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When tycoons own the media

August 16, 2013

By Alison Langley

In 2010, the German media conglomerate WAZ sold its Bulgarian Media Group to two millionaire tycoons: Ognian I. Bonev, chairman and executive director of Bulgaria’s biggest pharmaceutical company, and Lyubomir Pavlov, a former banker. Included in the purchase were two mass dailies, 24 Chassa and Trud. The latter’s longtime editor, Tosho Toshev, was promptly fired.

Soon after, Toshev published—in a different newspaper, owned by New Bulgarian Media Group—transcripts of alleged phone conversations that indicates Bonev and Pavlov have undue influence with leading political figures. A national TV station aired an investigation alleging that Pavlov used real estate he owned in the French Cote d’Azur to launder money.

None of these stories, which Pavlov and Bonev adamantly denied, appeared in any publication or station owned by Bulgarian Media Group. Instead, those outlets ran pieces alleging massive wrongdoing by New Bulgarian Media Group, believed to be controlled by a bank owner, although true ownership is unclear because of the way the group is structured.

Then there is Ivo Prokopiev, the money behind Bulgaria’s third-largest media group, Economedia, as well as, until very recently, Kaolin mining group. While most of Bulgaria’s media reported in 2012 that one of Kaolin’s mines was polluting the drinking water in a nearby village, there no such stories in Economedia-owned papers, according to Andrey Anastassov, a graduate student at Central European University.

Although Bulgaria is an extreme example, it isn’t the only European country in which tycoons have been buying up media outlets and appearing to exert editorial control. It has become common practice in Europe long before Amazon’s Jeff Bezos decided to buy the Washington Post.

“In virtually every country [in eastern and southeast Europe], those involved in media are also involved in other businesses. All of them influence editorial control or promote a political ideology,” said Oliver Vojovic, secretary general of South East Europe Media Organization, a press watchdog.

Victor Pinchuk, a Ukrainian piping magnate, owns nearly all of his country’s private TV stations, along with the wealthiest man in Ukraine, Rinat Akhmetov, who built his fortune in steel and coal, according to Forbes. In Turkey, media ownership is highly concentrated, and their owners do not hesitate to exert editorial control, according to Freedom House.

“This used to be limited to Eastern Europe,” said Christoph Keese, spokesman for Germany’s Axel Springer AG. “Now Germany is the last big European market with no newspapers having been sold out to industrialists yet.”

Indeed, over the last three years, wealthy tycoons have started buying up leading titles in western European countries like France and Spain. (Italy’s media landscape has been long bought up by Silvio Berlusconi, who controlled the political debate, but that is a different story.)

Bernart Arnault, one of the richest men in the world, owns Les Echos in France. Nicolas Berggruen, the “homeless billionaire” who prefers to sleep in luxury hotels, bought a controlling interest in El Pais in Spain in 2010, just after he purchased a stake in Le Monde. All these publications were independently owned by media publishers before they were sold to businessmen with much wider arrays of interests. Read more in the Columbia Journalism Review.

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