On May 16, 2008 the Center for the Study of Democracy and the Embassy of Ireland in Sofia organized the 3rd annual James Bourchier seminar. The seminar’s motto “As others see us” describes the overall purpose of the seminar series which is to bridge the views on media and politics across the continent. Intended to commemorate the life and work of James D. Bourchier, an influential commentator and advisor on the politics of Bulgaria and the Balkans, the seminars bring together leading journalists and writers from Ireland, the UK, and Bulgaria.
The seminar was opened by the Ambassador of Ireland Geoffrey Keating. Ambassador Keating summarized some of the highlights of James Bourchier’s engagement with Bulgaria and the region, in particular some of the parallels that Bourchier saw between the situation in Bulgaria and Ireland. The Ambassador quoted words of the then British Minister at Sofia was Sir Arthur Peel at Boruchier’s funeral: “In this age of so much development we see that the transmission of intelligence, and the comments on the political events and political utterances, have become more and more the field of the gentlemen of the Press, and consequently with this change, their responsibilities have become all the greater. No one was more fully sensible of these responsibilities than my countryman [he means Bourchier], and only the day before he died he told me how much he was averse to any encouragement of the publication of news and comment which might produce an incitement to suspicion or the growth of ill-feeling.” Ambassador Keating argued that today we are still grappling with the legacy of the issues Bourchier wrote about and that the problems of this region have essentially been European problems. There is a wide consensus, he said, that their resolution can only be found in a European context and that the European Union can provide a powerful model of reform, reconstruction and reconciliation.
Ambassador Keating introduced the Minister for European Affairs of Bulgaria Gergana Grancharova. Minister Grancharova described media and politics as two of the most significant power centers in modern societies. Media is supposed to guarantee that policy makers never forget that they are also citizens. Theirs is a crucial role since consensus on all key social issues has to be mediated through them. One of the key issues, according to Minister Grancharova, today is why is it that the abundance of information does not always translate into knowledge. She discussed the role of mainstream media in the ongoing debates in the EU, in particular in the context of the Irish vote on the treaty. She also outlined the democratization of the sources of information and commentary through the internet which has a profound effect on politics.
Misha Glenny, writer and journalist, spoke on emergence of the global shadow economy and the intertwining between crime and democratic transition in the Balkans and Russia. He described the difficult reality that was the Yugoslav crisis which made reformers out of shady figures. He contrasted the different histories of the level of control the state managed to maintain in countries such as Serbia, Bulgaria and Russia. In the latter, a mixture of enhanced etatism is counterbalanced by the development of the market. The transition in many former communist countries brought a number of unintended consequences, the rise of organized crime being one of them.
Assoc. Prof. Teodora Petrova, Vice Dean of the Faculty of Journalism and Mass Communication at Sofia University analyzed the coverage of politics by Bulgarian media pointing out that around 70-80% of media stories in Bulgaria are on politics. This has degenerated media professionalism and has allowed a certain amount of capture of media by politicians. Given such developments, Bulgaria needs to become an active participant in the discussions in the EU on the pluralism of media ownership.
Michael Foley of the School of Media, Dublin Institute of Technology discussed the role of media development in transitional democracies by asking whether US investment in supporting Eastern European media did any good. He saw the transposition of Western media standards through training and other development tools to East European partners as problematic. This approach treats journalism as a profession while Mr. Foley argued it was a craft.
Koprinka Chervenkova, Editor in Chief of the Bulgarian Kultura weekly made a parallel between today’s self-image of Bulgarian journalism with that of the early 20th century and found some troubling similarities. Both then and now journalists view themselves as mercenaries, hired guns in a political war that is not theirs.
Georgi Lozanov, Chairman of the Bulgarian Media Coalition insisted on distinguishing journalism and media in that the former is about people while the latter about business. He argued that Bulgaria’s membership in the EU had not helped media freedom, the index of which in fact declined after January 2007. This has also been accompanied by a decrease in civic activism and the rise of a kind of neo-conformism.