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Local investors gain control of a huge media conglomerate, raising questions about their cozy ties with the ruling party.by Milka Stoycheva 4 July 2019
When the largest commercial media group in Bulgaria was sold to local investors, some saw it as a sign that the local media environment was reaching maturity. However, when prominent journalists began leaving the group’s flagship TV station, people began asking about the new owners’ ties with the ruling party and the growing role of oligarchs in the media.
Brothers Georgi and Kiril Domuschiev acquired Nova Broadcasting Group in April in a 185 million euro ($210 million) deal from Sweden’s MTG, gaining control of seven TV channels and several online news outlets that reach on average three quarters of the Bulgarian population every month.
Georgi Domuschiev had already sought to allay fears that the new owners would interfere in Nova’s news operations. “We intend to keep on the road of successful development of Nova by relying on the proven professionalism of the journalists and managers who currently work there,” he said in February. However, soon after taking the post of chairman of the Nova board, his first major personnel decision made waves throughout the Bulgarian media world.
New Management Cleans House
Milyana Veleva was appointed as news director at Nova TV, the group’s biggest asset, controlling a 30 to 40 percent share of the Bulgarian television market, in early May. She came with baggage: she previously held the same job at TV7 and Channel 3 at a time when both channels were financed and indirectly controlled by media mogul Delyan Peevski, one of Bulgaria’s most controversial public figures.
Viktoria Behar, long-standing reporter, producer, and director of strategic development at Nova, openly voiced concern – along with other Nova journalists – over the new management's potential conflicts of interest, and Veleva’s close working relationship with Peevski. Days later, Behar’s contract with Nova was terminated.
“Behar’s dismissal from Nova provoked outraged reactions in the newsroom. Veleva responded with the statement that journalists are just contractors and the managers owe them no explanation for the decisions they take,” a journalist from Nova said, on condition of anonymity. “Her confidence is understandable, though, since at the very first meeting, she informed us that she had received a personal invitation from Kiril Domuschiev to join the team.”
Then, in late May, two news producers at the station, Tsvetomir Semov and Diana Dimova, submitted their resignations, refusing to explain why.
More journalists soon followed. Days later, three of Nova’s best-known investigative reporters were asked to shift from indefinite employment contracts to less secure agreements making it easier to suspend them. Two of them refused the proposal, and quit.
When the Watchdog Rolls Over
The way for the Domuschievs to acquire Nova opened in January when the Bulgarian Commission for Protection of Competition (CPC) blocked Czech billionaire Petr Kellner from acquiring MTG’s 95 percent shareholding in Nova on the grounds that the transaction would give Kellner’s PPF group a competitive advantage on the media services market.
Yet the watchdog expressed no such concerns about Nova’s acquisition by a subsidiary of the Domuschievs’ Advance Properties OOD, which owns 117 companies in 23 countries, including a Sofia-based pharmaceutical maker and the Bulgarian top-tier soccer team Ludogorets.
In 2014, the same anti-trust body authorized the acquisition of eight print media distributors by the cigarette manufacturer Tabak Market, one of many companies Peevski controls.
The close ties between Bulgarian media owners, politicians, and oligarchs have been in the spotlight for years, although the details remain obscure. Recent events surrounding the takeover of Nova, however, seem to have sharpened public attention and raised questions about why prominent journalists have lost their jobs or quit.
“Corruption and collusion between media, politicians and oligarchs is widespread in Bulgaria. The most notorious embodiment of this aberrant state of affairs is Delyan Peevski,” Reporters Without Borders warned in the 2018 edition of its press freedom survey. Such concerns have prompted RSF to rank Bulgaria far below almost every other country in Europe for years.
The prominent businessman and member of parliament controls approximately 80 percent of the newspaper distribution market, along with several national and regional newspapers, television channels, online news portals, and a publishing house. His brief stint at the head of the National Security Agency in 2013 triggered a wave of protests against the nomination of the controversial businessman to such a sensitive post.
Like Peevski, the Domuschievs have apparently benefited from their close ties to ruling circles. Kiril Domuschiev, whose portfolio includes the chairmanship of Bulgaria’s largest employer association, is a vocal supporter of the center-right ruling party, GERB. He became a talking point in 2018 when questions arose about a draft amendment to the privatization law that would have benefited the brothers, among other business interests. Some opposition lawmakers dubbed the bill “the Domuschiev amendment” because of his close ties to GERB. Although the amendment was vetoed by President Rumen Radev and soon withdrawn, the proposal pushed Kiril Domuschiev’s links to the government into the glare of publicity.
The Purge Continues
The rapid turnover at Nova TV was soon playing out again at Netinfo, the biggest Bulgarian digital media company, majority-owned by Nova Broadcasting Group. Nikolay Aleksandrov, chief editor of Netinfo’s sports website Gong.bg, was let go soon after alleging editorial pressure from Nova TV. The sports desk at Gong’s sister site Darik Radio quit in solidarity with Aleksandrov.
“Our team has never tolerated the slightest interference in our vision of how the final product should look,” Tomislav Rusev, a popular sports journalist who also immediately left Gong, said on Darik Radio. “We would not tolerate it now.”
Netinfo’s executive director and minority shareholder Hristo Hristov soon escalated the dispute.
In a statement published by Gong on 29 May, he claimed that since the Domuschievs acquired Nova there had been “strong intervention in the editorial policy” of Gong.bg and other websites in the group. He claimed Aleksandrov was pressured by Nova TV management to publish an article with unreliable sources. Nova responded by accusing Hristov of “undermining the reputation of the company and serving his own interests” and announced his suspension.
In an interview with TOL, Hristov said things went downhill even faster when Nova Broadcasting Group named Nikolay Andreev to replace him as executive director of Netinfo, shortly after Andreev took the same position at Nova TV.
“The fact that one and the same person is in charge of both media is unprecedented and determines the direction in which Netinfo will head from now on,” Hristov said. “We can no longer talk about pressure on the editorial team. The directors will simply execute their new editorial policy, whatever that may be.”
The chain of dismissals did not end there. Early in June, the two Nova investigative journalists, Miroluba Benatova and Genka Shikerova, quit rather than bow to pressure to terminate their employment contracts – and the job protection they afforded – and stay on under much less secure conditions.
“The employer clearly demonstrated that they no longer wanted me to be a member of the newsroom,” Benatova said. “My employment contract allowed me either to enter long negotiations on the amount of compensation, or to reject the proposal and keep my job until the employer finds a plausible reason to dismiss me. So I chose to terminate the contract.”
Law of the Market
In an interview with 24Chasa, Vyara Ankova, Andreev’s fellow executive director at Nova TV, denied any personal motives behind the personnel changes and explained the business strategy behind recent management decisions.
What she called the “reform” of the channel – firing journalists – was coming under “unacceptable” attack from those who “embrace the rhetoric of obstruction of freedom of speech,” she said. “In the context of increasing competition, every company must change – sometimes at the price of painful dismissals.”
Commenting on Ankova's statement, Benatova said, “The removal of the station’s most recognizable faces is a rather anti-business logic. Trust is one of the most valuable assets in media. My name and Genka Shikerova’s have earned high public trust, despite the resistance we’ve been experiencing for the last few years.”
Previous station management had tried to keep her and Shikerova from reporting “hot topics,” Benatova added – and the new owners had completed the job.
“We are witnessing a sad tendency at Nova TV,” said Neli Ognyanova, a Bulgarian media law expert. “These changes do not look to me like business optimization. In my opinion, if something is being optimized, it is simply [Nova’s] service to the authorities.”