Technology, Public Sphere and Journalism

With its rapidly expanding ICT sector, Bulgaria has been called “the tech capital of Balkans” and “the Silicon Valley of Southeastern Europe.” Including approximately 10,000 companies, the revenues of the local Information and Communications Technology (ICT) market reached US$ 1bn in 2016; and the industry keeps growing: its value was estimated at US$ 1.4bn in 2017, according to the Bulgarian Association of Software Companies (BASSCOM).

Technology plays an important role for news media distribution in Bulgaria: 88% of Bulgarians get their news online, first and foremost on the online platforms of popular television channels and their social network pages.

Bulgarians are some of the most active social media users in the EU (ranked 6th among all EU Member States), and use Facebook overwhelmingly more than all other platforms – among other purposes, for news consumption. Because of its astounding popularity, Facebook is the most popular online platform for news media, and the audiences of news outlets attract on their Facebook pages often surpass in numbers those of their own websites. For the same reasons, the platform is notable for its major role in promoting fake news in Bulgaria, which had a particularly strong impact on voters before the last parliamentary election in March 2017.

Google is another international technology company with a dominant position in the market for digital media distribution. Google occupies an overwhelming share of the search engine market across all platforms, and its YouTube is ranked as the second most popular social media platform in the country. On the other hand, Google is the sole international technology company that has contributed finances to the local journalism in Bulgaria: its Digital News Innovation (DNI) Fund has awarded €450,000 in funding to journalistic projects in Bulgaria since its launch in 2015. The fund’s overall influence in the Bulgarian media is insignificant for now, but it did help multiple innovative projects get off the ground.

While the digital news distribution market overall is dominated by the international tech giants Facebook and Google, there are local digital media platforms in Bulgaria, too. The most notable one is Netinfo, the largest digital media company in the country, covering 85% of the users with a wide range of information, communication and entertainment services.

The market leaders Facebook and Google tend to stay politics-neutral as they serve primarily as contents distributors, not creators. Among the local tech companies, the political involvement is rather limited, too, although some tensions arise due to the high concentration of media ownership in Bulgaria (which is reflected both online and offline). This primarily involves the Bulgarian politician and media mogul Delyan Peevski, whose media empire is known for its right-wing, often pro-Russian, opinionated coverage, and his opponent, businessman Ivo Prokopiev, whose media outlets openly criticize Peevski and offer a liberal, pro-European perspective both online and offline.

Although local telcos seem to be totally inoffensive when it comes to news media, they, in fact, can and do exert influence there. Zero-rating practices (allowing users to browse certain websites without actually paying for it) mostly favor international players like Facebook and HBO in Bulgaria. Local telcos now do that mostly for commercial advantages. But when such a distribution arrangement is used to manipulate the media, it will surely become a game-changer.

The entry of the Czech financial group PPF in the Bulgarian telecommunications sector could trigger significant market changes. In July 2018, PPF was given green light by the European Commission to buy Telenor and is in process of acquiring Nova Broadcasting Group, two key players in the telecom and media industries, respectively. But while the former passed all antitrust tests, the Nova deal is still opposed by the Bulgarian competition watchdog, a decision appealed by PPF. If they eventually take over Nova’s operations as well, PPF is going to gain a massive competitive advantage in both the media production and distribution segments: local analysts forecast that Telenor and Nova Broadcasting Group would work closely together.