Bulgaria: More Transparency Required to Combat ‘Soft’ Censorship

The discretionary allocation of funds to media in exchange for favourable reporting on government is a major problem in Bulgaria, according to a new report published today by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA), the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA), and the South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO).

Curbing Media, Crippling Debate: Soft Censorship in Bulgaria” outlines how the independence and pluralism of Bulgaria’s media has steadily eroded over the past decade. Authorities are employing tools of ‘soft’ censorship to dominate the media and narrow access 
to information. A lack of alternative revenue streams has led elements within the media to shift editorial policy and pay little heed to professional standards.

The new report is available to freely download from http://www.wan-ifra.org/node/151719/

Extensive interviews 
with media experts, editors and journalists 
in the country reveal that state funding for media is a principal tool of ‘soft’ censorship in Bulgaria.

Official ‘soft’ censorship, or indirect censorship, is defined as “an array of official actions intended to influence media output, short of legal or extra-legal bans, direct censorship of specific content, or physical attacks on media outlets or media practitioners.”

Despite the Bulgarian government starting to provide more data on official funds to media from 2015 onwards, the allocation of government advertising and subsidies in Bulgaria continues to lack transparency. The fragmented character of the available data on circulation and audience figures makes the assessment of the fairness of official spending on media extremely difficult.

Evidence collected over recent years suggests that much of the Bulgarian government’s public awareness campaign spending originates from European Union funds. Such funding is intended to raise awareness of EU laws and standards—which themselves protect free media and clearly forbid discrimination in the allocation of state monies to media. The report highlights that this has simply not been the case in Bulgaria.

Equally, the opacity of media ownership in Bulgaria obscures relations between beneficiaries of state advertising and the state bodies responsible for distributing the funds. 
The report recommends that the Bulgarian public should be given access to data to make informed choices about their media consumption, including data concerning ownership structures.

The report’s recommendations also urge action to reverse the erosion of media freedom in the country. “All state funding for media outlets, including advertising and subsidies, should be entirely transparent and allocated through fair processes supervised by independent bodies and institutions,” the report says.


The full report can be freely downloaded from http://www.wan-ifra.org/node/151719/

‘Soft’ Censorship Exerts Strong Grip on Media in Macedonia

A new report released today by WAN-IFRA, the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA), and the South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO), details how the practice of soft censorship is undermining the media industry across Macedonia.

Macedonia Soft Censorship cover

“Bad Practices, Bad Faith: Soft Censorship in Macedonia” outlines how financial incentives and partisan influence are increasing in the country. The ubiquity of such practices diminishes the credibility and independence of media and is curtailing the essential role the press has in fostering democratic development by reducing the space for public discussion and debate..

Extensive interviews 
with media experts, editors and journalists 
in the country reveal that pluralism and independent editorial perspectives represented in Macedonia’s media have drastically decreased. The report outlines how this decline coincided with the rise to power of the current ruling party in 2006, and has accelerated with its efforts to dominate the country’s media space through new laws and increasingly partisan use of state resources to support ‘friendly’ media outlets.

Official soft censorship, or indirect censorship, is defined as “an array of official actions intended to influence media output, short of legal or extra-legal bans, direct censorship of specific content, or physical attacks on media outlets or media practitioners.”

The financial realities of Macedonia’s small media market force many media outlets to depend
 on state funding to remain financially viable. Government-friendly media are bolstered by various means, particularly with the allocation of official funds, advertising, campaigns, and subsidised projects. This generates an environment in which partisan political and business interests set the media agenda and can directly shape reporting.

“As demonstrated through our previous investigations, research in Macedonia shows that harsher, more overt methods of media control are shifting towards subtler yet still very powerful tools associated with soft censorship practices,” said Andrew Heslop, WAN-IFRA Press Freedom director. “Independent media outlets struggle for survival through increasingly restricted advertising revenues, a daunting prospect for hopes of a sustainable future in a market the size of Macedonia.”

The report recommends action to reverse the erosion of media freedom in the country. All state funding for media outlets, including advertising, grants and other subsidies should be entirely transparent and allocated through fair processes supervised by independent bodies and institutions.

Equally, legal and institutional guarantees on freedom of expression compatible with EU standards must be fully implemented in law and respected in practice.

Have a look at the first #softcensorCHAT

Did you miss the #softcensorCHAT co-hosted by WAN-IFRA and CIMA on 9 December 2015 to foster a conversation about the implications of soft censorship wordwide?

Have a look at the Storify story compiled by Valerie Sinden: https://storify.com/valeriesinden/softcensorchat

You can also read the whole conversation by using the associated hashtag #softcensorCHAT

And do not forget to follow the Twitter account @SoftCensorship to get all updates related to the topic.

Soft censorship has a hard impact on free media

By Andrew Heslop, Press Freedom Director at WAN-IFRA

By using financial and administrative power to pressure media outlets, punish critical reporting and reward favourable coverage, biased government interventions in media sectors not only distort the market but also make it difficult for media to exercise their essential watchdog role. Government advertising, subsidies, paid for content, licensing practices and other corrupt means are some of the subtle practices used by governments to pressure media around the world. And even if we don’t hear much about these practices, the effects of official soft censorship are certainly hard.

Specific research on soft censorship carried out in Hungary, Malaysia, Montenegro, Mexico and Serbia show how these governments appear unwilling to guarantee the non-discriminatory allocation of public funds and government advertising across the media. Having discovered such a subtle and effective method of control, officials are clearly loath to give up one of the last-remaining means of controlling independent media.

For those wishing to stifle the press soft censorship is a far ‘tidier’, more convenient form of official censorship as opposed to direct, inevitably more violent tactics such as killings, beatings, imprisonment and closures. Governments can simply wash their hands of their involvement; such is the obscurity surrounding both the evidence (often lost in reams upon reams of data, if existent at all) and the impenetrability of the topic.

“Research on soft censorship is certainly extremely difficult, largely due to the opacity and lack of transparency of official data,” confirms WAN-IFRA project manager, Mariona Sanz Cortell. “If we care about media credibility and believe in the watchdog role of journalism, however, we have an obligation to persevere in denouncing and preventing – as arduous as it may be – all those rather grey financial and administrative practices that are used to influence reporting.”

While the few high-profile media freedom cases that attract global headlines are unlikely to feature tax inspections or questionable advertising subsidies (at least not in the lead), this does not diminish the effectiveness of such measures when it comes to influencing both journalistic practice and wider public opinion. The more direct forms of censorship remain of great concern for journalists and media rights organisations in many parts of the world. However, it would not be unreasonable to assume soft censorship, or indirect censorship – defined as “an array of official actions intended to influence media output, short of legal or extra-legal bans, direct censorship of specific content, or physical attacks on media outlets or media practitioners” – is likely to proportionally affect a greater number of media, far more insidiously. The evidence from our global monitoring certainly supports this.

While this may be old hat to anyone who has contemplated the phrase ‘who’s watching the watchers,’ it is nonetheless surprising – given the ubiquitous nature of soft censorship practices – that the phenomenon has not caused more public outrage. Don Podesta, manager and editor at the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington D.C. argues we should learn from what leading investigative media has taught us. “It is very difficult to combat soft censorship in the absence of strong public interest in the matter. Government watchdogs in civil society and the news media often expose corruption – such as taxpayer money going into the pockets of government cronies awarded inflated contracts to build bridges or roads. So too then, NGOs that support media should cry foul and raise public awareness when governments do the very same thing with their advertising budgets.”

Overall, soft censorship remains possibly the least talked-about yet most effective – and arguably most widespread – form of official pressure to affect media worldwide. The conclusions from the country reports collectively reflect this; similarly, they echo findings from our Global Review, published in 2014, that documents significant cases in some 30 countries.

Without genuine political will to recognise the problem and reform the systems that perpetuate (and ultimately benefit from) soft censorship, or likewise more willingness to provide access to the crucial data that would allow media and civil society to independently investigate the progress of change, it becomes increasingly difficult to isolate the impact of soft censorship and reverse its detrimental effects on free, independent information in our societies.

As our monitoring continues and more cases are reported, almost on a daily basis, WAN-IFRA only sees the trend accelerating. Wider research ultimately means more exposure; the dogged investigations of journalists and NGOs will continue to uncover, despite a lack of cooperation and the often-deliberate subterfuges of officials reluctant to come clean, the murky world of political influence on a ‘free’ press. The only certainty is that the information will, eventually, inevitably, get out.

Surely it would be better for officials guilty of these practices to volunteer the information and begin the process of putting their own houses in order, instead of waiting to be exposed as having deliberately manipulated the system for their own gains. Perhaps one day they will recognise their own self-interest in doing so. In the meantime, governments will find evermore-sophisticated ways of manipulating media coverage. The longer they ignore the viable solutions proposed by leading researchers to combat the problem of soft censorship, they remain complicit in undermining media freedoms, despite their many promises to the contrary.


Soft Censorship Eroding Media Freedom in Montenegro

Montenegro cover

‘Soft’ censorship is quickening an already serious decline in media independence in Montenegro. This is the conclusion of a new report published today by WAN-IFRA, the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA), and the Montenegrin Centre for Civic Education (CCE).

“Eroding Freedoms: Media and Soft Censorship in Montenegro” [http://www.wan-ifra.org/node/144107/] outlines a selective approach to public funding that is misused to reward positive coverage of the work of authorities and otherwise withheld to punish media outlets that question official policies or practices. Media coverage is therefore polarised and encourages poor-quality journalism that is of little service to public discussion. As a result, media credibility has been severely diminished in the country.

Official soft censorship, or indirect censorship, is defined as “an array of official actions intended to influence media output, short of legal or extra-legal bans, direct censorship of specific content, or physical attacks on media outlets or media practitioners.”

“Once again the research in Montenegro shows that soft censorship is one of the least talked about, but most effective ways of influencing media content,” said WAN-IFRA Press Freedom director, Andrew Heslop, “The influence of mismanaged public funds in a small media market filled with many outlets is simply huge.”

Tragic examples of ‘hard censorship’, such as the unresolved May 2004 murder of Dan daily editor-in-chief, Duško Jovanović, and other reported attacks on journalists and media property show a violent recent past for the Montenegrin press. Latterly, however, soft censorship has drastically increased and now has far-reaching negative effects throughout country’s media. Indirect, often financial pressures intended to weaken the capacity and even threaten the viability of targeted media outlets that criticize the government have become commonplace.

Through extensive research and numerous interviews with editors and media experts, research conducted by the Centre for Civic Education in Montenegro catalogues the forms and maps the extent of soft censorship in the country’s state and public institutions. While public spending across media remains unregulated, political actors exercise control or significant pressure on both media content and viability by distributing these funds.

The report’s recommendations urge action to reverse the erosion of media freedom in Montenegro and improve prospects for the development of free, independent and pluralistic media. A lack of accurate, impartial reporting on the activities of government, political parties and other institutions has significantly slowed the democratisation of Montenegrin society and its governance structures.

Full implementation of laws and regulations that prevent state interference in media business operations and media outlets’ reporting, while ensuring fair opportunities for all media to obtain public funding and advertising is sorely needed – and required – in order to meet European Union standards, the report says.

“The entire process of democratisation and European integration of Montenegro is losing by limitations imposed on the free development of independent media whose survival is endangered by unfair competition and state interference,” said Daliborka Uljarević, Executive Director at the Centre for Civic Education in Montenegro.

In addition, transparency of ownership structures should be mandatory and possible conflicts of interest publicly aired. Strict adherence to the journalists’ code of conduct and appropriate mechanisms of accountability for violations overseen by a credible self-regulating body should be the norm, according to the research.

“If Montenegro’s spending of public funds for advertising remains unregulated and the practices opaque, it will be very difficult to solve the problem of soft censorship there,” said Don Podesta, Manager and Editor at CIMA.

The full report can be downloaded for free from http://www.wan-ifra.org/node/144107/

“No country safe from censorship power,” denounces the IAPA

The 71st General Assembly of the Inter American Press Association (IAPA), which gathered more than 300 media executives and journalists in October 2015, has concluded that soft censorship practices are more widesspead than ever in the region.

The conclusions highlight the proliferation of laws, initiatives, and pressures from governments attempting to control the free flow of information both in the traditional media and on new media platforms; trestrictions on access to public information; the discriminatory placement of government advertising; and greater concentration of media outlets in the hands of those with ties to governments, as some of the problems that sounded most loudly by the publishers gathered.

No country in the Americas is safe from the wave of censorship that is spreading like a massive oil spill, according to the conclusions. This is true even in countries that have traditionally upheld press freedom, in some cases under the paradoxical pretext of promoting pluralism, of ensuring the “right to forget,” or of stopping “hate speech”, the publishers have added.


Read more: Conclusions of the 71th General Assembly of the IAPA (2-6 October 2015): http://www.sipiapa.org/en/no-country-safe-from-the-censorship-power-concludes-the-iapa/

Administrative pressures used against independent media in Belarus

Belarussian independent and opposition newspapers often face restrictions on access to the state-owned postal and kiosk distribution systems, state-owned printing facilities, and state advertising contracts or media subsidies, according to Freedom House. Such papers are forced to sell directly from their newsrooms and use volunteers to deliver copies, but authorities sometimes harass and arrest the private distributors.

Lohvinau, an independent publisher and bookstore, had its license revoked in 2013 and was repeatedly denied registration in 2014 on various technicalities. At year’s end it was facing the possibility of a large fine for selling books without a license.

State media are supported by tax exemptions and direct subsidies from the state budget, giving them another significant advantage over potential private-sector competitors. Media outlets reportedly self-censor to please major advertisers that wish to avoid association with any criticism of the president.


Source: Freedom of the Press Index 2015 – Belarus https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-press/2015/belarus#.VZZODUv_9EQ