When tycoons own the media

To suss out what can result from big-business ownership, see Europe

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 a passage cited by 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 Vujovic, 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.

As CJR’s Dean Starkman puts it, these guys are different from earlier press barons, like James Gordon Bennett Sr. or Joseph Pulitzer. “The early press barons’ power was generated by their newspaper businesses. That was the source of their wealth—the press itself. Their primary interest was the media business,” Starkman wrote.

Granted, even taking industrialist owners out of the free speech equation, the media landscape in eastern and southeastern Europe is anything but unfettered, in spite of laws officially guaranteeing a free press. But some of the crackdown on free speech appears to come from these owners rather than solely from the government. Where it is possible to discern ownership—shell companies with addresses in Cyprus or Bermuda can hide the true owners, said Vojovic, of the South East Europe Media Organization—newspapers, TV, and radio stations in eastern and southeastern Europe increasingly are under the influence of owners with business interests other than media and, usually, ties to the ruling government.

When media do attempt real reporting—say, a well-researched piece on some government wrongdoing—their publishers are threatened by government officials with, say, an extra business tax or revocation of an important contract. So they ask their editors to stop. This is especially true in Turkey, say press watchdogs like the Committee to Protect Journalists and Freedom House.

As a result, media in countries with a high concentration of tycoon ownership tend to keep their owners happy by covering safe topics, like sports and entertainment.

In western Europe and North America, there is a stronger tradition of free press. Attempts at manipulation are likely to be reported. Bezos has stated that he will not exercise editorial control. So far Les Echos, Le Monde and El Pais have remained independent.

Whether they will continue to be centers for hard-hitting, serious news may be another matter.

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Alison Langley has more than 25 years experience in journalism as a reporter and editor. Her stories have appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times, The Guardian, The FT and The Independent. She currently lectures in journalism at Fachhochschule Wien and Webster University Vienna.