ASKING THE WRONG QUESTIONS

by Vesela Ilieva

Journalists under state pressure

TV presenter: Talking about slander, let me ask you this. It may sound strange to you, but we have received emails saying that Mr Parvanov owns a $100,000 maisonette in a building on a downtown Sofia boulevard. I am reluctant to bring up something which, I admit, I have not checked myself, but if there is something in the rumour shouldn't it be verified? There seems to be a link to Mr Mandzhukov, who received a medal from the president.

M. Mirchev: Well, this is typical petty slander. Let's put it on the table and check the facts.*

On 8 October, bTV executive director Albert Parsons found this question, asked by Ivo Indzhev, host of the political talk show V Desetkata, or Bull's Eye, good enough reason to fire him. Mr Indzhev was talking to Mikhail Mirchev, a sociologist linked to the Socialist Party of which Parvanov is a member.

Ivo Indzhev is one of the most popular TV presenters in Bulgaria: he has also been a correspondent for the Bulgarian Telegraph Agency (BTA) in Beirut, head of the BTA, a journalist for Radio Free Europe and a vice president of the Association of European Journalists.

By an ironic quirk of fate, a day earlier Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was murdered in the lift of the Moscow apartment building where she lived. This happened 10 days after she published "Repressive Plot," an article criticising the political reality established by President Putin.

During the previous eight years, Politkovskaya had received 12 major international journalism awards, including the Olof Palme Award in Sweden. In her articles on human rights issues in Russia, the Chechen War and the crisis of democracy in the Russian Federation, she was an outspoken critic of President Putin and Ramzan Kadyrov, the Russian-backed Chechen prime minister. In March 2006, Russian nationalists added her name to a "list of enemies of the Russian people and the Russian state".

After her unsuccessful attempt to cover the Beslan school siege in 2004, where she claimed that the security services had poisoned her tea on the flight to North Ossetia, Politkovskaya wrote Putin's Russia. Ruthlessly critical, the book became a bestseller in Western Europe, but like A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches From Chechnya it never reached Russian readers. In Putin's Russia she wrote "The return of the Soviet system with the consolidation of Putin's power is obvious. This has not only been made possible by our own negligence, apathy and weariness after too much revolutionary change, it has happened to choruses of encouragement from the West. So nothing stood in the way of our KGB man's return to the Kremlin, neither the West nor any serious opposition within Russia."

On 7 October, the day of her murder, Vladimir Putin turned 54. Some people say that the journalist's death must have been his best birthday present. Since he came to power eight years ago, 12 journalists critical of his regime have been killed in Russia.

Politkovskaya's murder bears a painful resemblance to that of Bulgarian dissident writer Georgi Markov in London. In 1979 the news of Markov's death came just in time to serve as a sadistic present for Communist leader Todor Zhivkov's 68th birthday.

In post-Communist Bulgaria, there are more refined methods for countering freedom of speech. "Here they 'shoot down' journalists by putting pressure on their bosses to make them resign, while in Russia they actually kill them," said Ivo Indzhev after the 8 October broadcast.

There are, of course, the delicate details. On the following day Mr Parsons officially stated that the journalist's contract had been terminated "by mutual agreement". "The presenter of the respected political programme showed a serious
disregard for journalistic ethics and the basic principles of serious journalism," read the statement, quoted by the BTA.

Does Indzhev's "crime" deserve such a "punishment"? The Commission for Ethics in Electronic Media, which was approached about the matter by the Bulgarian Media Coalition, stated that the journalist had not violated any professional standards by asking the question. According to Veselka Tabakova, a professor of journalism at Sofia University, the political establishment "sterilised" journalism in order to promote its own political and economic agendas.

Mr Indzhev himself asserted President Georgi Parvanov had pressed for his dismissal. "People from the Office of the President had repeatedly tried to force me to invite 'appropriate' guests, but I refused to work like that," the journalist told Mediapool, the Bulgarian-language news portal. This scandal took place in the heat of the presidential campaign in which Parvanov was fighting for a second mandate.

If pressure from the head of state is behind Indzhev's dismissal, the greatest danger is in the fact that a privately-owned media has bowed to pressure by the politicians in power. In an interview for BGNES, the sacked journalist implied that the president was blackmailing the television station over its licence agreement. Ring any bells?

Property of Rupert

The first national private TV channel in Bulgaria, bTV is fully owned by News Corporation, whose chairman and executive manager is Rupert Murdoch. Other media in the company include Fox TV, and the newspapers The Times, The Sun, News of the World, and New York Post. bTV began broadcasting in 2001 and, according to its own estimates, has an audience of about 35 percent of viewers. Albert Parsons is the executive director of bTV and general manager of News Corporation's European projects. Before the launch of the channel he declared that it "will start airing newscasts conventional in form but 100 percent independent in spirit".

*From a transcript of V Desetkata with Ivo Indzhev, bTV, 8 October 2006

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