Over 2,000 people*, both expats and Bulgarians, have joined the Facebook campaign to restart the BBC World Service broadcasts on FM in the Sofia area. Sofia is among the few European capital cities apart from Moscow where the BBC World Service is not available on FM.
The Bulgarian Electronic Media Council, the state watchdog in charge of granting and withdrawing broadcasting licences, justified its 2008 decision to switch off the BBC in Sofia by asserting that the BBC had broken the rules by not having any Bulgarian-language programmes, which the BBC had discontinued with the closure of its Bulgarian Section in 2005.
The BBC requested a change of its licensing conditions and challenged the penalty notices in court, but the Bulgarians were adamant: they were sticking to the letter of the law.
But where is the spirit of that law, the basis of which is the public interest, asked a group of over a dozen Bulgarian and expat intellectuals, former and current politicians and ordinary citizens of Sofia in a letter dated 13 April. The letter was sent to the BBC and the Bulgarian Electronic Media Council, as well as the prime and foreign ministers of both the UK and Bulgaria.
The signatories of that letter, which urged the government leaders to use their good offices to reverse the ban, include philosopher and media expert Georgi Lozanov, bestselling US writer Elizabeth Kostova, publicist Neri Terzieva, director of the Centre for Liberal Strategies Ivan Krastev, former Bulgarian ambassador to the United Nations Stefan Tafrov and former ambassador to the United States Stoyan Joulev.
The letter was initiated by banker Martin Zaimov, who is also the deputy head of the Sofia City Council, while the Facebook campaign was started and is being administered by Anthony Georgieff, the editor of Vagabond.
The signatories of this letter assert that the BBC is needed on FM in Bulgaria for three reasons. First, English language news and analysis are needed by the increasing number of expats coming for business or pleasure to Bulgaria, now an EU and NATO member.
Second, it is needed by many younger Bulgarians who find in the World Service programmes an invaluable – and completely free – means of improving their English language skills.
And third, and most importantly, with its editorial mix of objective news, balanced analyses and quality entertainment the BBC serves the public interest in this country much better than many domestic electronic and print media.
None of the Bulgarian officials addressed in this letter have responded by the time of going to press, but we have received an explanation from Richard Sambrook, the BBC Global News director. In his communication of 20 April Sambrook explains that the BBC is currently trying to identify re-broadcasting partners in Bulgaria, a method widely used for gaining FM carriage in Europe.
We have to wait and see whether the BBC will be able to overcome Bulgaria's bureaucratic and political hurdles, but in the meantime everyone interested can and should voice their support for bringing back the Beeb to Sofia on http://apps.facebook.com/causes/222474.
* Figure current at time of going to press, 24 April