KILL THE BEEB

by Anthony Georgieff

Bulgaria joins Russia in banning the BBC World Service

bush house.jpg

To understand why Bulgaria has become the only EU country – and one of a handful of states in the world with dubious media records – to ban the BBC World Service on FM, one has to consider the historical background.

Since the BBC started broadcasting to the world in the 1930s, the Bulgarian governments have been either less than enthusiastic about it or openly hostile – exactly the opposite of what listeners who relied on the BBC for fast and reliable information felt like.

During the Second World War, in which Bulgaria was subservient to Nazi Germany, Radio London, as the Bulgarians referred to it, broadcasted news and reports about the war's progress from the standpoint of the Allies. Obviously, the war-time governments in Sofia were unsympathetic – they promptly jammed the Beeb. However, hundreds of thousands of Bulgarians of all political shades and hues were glued to their Telefunkens because they wanted to know what really was going on in Europe and the world.

The Communists came to power in 1944 and Bulgaria declared war on Germany, but it emerged before too long that the new regime would be even less sympathetic to the kind of news being beamed from London – the BBC would be jammed again, and people caught listening to the radio would be sent to labour camps. Information, as the Communists knew very well, was more powerful than the Kalashnikovs.

In the later years of the Cold War it appeared that Todor Zhivkov and his cronies were willing to loosen up on dissenting information and opinion, but it all came to a spectacular crash in 1978, when Bulgarian dissident writer Georgi Markov was assassinated in London in one of the most mysterious Cold War cases known as the Bulgarian Umbrella Murder. Markov, who had defected to the West, was working at the Bulgarian Section of the BBC in Bush House. The case remains unsolved to this day because a series of post-Communist Bulgarian governments were to a smaller or greater degree reluctant to cooperate with the Scotland Yard.

In the 1980s the BBC, as well as US-sponsored Radio Free Europe and West Germany's Deutsche Welle, was the exclusive source of information not only about what was going on in the world but also about what was going on in Bulgaria. The forcible Bulgarianisation of one million Bulgarian Turks went unreported in the Bulgarian media save for the predictable bouts of propaganda, and so did the mass exodus of Turks into Turkey in the summer of 1989. The state-controlled Bulgarian media dubbed it... "The Great Excursion."

The fall of Communism in November 1989 appeared to bring on a new era for the BBC in Bulgaria. Uncensored newspapers and later TV and radio stations proliferated, but the main media were still scared to report about what they considered sensitive domestic political issues. On several occasions Bulgarian state media resorted to quoting the BBC about events that were taking place in the centre of Sofia...

Bulgaria is now a member of both the EU and NATO, but attitudes to information, as far as the current government and president are concerned, do not seem to have changed considerably from those days.

In 2004 BBC reporter Justin Rowlatt produced the Buying the Games documentary in which he filmed Ivan "Bateto" Slavkov, the then chairman of the Bulgarian Olympic Committee and member of the International Olympic Committee, as not being disinclined to take a bribe to support London's Olympic Games bid. Instead of resigning, Slavkov fought back. Instead of firing him, the government started legal action against the BBC for what it termed unsanctioned use of a hidden camera.

In 2007 a BBC TV Ten O'Clock News team produced another shocking documentary. Using a specially designed sting, they filmed a Bulgarian man, obviously acting as part of a human trafficking ring, offering to sell babies to UK families at 60,000 euros per head. The film provoked a scandal in the UK and elsewhere, and the BBC sent a copy of it to the Bulgarian police. But don't think they made any serious arrests. It promptly unearthed information that Paul Samrai and Paul Hipkins, the film's producers, had traffic offence criminal records in the UK. Further, it published their personal details, including their passport numbers and their dates of birth on its web page. In what some lawyers described as a blatant violation of the Personal Data Protection Act, the Bulgarian Interior Ministry still has that information on the Internet.

Later in 2007 the BBC aired another shocking documentary, Bulgaria's Abandoned Children, in which it showed the utterly inhuman conditions at the Child Care Institution in the village of Mogilino. The film, produced by Kate Blewett, shocked millions of Britons and other West Europeans who saw the conditions and attitudes to children in what was already a full EU member state. Blewett would later remember: "Filming was immensely depressing! Day in and day out, watching the children's empty lives and seeing their minds trying to cope with the total lack of stimulation and love, by self-harming and rocking in such a purposeful and often violent way... Most of the staff were fairly welcoming – and showed no shame for the way the children's bodies and limbs were wasting away. It was as if all was fine. This was something I witnessed in China, too, when making The Dying Rooms – the staff were not embarrassed to let us film dying children, as it seemed the norm. The director's absence in Mogilino and her lack of information about individual children said it all."

Both Bulgaria's Prime Minister Sergey Stanishev and President Georgi Parvanov obviously watched the film as well. Stanishev, who is the leader of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, or BSP, said the film was "extremely tendentious," and Parvanov, who used to be the leader of the BSP before Stanishev, commented: "That film was not made with love for Bulgaria, it is yet another jigsaw in the anti-Bulgarian campaign provoked by someone whose motivation I do not know."

Formally, it is not the prime minister or the president that banned the BBC World Service in 2008. It is the Electronic Media Council, a watchdog authorised to supervise whether radio and TV station adhere to their licenses. Legally, the BBC is in violation of its license because it no longer broadcasts in Bulgarian... Neither the president, nor the Electronic Media Council ever mentioned that what the BBC was doing was in fact in the public interest.

The truth, sadly, is that the BBC has been serving the Bulgarian public interest better than many Bulgarian media that would usually be dependent on various politicians or "businessmen" related to politicians for lucrative advertising contracts. Alas, the paymasters have won – they just killed the Beeb. This is what they did in Russia too.

 

BBC World Service English-language programmes will continue to be available across Bulgaria via <bbc.com/ worldservice> online and via the Hotbird 2 direct to home satellite service. BBC World News television in English will also continue to be availabl

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