standing Parliamentary Committee on Radio and Television is given the prerogative to monitor the performance of these media and to initiate personal and organizational changes in their management. The heads of national radio, television, and the news agency (BTA) are elected by the full house of parliament at the suggestion of the Committee. The statute provides for guaranteed access to national radio and television by the president and all parties represented in parliament.

Although the main goal of the Parliamentary Committee on Radio and Television was meant to be the preparation of a media law, this task has not been fulfilled so far. Instead, the Committee has taken over the function of a body governing the activities of the national broadcasting media. Thus, radio and television have been placed in a position of direct dependence to the will of the parliamentary majority. Notable consequences of this situation have been the frequent changes of the directors of national television. Every time the parliamentary majority and consequently the government have changed, a chain reaction of replacements of radio and TV heads, program directors, and even anchor people has followed. The last TV director to be dismissed brought the issue before the Constitutional Court, but none of the justices could find any legal basis to put under question the power of parliament to rule over the national broadcasting institutions.

Perceiving broadcasting as an important lever for the achievement of political goals, none of the parties represented in parliament, neither the ex-communists, nor the new democrats, feels the passage of a media law would serve its best interest. Each party counts on extra-legal means for exerting influence over the management and hence over the programming of radio and television.

The reluctance of politicians to establish forms of broadcasting free from political control has also delayed the emergence of private radio and TV stations in Bulgaria. The body authorized to approve the issuing of licences to private broadcasters is the same Parliamentary Committee on Radio and Television. The formal issuing of licences is performed by the Committee (equivalent to a ministry) on Postal Services and Telecommunications. Another formation, the Temporary Council on Radio Frequencies and Television Channels, was established in early 1992 and was set the task of identifying the overall number of frequencies available for broadcasting and of doing the initial filtering of candidates for licences. This Council included an equal number of members of parliament and independent experts. The first licences were issued to local FM radio operators in late 1992. More than 100 applicants for local radio stations have received licences so far and a large number of them are already on the air. However, no national private radio stations have been given a green light.

The functioning local radio stations have a commercial character and entertainment (mostly Western music, games, some talk shows) constitutes the predominant part of their programming. Started by individuals or groups lacking significant financial backing, many of the stations could not invest money and effort in the creation of original programs (see also Engelbrekt, 1993). Surveys show that in the first year of their existence no private stations in the capital Sofia were able to attract more than 15% of the potential audience (Neshkova, 1994a). The state-run national station Horizont (Horizon) remains the most widely listened to and trusted radio broadcaster. Problems with attracting a regular and significant number of listeners prevent private radio operators from getting enough advertising to make their business profitable. Subsequently, many of them face a financial crisis and are forced to either sell or close the stations.

The process of licensing local TV broadcasters started a year later--that is, in 1993--following the same procedure as with local radio stations. As of August 1994, 29 companies have been granted permission to start local television channels. The first private local TV station to launch experimental transmission in Sofia was Nova Televisia (New Television). A second Sofia-based station and a station in Plovdiv (the second biggest Bulgarian city) are expected to come on the air in the autumn of 1994. To operate a viable television channel requires much more initial investment as compared to radio stations. At the same time, local advertising markets are quite limited and would hardly be able to sustain 30 different TV channels. That is why observers (Neshkova, 1994b) expect that some of the licensed operations will not live to see their own start. Those which will manage to make it will probably rely mainly on imported (or even pirated) movies, music videos, and advertising.

Currently, the Temporary Council on Radio Frequencies and Television Channels and the Parliamentary Committee on Radio and Television are discussing the applications of candidates for national television broadcasting. In April 1994 the Parliamentary Committee adopted procedural rules for consideration of such applications. Among other provisions the rules include the following requirements for candidates: in cases where the applying company is a joint venture with foreign participation, the controlling shareholder should be the Bulgarian partner; the candidates should sign a declaration that they will not allow religious or national intolerance, abuses of human rights, or instigation of social unrest in their programming; candidates should provide proof of financial resources needed for the realization of their programming schemes; preference should be given to programs in which national and original information, cultural, educational, and entertainment productions predominate and which provide fair coverage of the variety of views existing in society. The rules bind the Temporary Council and the Parliamentary Committee to brook no monopolies in the field of broadcasting (Procedural Rules for Considering Applications for Private Television Broadcasting with National Scope).

After considering the proposals of seven applicants for national TV licences, the Temporary Council on Radio Frequencies and Television Channels has recommended that two of them should go on for hearings before the Parliamentary Committee. (Note that no public hearings are provided for by the procedural rules. Making decisions as to who is to become national as well as local broadcasters remains an exclusive prerogative of central political and administrative bodies.)

One of the selected candidates is the station Tempo, suggested by News Holdings (the media company related to the powerful Tron (Throne) business group, which publishes the daily Standard). Tempo has been able to demonstrate a credit account of U.S.$20 million guaranteed by a consortium of Bulgarian banks. The second so-far-successful candidate is Premiera TV, a joint venture of a Bulgarian company and an Italian businessman. A credit account for Premiera TV has been promised by First Private Bank (this bank also backs the press group 168 Hours). As to the Italian partner, Mariano Volani, he has already launched two other Premiera TV stations--in Prague (Czech Republic) and in St. Petersburg (Russia). According to some sources, during its one year of operation the Czech Premiera has been criticized for weak programming and for relying on cheap imported programs (Kettle, 1994).

Two of the candidates which could not get the blessing of the Temporary Council have contested its decision, and it is likely that their proposed programs will be also considered by the Parliamentary Committee. Vselena (Universe) is a joint-stock company, the shareholders of which are Bulgarian private and state-owned business firms. Another contender, Channel Com, is a limited liability company owning a chain of local radio stations. It constitutes a part of the media company Telepress which publishes a daily newspaper and is about to start a local TV station in Plovdiv.

As the decisive part of the selection procedure is still ahead, it is impossible to predict which of the candidates will be able to name itself the first nation-wide commercial television channel in Bulgaria and when this will happen. It is, however, clear even now (September 1994) that an important role in the implementation and upkeep of any such channel will be played by so-called "Bulgarian big business." It will have to step in and provide the necessary initial investment and ongoing advertising revenue. It also remains to be seen to what extent the emergence of private television channels will fulfill the expectations for more journalistic freedom, impartiality, and objectivity shared by the proponents of media liberalization. Will the new TV sources provide accessibility for a democratic public debate on issues crucial for society, or will they "Dallasify" and drown to death any attempts at critical civic thinking and participation? These are important observations to be made by media analysts in Bulgaria and Eastern Europe in general.

New technologies

New technologies such as teletext, videotex, cable, and satellite television still find comparatively limited use in Bulgaria. Teletext is transmitted experimentally, but neither the interest in it nor the technical equipment possessed by TV viewers allow for a noteworthy user population to develop. The existing videotex system Infotel has some limited appeal to specialized user groups consisting of businessmen, lawyers, and administrators. Its use is determined by the character of the information content stored in its highly centralized database.

Cable TV in Bulgaria is practically non-existent, apart from a few small-scale local initiatives. Some extemporaneous "cable systems" have been built in densely populated quarters of large cities by small private entrepreneurs. Cable is not "laid," but "hung" in the air between blocks of flats connecting subscribers' apartments with a central studio, usually equipped with a satellite dish. Depending on the available technology, such systems provide subscribers with a number of satellite TV channels and sometimes also with a home-assembled movie channel.

Residents of apartment buildings in other cases purchase and install shared satellite dishes. Altogether, under the specific circumstances of Bulgarian media development, satellite dishes prove to be the most widely proliferating new communication technology (for details on this topic see Bakardjieva, 1992). Although there are no official statistics on how many Bulgarians are able to watch satellite television, an indication of the significance of satellite is the fact that almost all newspapers now publish the programs of channels like RTL, SAT 1, PRO 7, MTV, EUROSPORT, and others. Media research in Bulgaria has yet to start looking into the cultural effects of massive exposure to satellite channels.


A 1994 inspection of the media landscape in Bulgaria can discover no traces of the former uniform, monotonous, totalitarian, quasi-public discourse. Diverse in ownership and values, the press is divided among big publishing companies and big political parties. The inexorable hand of the market is gradually putting an end to the enthusiastic life of periodicals belonging to entrepreneurs and political formations of a smaller scale.

Private local radio stations are pumping out rock-and-roll and AP news over the airwaves and desperately grasping around for sponsors and advertisers.

Parliament-controlled and predominantly state-financed radio and television remain the most widely used and trusted information sources. Their performance and management are jealously scrutinized by political players on a day-to-day basis, and journalists often suffer criticism from offended parties. Fledging multimedia companies build alliances with banks and fight for portions of the national and local broadcasting frequencies.

In such a constellation of actors and resources one may wonder what would be the medium for an angry citizen to shout out in public: "Down with corrupt politicians of all parties" or "Down with big businessmen illegally privatizing state property." Such a protestor would most likely have to buy a spray can of hair dye and find an appropriate wall.


The author gratefully acknowledges the indispensable assistance in gathering up-to-date information that she received from Kjell Engelbrekt of Radio Free Europe Research Institute in Munich as well as from Antonina Petrova, Deshka Ivieva, and Peter Nistotrov in Bulgaria.
Note that this is a body comprised by members of parliament only and different from the one mentioned above. In the Standing Parliamentary Committee on Radio and Television the different party caucuses are represented in proportion to the number of their seats in parliament.


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