Wasted potential: Cultural periodicals in Bulgaria after 1989

After 1989, Bulgarian cultural periodicals could have played a crucial role in forming a public sphere in Bulgaria. This potential has never been realized, says the former director of the Soros New Publicity Project. Ignored by a government indifferent to culture, cultural periodicals today must fight for a share of the market alongside an opportunistic mass media. Solidarity, transparency, and campaigning are the only things that can save a sector in dire need.

Cultural periodicals and the structure of the public sphere

Throughout my involvement in the sphere of cultural periodicals in Bulgaria I have worked on the assumption that Bulgarian intellectuals and cultural policy-makers should develop a new understanding of the character of the cultural public sphere in Bulgaria after 1989. This new understanding should be based on the idea that cultural periodicals (newspapers and journals), as major communication institutions, can and should play a crucial role in creating an alternative concept of the public sphere.

The transition from a monolithic totalitarian society towards a democratic, pluralistic one can be accomplished more successfully and more effectively if we think of the present-day public sphere in Bulgaria as a composite phenomenon comprising a series of micro-public spheres characterized by heterogeneity and variable size. These spheres (identity groups, professional groups, etc) exist at the sub-state level, and are a vital characteristic of all transitional social processes.

These spheres can find adequate expression of their identities and goals at the social level only through specific tools of communication, the most important being cultural newspapers and journals. Cultural periodicals ensure the freedom of expression and create the conditions necessary to use this freedom for the expression of personal and cultural identity. They offer everyone the maximum opportunity to participate in cultural life, either as author and editor or as reader. The relatively cheap infrastructure of cultural periodicals enables a large number of people to experience cultural events through this channel, and their flexible structure allows them to respond directly and closely to the different forms of cultural diversity and artistic development. The proximity of cultural periodicals to topical events enables them to provide culture with the prerequisites of a dynamic, challenging, and independent force in society. On the other hand, they safeguard and utilize cultural heritage in a most immediate and regular way. Furthermore, cultural periodicals are the most appropriate form of communication for carrying out autonomous discussion and generating criticism from the standpoint of public benefit and common interest. Due to its periodical nature, the cultural press can participate easily in international cultural exchange and in exchange between various cultures within a country. In an open and democratic society, the public sphere of cultural periodicals can function as a civil corrective force and a debating institution independent of the four powers: legislative, executive, judiciary, and mass media.

Bulgarian cultural periodicals in the wider media context

Unfortunately, a space for independent public discussion is almost non-existent in Bulgaria. It is forced to exist within the media market of dailies, television channels, and commercial radio stations, where both news and news comments, as well as the language of the press itself, are commodities that obey the laws of supply and demand.

Without underestimating the merits of certain mass editions, television and radio broadcasts, and individual prominent journalists and editors, it can be concluded that what nowadays secures success in the Bulgarian media market are counter-values such as intolerance, rudeness, intrusion into people’s private lives (insult, libel, and gossip are common), and violation of human rights. Indicative of this are the marketing strategies and stylistic features of the biggest Bulgarian dailies.

In addition, the bulk of this journalism adapts its news and comment to the viewpoint of political and financial powers. Paradoxically, standard journalism does not use the freedoms that stem from its financial and market independence.

Throughout the entire transitional period after 1989, an acute necessity has been felt for independent and powerful intellectual institutions able to embody and carry out autonomous discussion and criticism with a view to public benefit and common interest.

Bulgarian cultural periodicals after 1989

After 1989 Bulgarian cultural and intellectual periodicals were marginalized in terms of the market. A lack of official data makes it difficult to estimate the market share of cultural periodicals as compared to the popular press. The most popular political daily newspaper Trud [Labour] sells approximately 1 260 000 a week, resulting in a total weekly turnover of BGN 882 000 (BGN 0.70 per copy), while the most widely read cultural weeklies Kultura and Literary Newspaper sell less than 1300 and 1000 copies per week respectively, netting BGN 2600 (BGN 2 per copy) and BGN 1000 (BGN 1 per copy) respectively.

Bulgarian cultural and intellectual periodicals have limited circulation and a modest readership. Because only a few libraries subscribe to Bulgarian cultural periodicals, the readership of the periodicals almost equals their circulation. Their public influence is almost non-existent – I am unable to cite any important social or media debate that has been started by cultural periodicals, nor am I able to provide evidence of any public authority created by them. Cultural periodicals mirror the marginalization of the figures of the intellectual and the artist, who publicly discuss and protect the values of democracy and common public interest. This goes hand in hand with the fact that the scarce resources available to cultural periodicals force the editorial and publishing boards to struggle to attract funds from state sources, private foundations, and sponsors. In their best years, cultural periodicals in Bulgaria could rely on USD 150 000 funding for all of them.

Idiosyncratic feuds and scandals erupt all the time among these periodicals and their readership is fragmented in a partisan fashion. The most heated debates between cultural newspapers contain often personal attacks between their editors and partisan authors. The editors-in-chief of the biggest cultural periodicals (Kultura, Literary Newspaper, and the defunct Literary Forum) do not frequent the same places due to personal hatred. Here, political affiliations play a crucial role as well. Each cultural periodical treats the other as a threat to its survival; this breeds intrigue and the misconstrued lobbying of “experts” on state committees and private advisory boards. It is a public secret that some of the “experts” and “decision-makers” in the various funding committees have very close relations with some periodicals, thus often creating a direct conflict of interests.

Moreover, important cultural publications are artificially “regionalised”. Due to difficulties in their distribution and sales, they are distributed and sold in primitive ways, and only in limited regions. What is published in Varna cannot reach Plovdiv; cultural publications printed in Sofia fail even to reach all parts of the capital, not to mention the countryside. The result is a new vicious regionalism in cultural public communication.

Cultural policy in the sphere of Bulgarian cultural periodicals before and after 1989

A comparative analysis of policymaking in the sphere of cultural periodicals before and after 1989 can allow for an assessment of some of the main reasons for the shortcomings in the sphere by pointing to the transition from the Communist to the post-communist era.

First of all, however, what is meant by “cultural periodicals”? First, there is a general category that includes periodicals on literature, music, the visual arts, and so on, irrespective of whether they belonging to a high or popular, national or minority culture. Secondly, there are the specialized and academic periodicals in the arts, humanities and social sciences. These limits express a specific concept of cultural periodicals, in which culture is regarded as the product of artistic creativity or specific research activities in the arts, humanities, and social studies. This concept draws a line between cultural periodicals and entirely market-oriented periodicals such as lifestyle magazines, entertainment publications, and so on.

Before 1989, Bulgarian cultural periodicals were legislated for by the Funding for Cultural Institutions Act (1973). Cultural periodicals could be owned only by state or civic institutions, and the state, following a formal or informal decision by the Communist Party, could at any time intervene to support or stop a periodical. The journals’ staff were appointed by the state; the management boards contained only a few unpaid external members. Editorial policy, which was sanctioned by various state commissions, aimed to indoctrinate and pursue local and collective interests. All cultural institutions were obliged to subscribe to the periodicals.

Since 1989, Bulgarian cultural periodicals have been legislated for by the Protection and Development of Culture Act and the “Culture” National Fund Copyright Act (1993). Cultural periodicals are now owned by private organizations. State intervention and support in the sector is low: the national cultural policy drawn up by the Ministry for Culture has not been implemented. No separate policy for cultural periodicals exists. Aside from limited financial support (between euro 10 000 and 15 000 per year) from the State National Fund, cultural periodicals in Bulgaria rely solely on private funding. In the best years this has been not more than euro 109 000. With a few exceptions (Culture, Art in Bulgaria, Balkans+, Europe 2001, and to a certain extent Literary Newspaper), the editorial boards of cultural journals contain three or four unpaid members. It is not possible for periodicals to maintain a sustainable editorial policy, since decisions are based on the wishes of the sponsors. Due to irregular publication, most cultural periodicals in Bulgaria cannot develop a market strategy, while subscriptions are meager. The low circulation means that cultural periodicals are unattractive to advertisers. The only distribution opportunities are various educational and cultural campaigns that have been sponsored in advance.

What should be done in order to change the situation?

First, there needs to be a separate cultural policy for cultural periodicals. Cultural policies at the national level have drawn up in the Protection and Development of Culture Act (alongside the Main Objectives of the National Cultural Policy, formulated by the Ministry of Culture). These should be put in action, and not left on paper.

Second, Bulgaria has not made much progress in launching economic, social, political, and cultural reforms during the transitional period after 1989. This state of affairs is a cause for despair.

Third, since no state funding is at present available to cultural periodicals in Bulgaria, foreign assistance is required. In addition, no official statistical data exists on cultural periodicals during the transition period, despite the partial efforts of NGOs1. This kind of transparency could be developed by an Association of Bulgarian Cultural Periodicals, where all information could be collected, sorted, and analyzed.

Lastly, civil society in Bulgaria is not involved in decision-making processes on cultural policy. Bodies representing and protecting the public interest are not present in Bulgaria. There is a pressing need for relevant legislation and involvement from NGOs.

See "Cultural Periodicals 2000. Catalogue", Soros Centre for the Arts, Sofia, 2000

Published 10 February 2006
Original in English
First published by Critique & Humanism 19 (1/2005)

Contributed by Critique & Humanism © Blagovest Zlatanov/Critique & Humanism Eurozine


Published in

Share article


Subscribe to know what’s worth thinking about.