AIM: start

SAT, 07 APR 2001 23:52:20 GMT

Coup at the National Radio Station

The management has replaced the hosts of a popular show with "tested" people of its own choice.

AIM Sofia, March 25, 2001

On March 19 police were busy diverted the stream of vehicles that was bent on cruising down Sofia's central Dragan Cankov Boulevard. Traffic was blocked by journalists who were protesting a decision by the management of Bulgarian National Radio (BNR) to replace their colleagues who were in charge of managing and participating in the Horizont (Horizon) show with people they consider more trustworthy.

The acting BNR manager, pop music composer Aleksandar Brzicov and the managing board said they will be broadcasting the show from another location, Studio 39, because they do not want to deprive the station's listeners of information because of a "handful" of journalists, who on the same days said they will resort to civil disobedience. The protest was launched 40 days ago because poet Ivan Borislavov was appointed BNR manager. It forced the network managers to install their own men instead of the protesters. Two days later, the new journalists took over another program -- the Hristo Botev Show.

Ivan Borislavov pulled out about a month ago due to heart problems he is said to have had after his clash with the protesting journalists and his subsequent hospitalization. He was appointed by the National Council for Radio and TV (NCRT), a public body in charge of naming managing bodies of national broadcasters. He was succeeded by Brzicov whose subsequent actions, including the firing of a number of disobedient journalists, were hardly motivated by his concern for the audience being properly informed. Namely, the acts of civil disobedience exercised by the protesting journalists were far from depriving the audience of information. To the contrary, they particularly stressed that news programs would go ahead as scheduled.

As luck would have it, when it rains it pours. The same evening when the "coup" occurred, BNR stopped broadcasting for nearly two hours, between 11:45 p.m. and 1:25 a.m. -- something that hasn't happened since World War II. It turned out that some thieves had cut the station's power lines, oblivious to the damage they had caused.

On the next day, journalists at Studio 39 literally beat each other up for a place in front of the mike.

Following an example of Bulgarian political parties and the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Christian Church, the BNR also split into two factions: one were the rebels, against the the station's new manager and expressing their feelings in the press; the other consisted of those loyal to the new managing board, who were summoned from various stations so that the BNR could pull through the crisis. All this resulted in the starting of the so-called Horizont 2 show, which was botched from the very outset. To begin with, one morning news show was cancelled, and other news programs were prepared in the worst possible way. It turned out that the reporters who were on loan were far from being suitable for this type of work. A spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, Ratko Vlajkov, was "promoted" to foreign minister, the Socialists became "specialists," the managing board became a "managing alliance," and the Macedonian Ambassador to Sofia was addressed as "his majesty" instead of "his excellency."

The worst, however, was yet to come. Everybody makes mistakes, but it really takes effort to turn proper and lively news programs, with many polemic touches, into a monotonous reading of the news, mostly devoted to culture, or rather to what the new team thinks should be designated as such.

The former journalists were criticized for having used BNR's air time to force their own problems on the audience. The new journalists, however, as soon as they got hold of the microphone, began a neverending smearing campaign of their predecessors and hastened to promote their own contribution to democracy.

Within days the BNR was transformed from one of the most popular stations into the exact opposite -- an arena of bellicose mediocrity, media experts say.

They add that during its 80 years of existence, the only similar situation in the national radio station's history were the events after Sept. 9, 1944, when the communists took over. The office of manager was then offered to a well-known author, Orlin Olinov, a counterpart of Borislavov. The only difference is that back then, the employees peacefully accepted their new boss whereas today they launched a 50-day struggle, coupled with civil disobedience, which is the most drastic response that is legal. The clash went through all stages of battle -- civil, artistic, among individuals, and even physical...

The conflict could also be seen as a generation conflict. On one side is Ivan Borislavov, who for years used to type his poems on a typewriter, and on the other are representatives of the Internet generation, who know all there is to know about computers. The latter are not inclined to reconcile themselves to unprofessionalism and this is why they could not accept the NCRT's choice.

That the game was to become increasingly rough became clear immediately after Borislavov was appointed. Although envisaged as an independent body, the NCRT, in fact, used political obligations to act against professionalism at the BNR.

"I don't know why people have to be so mercilessly purged -- there are not so many of them. Intellectuals cannot be turned into a crowd," said Professor Veselin Dimitrov, the dean of the Faculty of Journalism at the Sveti Kliment Ohridski University of Sofia when a renowned journalist Lili Marinkova was sacked. She was fired under the excuse that she was not observing her working hours.

After the dozens of disobedient journalists who had established the profile of Horizont and made it dynamic, objective and polemic were sacked and replaced by completely unknown but obedient people, criticism all but disappeared from the program.

The audience, however, has become more selective over the years. This is why many people simply switched to other stations. The way things current stand, the BNR is not of use even to the politicians, be they in power or in the opposition, observers say. There is no one to listen to them now.

"There is a real danger that the independent BNR could be forced to its knees," says Professor Nikolaj Vasiljev, a member of the GODO civic movement. According to him, what is happening in the station involves "dangerous steps to stifle the freedom of speech and the press."

A member of the NCRT, Assistant Professor Georgi Lozanov, who was against the appointment of Borislavov, admits that for a month and a half this body has not made a single reasonable move to resolve the crisis. "I am still convinced that by making its incomprehensible decision to appoint Borislavov manager, the NCRT has provoked the crisis in the BNR," Lozanov said.

On top all this it turned out that not even the BNR managing board was appointed in a legal way, because its members have to be proposed by a legitimate manager. At this point, there is no such person, because a case involving the appointment of a new manager is still being deliberated by the Higher Administrative Court.

How will all this end? The protesting journalists are adamant there is no going back. The new BNR management is of the same, albeit opposite, view. The NCRT, which is the chief culprit, has attempted to facilitate a dialogue -- a contact group has been created to help resolve the current crisis.

The Broadcasting Act, however, does not envisage any instruments allowing the NCRT to change its decision in regard to Borislavov. Thus it would be the best if he resigned, together with all his protegees. In order for that to happen, the person who wanted Borislavov to get the job in the first place and ordered the NCRT to appoint him will have to give his blessing.

And who might that be? Probably one of those who are still experiencing difficulties in clearly defining their position in regard to the scandal, while publicly saying that they are not authorized to interfere in the operation of public bodies.

Plamen Kulinski