The Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe
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Pavel Antonov

Pavel Antonov

Pavel Antonov (PhD) is the executive editor and co-founder of BlueLink.net, Bulgaria's pioneering civil society e-network, and the former editor of Green Horizon, the REC's quarterly magazine. An affiliate of OpenSpace (UK), his research covers post-socialist societies’ loss of “voice” over environment, climate change, human and minority rights, and the changes in the field of journalism under economic pressure.

When you hear the word “REC”, what pops into your head?
A nice garden on the bank of the Danube. A place full of good people, sometimes talking, sometimes arguing, sometimes playing football.

Please can you describe your personal and professional development during your years at the REC?
The REC has been part of my life for the last 20 years. I first came as a trainee, as a member of the Junior Fellowship Programme in 1996. Back then I was a reporter for Nova, Bulgaria’s first private TV station in Sofia, and I was covering foreign affairs. In my free time I was a member of the young environmental group EkoClub 2000, which was when I applied for the REC programme. We were the first group to visit the REC’s new premises and the garden. Looking back on that one month, it was the most intensely spent time — workwise, but also in terms of meeting new people and opening up to new things. That was also when I met the REC staff for the first time, and I really liked the REC.

This led to me coming to CEU [Central European University] the next year and doing an environmental science degree — something that had never occurred to me before. After my CEU time, with my environmental science and policy degree, I went to Bulgaria and created BlueLink, which is a social and information network of environmental NGOs in Bulgaria. And two years later I came to the REC to edit The Bulletin.

How did The Bulletin start?
It was there from the very beginning of the REC. It came out quarterly and it always had different editors. As a junior fellow I had met one of them, Wendy Muzzy; and as a CEU student the second supervisor of my research on media coverage of nuclear power in Bulgaria was Paul Csagoly, who was then the editor of The Bulletin. And when I arrived I came with a project proposal, which was to upgrade the publication from an organisational bulletin to a quarterly magazine that would be of much more general interest and with more journalistic content. And that took two and a half years to come to, when we launched Green Horizon as a magazine in 2004. The “bulletin” was still part of it, but we had far more material from journalists in different countries, we had interviews. Basically, we turned it into a product that would be of interest and appeal to a much broader audience. And it was beautifully designed by Sylvia Magyar [head of the REC Publishing Department].

What were the main challenges during those two and a half years of getting Green Horizon published?
It’s very difficult, because a big organisation like the REC is always sensitive about the way it communicates and is perceived. Even so, they had been dwelling on this idea before I arrived. Surprisingly, one of the stumbling blocks was the title, and they had come up with some brilliant ones, but there was always something. Either it was too informal, or there was another publication out there with the same name. But I reached the point where I was willing to go with just about anything, and I said that if we didn’t come up with anything else we would call it ‘Environment Central and Eastern Europe’, which the editorial board generally agreed was far too boring.

But by then the REC already had a big history of developing products for journalists from CEE, as well as services and support. One of these products was a bi-weekly newsletter called Green Horizon, which was produced at the time by Tom Popper. And in desperation I finally wondered: “Why don’t we just use the title of something we have and that is our own product?” And they liked it. But we still had trouble when we launched the Turkish version, because our colleagues there told us that everyone there would think it was a religious magazine. So they came up with Yesil Ufuklar, which means something more like “Green Space”.

Of course there were other issues, like funding. How do you bring in money for such a thing? Every project wants its own publicity and messages. What we had to do was convince the team that it was in their interest to let us do our job professionally as journalists — not to just publish a project description.

What we managed to do was to separate the journalistic content from the organisational content in different sections of Green Horizon, and the sections were designed differently to make it easy for readers to recognise the difference. And I have to say that this was a pretty bold step for Marta [REC executive director Marta Szigeti Bonifert] to take, and one that previous directors would never have taken.

What are some of your most memorable experiences from your time at the REC?
I’ll share one story that is a favourite among some REC colleagues. In 2007 I was invited to a symposium on religion, science and environment in Greenland, which I wrote about in Green Horizon. This symposium was hosted by an Orthodox Christian patriarch, but there were Catholics, Buddhists, Muslims — all sorts of religious denominations on board. And they had this difficulty about what to do, because if they prayed together, everyone would want to speak differently. So they came up with this brilliant idea to have a silent prayer. This was a memorable moment and I remember thinking how people can actually achieve much more when they keep their mouths shut.

What do you feel are the biggest changes that have taken place recently in the journalistic profession — especially where environmental coverage is concerned?
This is actually the question that led me to do four years of research. It was something I kept asking myself while working on Green Horizon, and even earlier. For me, something was missing from the picture. There were these stories, and there were journalists handling them professionally to one extent or another — but there was this sense that there was still something beyond our reach that prevents us from telling these stories in a proper way, and prevents editors from prioritising these stories.

In doing my PhD work I explored the set of economic and political pressures that stand in the way of these stories, and how the communicating of these stories goes against the business interests of big powerful industries, which have influence on governments, on media outlets and advertising and so on. And it was then that I realised the importance of having an “old-school” set of rules and professional norms that journalists are supposed to be bound to in their work. And since then I’ve been trying to take these rules and introduce them to journalists from different countries and getting them to see them as something vital — something that protects and empowers them.

In doing my PhD work I explored the set of economic and political pressures that stand in the way of these stories, and how the communicating of these stories goes against the business interests of big powerful industries, which have influence on governments, on media outlets and advertising and so on. And it was then that I realised the importance of having an “old-school” set of rules and professional norms that journalists are supposed to be bound to in their work. And since then I’ve been trying to take these rules and introduce them to journalists from different countries and getting them to see them as something vital — something that protects and empowers them.

This is an interesting development, because one of the findings of my research was that the word “freedom” is widely abused these days, especially by media proprietors or traditional media outlets, whereby they use it in ways that create limitations. Young journalists are told: “You have the freedom to do things however you like.” So these young people don’t get a set of limitations and rules, and they think this is freedom, when in fact they have nothing to lean on. Having a set of rules to work with allows you to say no to an editor or a publisher when professional standards are violated. Young journalists today are deprived of this possibility, so they are very vulnerable.

But the possibility that I see is related to the Internet. Fifteen or so years ago it was unthinkable that you would have this unlimited medium of communication. If a story is good enough, with social networking possibilities, you can easily reach thousands of readers that you wouldn’t be able to reach otherwise because of financial or geographical limitations. What’s really important, however, is not to take this as an easy way out. You can use the Internet as a medium, but you need to stick to your professional norms and ethical requirements.

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