By Clive Leviev-Sawyer of the Sofia Globe
The Sofia-based company that not only has a predominant place on Bulgaria’s newspaper market but also is close to the ruling axis is selling its publications to an Irish company, according to a statement that took observers of Bulgaria’s media landscape by surprise when it was issued on April 11.
New Bulgarian Media Group Holding, officially listed as solely owned by Irena Krasteva, said that on April 11 it had finalised a framework agreement on selling the holding’s print editions to Media Maker Limited, owned by Irish national Patrick Halpenny.
Krasteva is the mother of Delyan Peevski, the controversial figure whose election as head of the State Agency for National Security (SANS) in June 2013 unleashed continuing months of public protests demanding the resignation of the government appointed a month earlier on the basis of a mandate handed to the Bulgarian Socialist Party.
Peevski was at the start of his second term as an MP when elected as head of SANS and, in spite of two challenges, the Constitutional Court said that he continued to be a member of the National Assembly in spite of his brief spell at SANS.
The party of which Peevski is a member – the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, which holds considerable sway in the ruling axis – appears poised to nominate him as a candidate MEP in Bulgaria’s May 25 2014 European Parliament elections.
Peevski repeatedly has denied that he is the actual owner or is involved in the ownership of the New Bulgarian Media Group publications and broadcast media, but eyebrows were raised in recent weeks when, in an interview with a website owned by his mother, he referred to “my media” in the context of an allegation that the previous government had asked him to ensure that coverage went easy on certain alleged organised crime figures.
Going by local media reports in the first 48 hours after the announcement of the intended transaction, Peevski declined to comment while Halpenny also issued no public statements.
Halpenny, an experienced business person principally with a track record as a financier, formerly was an executive with Communicorp Group, whose portfolio includes about half a dozen well-known Bulgarian-language radio stations. Local media said that Media Maker Ltd was registered in Dublin on April 9, just two days before the announcement of the deal to acquire New Bulgarian Media Group’s print publications.
Media in Sofia said that it was the second time in recent years that media outlets linked to Krasteva had been the subject of deals involving foreign companies, after television stations passed from an Austrian-registered fund to UK-registered company Allegro Capital in 2012.
Tsvetan Vassilev, majority shareholder in Corporate Commercial Bank, repeatedly has rejected allegations that he is involved with print and broadcast media linked to Krasteva, apart from having been a financial adviser in the television stations deal two years ago.
Vassilev and Peevski have for months been targeted for criticism by anti-government protesters for their alleged undue influence in Bulgarian public life, allegations that each individually denies and which they ascribe to the influence of other business figures campaigning against them.
Meanwhile, the April 11 statement noted that the transaction was subject to approval by Bulgaria’s Competition Protection Commission.
The decision process by the commission generally takes about two to three months.
Local media reports said that, should the deal go through and also should Peevski be elected as an MEP, the list of assets that he might have to declare as owned by immediate family would be shorter.
The shape of Bulgaria’s media landscape has been the subject of criticism at European level and from international media watchdog NGOs, which complain of a high concentration of media in a few pairs of hands as well as a concentration of control over distribution networks for newspapers and magazines as well as digital television.
Head of state President Rossen Plevneliev repeatedly has called on political parties represented in Parliament to legislate against media monopolies, a call that has produced no results.