Cause and Effect in European Politics and Law

Journalists at a lease

Ralitsa Kovacheva, Adelina Marini, August 3, 2010

An interesting plot recently took Bulgarian media out of the coma they fell into voluntarily: the clash between radio presenter Diana Yankoulova, working with the Bulgarian National Radio (BNR) and the leader of the nationalist party Ataka Volen Syderov. The details are irrelevant here, the important thing is that the politician blamed the journalist of a lack of impartiality, quoting true information from her CV. Diana Yankoulova was Head of the Press Office of the Ministry of the Internal with the former minister (Mihayil Mikov, Bulgarian Socialist Party).

From entirely typical problem, the type of which Volen Syderov usually creates, the issue became political after the Prime Minster himself defined the appointment of Yankoulova in the BNR as "an obvious conflict of interest". According to Boyko Borissov there is a conflict of interest, "when the chief of the press centre of a Ministry, who develops its policy and serves the Ministry and the Minister, afterwards becomes a reporter, responsible for the same issues".

Countered by parliamentarian reporters that Nicola Nikolov from the press centre of the ruling party GERB has a show on BBT TV, Prime Minister Boyko Borissov responded in his typical style, quoted by the BGnes news agency:
- Which PR?
- Nicola Nikolov has a show on BBT TV.
- What kind of a PR is he, I don't know him!
- He is a PR with the parliamentary group of GERB.
- Who are you, Nicola, let me see where Nicola is? Is that you? Well, dismiss him from the parliamentary group since he is a problem for the journalists

A little later the press office of GERB officially announced that "BBT TV is a private media, unlike the state-owned Bulgarian National Television (BNT) and Bulgarian National Radio. Therefore any comparison of a conflict of interest or a parallel with the case of Diana Yankoulova's appointment* (former press officer in the Interior Ministry) in BNR is exaggerated. In order to avoid any speculations over the issue we are informing you that under the Prime Minister's insistence, Nicola Nikolov has suspended his contract with the private-owned BBT TV immediately".

Although, according to GERB, there is no problem when the media is private, this factor is irrelevant when public interest is concerned, for which every media is responsible no matter its ownership. Because the audience has the right (and media are obliged to guarantee such right) to know who is talking to them.

All this could have been avoided if Bulgarian journalists and media, like their colleagues around the world, had a real code of ethics. We only have a Code of Ethics of Bulgarian Media which is definitely sketchy and, besides, it is written on behalf of media organisations in general and not of journalists. It stipulates that "we [Bulgarian media] do not accept any personal, political or financial stimuli which might influence our capability to provide the public with correct information".

Such wording, however, cannot be directly related to journalists because it is too general. This is why all self-respectful media have developed their own codes of ethics where journalists' work is defined in detail, with all the risks included, that might occur at any stage of their work - from collection of information to the contacts of relatives and friends. There is no such a thing here, even in the BNT and BNR where, we think, this is absolutely obligatory.

According to the BBC's Charter (generally recognised as the bible of journalists' work), the organisation "should seek the necessary guarantees that every member of its staff, related in any way to the programmes, will not accept improper commitments or relations outside the organisation". The Charter explicitly stipulates that each producer is obliged to preliminary seek the approval of his superior for each offered job, which might enter into conflict with his obligations toward the media programme. And the higher the level of responsibility is the more imposing it becomes to avoid possible conflicts of interest.

All moral principles are valid with particular force to news teams, because their impartiality "should not be questioned at any time". "News and current affairs programmes for international, national, regional and local output are subject to the most stringent tests of impartiality."

The big purpose of all this is only one: nothing should "be allowed to tarnish BBC's reputation or to cast doubts over the confidence that exists between the Corporation and its audience, based upon the principles of impartiality, justice and moral". And as people have long ago understood that talking is not enough, because people are inclined to think that this does not concern them, the BBC's Charter of Ethics stipulates: "All staff is being given, on a regular basis, examples from real life in order they can be always aware where is the limit of their internal interests".

"Some individuals wish to become involved in political activity and they will be free to do so when it is consistent with the nature of their work for the BBC and the BBC's public service obligations. Political activity is not acceptable if it is likely to compromise the BBC's impartiality or undermine public confidence in the BBC."

New York Times's Charter is even more relentless: "No staff member may seek public office anywhere. Seeking or serving in public office violates the professional detachment expected of a journalist. Active participation by one of our staff can sow a suspicion of favoritism in political coverage".

In Bulgaria, however, it is a general practice journalists not only to seek public jobs but also to ensure the possibility of returning to their cosy state-owned media. This problem, more vigorous in BNT and BNR, becomes painfully evident in the scandal Syderov-Yankoulova. The cases of journalists, guest-starring in press centres of institutions or political parties, who, without any shame, return to "the other side", are not one or two. The only reason why we have decided not to name them is that we cannot provide a thorough statistics and it is not correct to mention some and omit others. This, however, is irrelevant for the general problem: how impartial (or the audience to perceive as impartial) can be a journalist who worked for the interests of an authority or a party?

The question is complicated and cannot be easily solved. Whether a journalist can cross from the one side to the other and under what conditions, after how much time, and at what positions - are issues that need to be determined. If we get back to the codes of conduct of the quoted media, all potential cases of conflict of interest are described in details, with an explicit explanation that each one of those cases must be assessed separately but always according to one criterion: will the CV of a person and his relationships harm in any way the image of the media before its audience. As the BBC stipulates, the existence of a circumstance "that could cast a shadow over BBC's reputation or to put in doubt the confidence, existing between the Corporation and its audience, build upon the principles of impartiality, justice and moral" should be avoided.

Our determined position is that a journalist who had chosen to work as a PR, especially for the government, should have no way back. Everyone should consider on his own what road he or she should take after the term of the government he or she works for, or the fate of the party he or she works for, does not develop as expected. Because there is no way we could believe a journalist who has bound his or her name with a political force, that he or she could be impartial.

This is our position. Probably there are various opinions on the issue but they remain within the framework of private social talking and were unable to turn into ethical norms. There is no way that this problem could be solved once and for all unequivocally but it had to be raised. And media had to be forced to answer every time when a case like this would surface.

And if Bulgarian media had solved this problem on their own, they would not have given politicians the chance to speculate with journalists' political subjections, thus creating new ones. Because the continuation of the Syderov-Yankoulova scandal, are Volen Syderov's words, which is the most important part of the problem: "In this radio nothing has changed since November 10 [1989], but this change will come, I assure you, in the next months, maybe by the end of the year with the approval of the new Law for Radio and Television, because it is high time that the radio and television, financed by the state budget, which is you, your media, to be impartial and to serve the truth and not be biased".

A freezing threat, right?! We do not even want to know how does the former journalist Syderov understand "impartiality" and "serving the truth", financed by the state budget. These words provoked a reasonable and justifiable reaction of our colleagues from the BNR, who said in a declaration "that such statements get us back to already seen and done in the past 20 years - dismissals, political censorship and human resourcing in national media". And as Syderov's statement coincided with the first public discussion on the draft media legislation, our radio colleagues reasonably ask: "Whether the dark revelation of a political leader does compromise entirely the philosophy of the new legislation?"

Our BNR colleagues, however, could have had even greater right to say what they did and their voice could have been stronger if they had not made a compromise and had insisted for a clear code of conduct. Then we all would have supported them more firmly and they would have believed in themselves more. Now there are uncomfortable truths being untold, which turn their position into whimpering. And right now we need a position so much!

Until we, the journalists, do not take ourselves the initiative to endorse common moral standards, until we continue to endure unethical and even insulting activities of colleagues that harm the prestige of all of us, until we do not make once and for all the choice who do we serve - society or interests, there will always be a Volen Syderov to threaten us, blackmail us, use us. Because the problem with moral is that you never know whether it is there. This is why we need to be prepared. And with clear conscience.

*Diana Yankoulova has never quit BNR for the time she was a Head of the Press Office of the Ministry of the Interior (for a year), she had a not paid leave