Bulgarian Media: How we cover South Stream
While the South Stream project has economic, energy and political dimensions, all of which have been covered by the media in Bulgaria, a wealth of subjects remain for them, according to Atanas Georgiev, Editor, Publics.bg, who led a panel discussion at South Stream: Evolution of a Pipeline devoted to how the natural gas pipeline project is being covered by the media.
He cited issues like what impact there would be on local business, what kind of outsourcing was planned for local contractors, and to what extent the skills and knowledge of local experts would be applied in the South Stream project.
"Also, what opportunities will it bring to Bulgaria in terms of the industrial economy? What new investors can be attracted to Bulgaria?" he asked.
First on the agenda, Ms. Galina Alexandrova, Chief Editor, 3E-news.net, offered her views on how South Stream was covered by the media in Bulgaria.
She began, "Unlike other projects which have been accompanied by scandal throughout their existence, South Stream remains pretty neutral, which does not mean that the media are indifferent. They rather seem to follow the public perception."
According to her, after conducting a review of Bulgarian publications from the last two or so years, some media in Bulgaria had provided analysis on the subject, but most coverage was fact-based reporting.
"The advantage of South Stream, according to the media, comes down to the economic benefits," said Ms. Alexandrova, who noted that such an attitude in the Bulgarian media mirrored the sentiment expressed in the public opinion polling done in Bulgaria by World Thinks.
She commented: "We also seem to hear about other benefits like tax money in the coffers, social security contributions, etc. One of the latest reports claims that the project would be worth EUR 3.8 billion, so the municipalities along the path of the pipeline, some of the poorest in Bulgaria, would certainly benefit: naturally, more jobs, better energy security for the country, seem to be the issues that the press seem to stress."
She noted that more analysis-based publications tended to question some of those benefits.
"In my view, better energy security for Bulgaria is also questionable," stated Ms. Alexandrova. "Lower natural gas prices for Bulgaria may be another issue, but I do not consider it as a certainty."
She noted that the challenges were not very clear, because there was not enough reliable information from official sources.
"The challenges mentioned are, first and foremost, the increased gas dependency from Russia. Let us not forget that Gazprom is an arm of the Russian government, which is always cited in the media."
Meanwhile, she said, the economic benefits always seemed to be mentioned in the media: "The economic benefits, income from the transit fees - but we don't know how much those fees would be worth, and because we don't know that - analysts can't define the potential economic benefits. How can one evaluate the revenue that would be generated if we don't know how much the fees would amount to."
Expenditures, which were originally estimated at EUR 1.1 billion, she said, had gone up to EUR 3.3 billion - a tripling over the span of just a few years.
Environmental issues, she added, existed as well, despite the fact that an environmental impact assessment was in place. "Many analysts try to deal with this as well, because Bulgarian Energy Holding remains a questionable entity - there are always calls for it to be disbanded."
She said that the protests in Bulgaria demonstrated the lack of trust in the Bulgarian government and entities that were involved in South Stream, not to mention the feeling that the government was unable to defend the country's interests in the course of negotiations.
"Let me stress that there is not enough public information, not enough official information in the public domain; the negotiations are conducted in a fairly untransparent manner, so the press cannot really come up with an adequate economic analysis."
"We may sound rather skeptical," began Mr. Ilin Stanev, Deputy-Chief Editor, Capital Weekly, "as we are rather known for our skepticism, including in ourselves." He was the second journalist to offer his insights on the panel.
He noted the interesting results of the World Thinks survey, that there was no trust in the Bulgarian government, nor in their ability to deal with a big project like South Stream.
He commented: "I think this is a very accurate picture of the situation in Bulgaria."
Mr. Stanev recalled that South Stream was part of a bigger plan in Bulgaria called the "Big Slam" in which South Stream was the least clear of them all. The Burgas-Alexandroupolis gas pipeline turned out to be difficult and unimplementable. Then there was a nuclear facility. The result was that the Bulgarian government was involved in all kinds of legal arbitration from those projects.
"South Stream, in this context, would also be riddled with doubts. If you supported those projects, you would certainly support South Stream as well; those who had doubts then, would also now."
He noted that the attitudes for the project - for or against - were easily enumerated.
Mr. Stanev said that several weeks earlier Bulgaria's caretaker government had expressed some doubts in the preparations for the South Stream project, as it still had not been provided exception from EU rules, which could prevent it from being implemented.
"One of the newspapers wrote that this was 'an act against Bulgaria'," he explained. "The owner of the paper was hoping to get some money from Gazprom in order to support the football team he owns - such issues must be taken into consideration.
"The project is pretty unclear. We know that there are certain basic parameters, but no detail. Nobody has seen the financial justification or plan within the Bulgarian financial holding, and without having seen that, how could one judge how feasible the project is?" he asked.
South Stream, he said, was linked to the promise of the partner that Bulgaria worked with, Gazprom, that 80% of the market had already been negotiated, "But nobody has seen evidence of that."
He added: "Only the potential benefits are talked about, as the risks are unknown."
Bulgaria, he said, must provide construction permits for the project, but first these had to be applied for, something which had not taken place. "Obviously, there will be delays."
Regarding what he alleged was a contradiction with the EU's Third Energy Package, he said it was still an obstacle. "It is still not clear how the relationship between Gazprom and the European Commission will evolve."
According to him, the financial model for South Stream was also unclear in terms of the gains and losses.
Atanas Georgiev summed up the discussion.
He said, "It seems that for this energy project and for others there is a chronic information deficit of primary, reliable information that can be used for conclusions, comments and as a basis for our standing.
"The media would wish to see better communication and more basic information provided in order to use for the conclusions drawn," he concluded.
One participant among the delegates pointed out that, by comparison, access to information about the Nabucco natural gas pipeline was much more forthcoming.
He commented: "The companies involved do not represent their governments, which is the case with Bulgarian Energy Holding, for instance."
He added it was not apparent why gas in South Stream would be cheaper than gas coming from through Ukraine, showing that it was a "purely political project."