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Do young people in Sofia take part in the planning of their city?

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In the past months, Simeon Shtebunaev, a PhD researcher from Birmingham City University and a Bulgarian citizen, worked with the ‘Inspiring Young Minds’ project in Sofia, to interview the students taking part about their views on the built environment. Altogether, twelve students took part across two days in October, complementing their participation in the project and testing their English skills in relation to architecture and urbanism. The opinions of the young people about the future of Sofia were mixed and showed keen interest in participation in their city’s future.

Youth are not passive recipients but active shapers of our urban environments, however, often seen as an external force to the planning process.  Since the 1989, the United Nations in Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, stipulate:

“Children and young people have the right to say what they think should happen when adults are making decisions that affect them and have their opinions taken into account” (UN, 1989)

However, there has been almost no systematic progress in involving young people in urban planning, arguably the policy aspect of most relevancy to them. So, why don’t we include young people in the planning and design of our cities? In Bulgaria, a country struggling with a demographic crisis, this question goes hand in hand with the political disengagement and ‘brain drain’ the country had experienced in the past few decades.

Indeed, as a Bulgarian emigrant, my own experience of leaving the country nine years ago was tested by the young people’s views about the need to stay and work for the betterment of the built environment of their city.

The research works in the context of the recently undertaken programme by Sofia Municipality – Vision for Sofia. A holistic programme, Vision for Sofia presented in September 2019, encompassed 24 long-term goals and nearly 250 steps for the development of the Sofia Municipality. They are expected to be voted on immediately after the local elections this week in Sofia Council. The priorities of the programme are environment and urban environment, transport, people, governance, economy, identity and culture. The research asked the school students whether they have heard of the programme and of Lyubo Georgiev, Head of Vision for Sofia and Arch. Zdravko Zdravkov, Chief Architect of Sofia. The majority of interviewees had not heard about the initiative, demonstrating the need to engage young people in the planning process.

There were some interesting views emerging from the students. In the Sofia High School of Mathematics “Paisii Hilendarski” students were politically informed and had awareness about the lack of information that they receive from the local authorities, regarding participation in planning processes. Many admitted that they have not sought to inform themselves, as local participation was not a priority in their intensive education and career focused activities. However, a few admitted that if they were taught about public participation, they would love to act and work to change their neighbourhoods. Air quality, eco-friendly transport and availability of green space were the top priorities quoted by the students about the future of Sofia. In the Professional High School of Electric Engineering and Automation, the students were well informed about the planning profession, potentially due to the fact that there were some major infrastructure projects happening in proximity to their homes. Inspirationally, all of the students’ demonstrated good command of the English language and managed to discuss issues of planning policy in their second language, not a small feat.

What also came across strongly in all three schools was the clear internal turmoil many of the students were currently experiencing in regard to immigrating abroad. Many felt pressure by society to do so, however, presented many arguments why they did not want to take this path. Indeed, it is important to retain youth in their birth towns in order to achieve meaningful participation in urban planning.

The interviews were the first time the research was conducted in Sofia. Over the course of 2020, more than fifty students will be interviewed, providing an overview of their experience and awareness of town planning processes int eh city. This PhD research projects will aim to appraise the perceptions and level of awareness of young citizens, between fifteen to nineteen years of age, towards ‘smart city’ developments in four cities in Europe. The project aims to compare the examined case study cities (Birmingham and Manchester, England, Sofia, Bulgaria and Valencia, Spain) and evaluate how young people’s perceptions hinder or enable cases of participation in the planning process.  The project aims to situate the examined case studies in the wider context of smart cities discourse and planning theories of participation. The project is scheduled to end in 2021 as part of the doctoral submission to the Birmingham City University, UK.

Engaging with the ‘Inspiring Young Minds’ project demonstrated the importance of empowering youth and lifting their inspirations about their ability to change the environment in which they live. Collaborating with Vox Tua, demonstrated to me that there are inspirational organisations in the capital of my home country that aim to change youth’s perceptions and to develop a broader mindset about their future.

Free press in Bulgaria?

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Bulgaria has tanked again in the World Press Freedom Index, compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). At 111th place out of 180 countries, Bulgaria is at the bottom of all EU countries, and across Europe only trailed by the authoritarian-leaning regimes of Bularus, Turkey and Russia. While press around the whole world is marred by a struggle to remain independent and trusted, Bulgaria faces its own unique threats to journalism with potentially grave consequences.

RSF summarizes, “Corruption and collusion between media, politicians, and oligarchs is widespread”. Some wounds are still fresh in Bulgarian minds. “The most notorious embodiment of this aberrant state of affairs is Deylan Peevski, a former head of Bulgaria’s main intelligence agency and owner of the New Bulgarian Media Group. His group has six newspapers and controls nearly 80% of print media distribution.” Indeed, Peevski’s appointment to the top of the intelligence agency is what brought thousands of protesters to the streets in 2013 and eventually toppled the government a year later.

That is not to say Bulgarians are fully aware of the deep connections between government, corporations and the press. Instead, it underlines the embedded mistrust most people harbor towards any information they are presented. How can believe you are hearing unbiased news, if private interests are writing the story to begin with? As RSF states, “The government’s allocation of EU funding to certain media outlets is conducted with a complete lack of transparency, in effect bribing them to go easy on the government in their reporting or refrain from covering certain problematic stories altogether.”

The deliberate misinformation is upheld with force, when needed. Pauline Adès-Mével, the head of RSF’s EU-Balkans desk, reminds of the recent “unprecedented campaign of harassment” on reporters from Bivol, an investigative outlet, uncovering corruption and collusion at the highest levels. “One of the reporters participating in this investigation, Maria Dimitrova, […] received threatening messages by SMS and on Facebook. And shortly after Dimitrova managed to get one of the gang’s victims to talk to her, three unidentified men physically attacked her informant.”

Topnovini.bg maintains, “Journalists are with damaged social and labor rights and are unable to perform their work responsibilities adequately.” In the face of huge corporations hiding information and misdirecting attention, it can indeed become dangerous to report on current events. Many media opt for covering neutral topics or resort to entertainment-only programs.

The loss of a source of truth for the public is not something to overlook itself. For instance, in 2018 the Sofia University Student Television Channel was restructured and a promotional call for journalists was released. However, professors and other staff from the Faculty of Journalism and Mass Communications responded with an open letter calling for the TV channel to rediscover the core responsibilities of reporting. As European Youth Press states, “Superficial and biased media coverage of topics related to national, ethnic and religious minorities leads to misunderstanding, stigmatization, hatred and, as a result, split in the society.”

Furthermore, the Bulgarian national broadcaster Nova reports that now there are as many more than 4000 cyber attacks per day, including deliberate misinformation campaigns from foreign and domestic entities. This number is currently tripling year on year, while recent advancements in artificial intelligence are making it nearly impossible to distinguish a completely computer-fabricated news story from a real one.

In the end, it may as well be that journalism’s pitfall is a blessing in disguise. As RSF points out, “Despite the growing obstacles and threats to press freedom, the Internet seems to be a means of guaranteeing a safe and promising platform for journalists who want to pursue their investigative reporting and maintain their editorial independence.” Reporters Without Borders examines this thoroughly in their report “Mission So Possible: Investigative Journalism in Bulgaria”, giving the example how upon the complete public publishing of government registers in 2016, journalists seized the opportunity and rummage through the data to uncover suspicious EU funds beneficiaries, among other dubious actions with public funds.

Impressively, the exposure led to the halt of a number of multi-billion projects, as it became clear that the same limited number of organizations was granted the majority of infrastructure public tenders. As the report concludes, “This was a proof that the transparency of State institutions and open data are a key condition for tackling corruption and limiting abuse of taxpayers’ money.”

In conclusion, press has the crucial responsibility to enable decisions to become informed decisions, where Bulgaria is a hot spot sorely in need of better freedom of press and speech.

THE CASE FOR MASS JOURNALISM LITERACY

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Press is the fourth pillar of democracy, as the famous saying goes. Voice of Journalists, a platform for independent journalists, explains, “This fourth pillar of democracy ensures that all people living in far off areas of a country are aware of what’s happening in the rest of their country. Media ensures transparency in the working of the three traditional branches of government.”

In a world abuzz with new information and varying private interests, it is human to forget that media exists primarily not to entertain or earn someone money, but to inform and educate. The press keeps public entities in check, informing the public of their actions and holding everyone to account. We all know how strictly rules are followed when “nobody would find out” and it is the media that counteracts with transparency. Voice of Journalists puts it simply – “if any of [the four] pillars is not working properly then somewhere democracy is still not fully functional.”

From the dawn of journalism, there have been persistent efforts to make sure the agenda behind writing a story is made clear to the reader. If the writer is trying to sell a product or an idea, that should be said upfront – commercial breaks are surrounded by recognizable sound or visual cues on broadcast media and ad blocks are graphically different from the rest of the content in print media. Sounds simple enough, right?

As the role of the reporter changes and types of media diversify, such a distinction becomes harder and harder to make. For instance, a UK regulator recently demanded Instagram celebrities to clearly label in each photo every individual product they are sponsoring, citing concerns followers might not see the advertising gig for what it is – no different from a billboard. The risk of manipulating consumer behavior is rather serious on its own, but the true danger lies in intentionally forming wrong opinions.

“Fake news” was the Collins Word of the Year 2017 and nowadays there are numerous governments taking action against hostile misinformation online. Misinformation doesn’t just confuse people, it distract from urgent issues, it strips science and technological progress of credibility, creates a sense that bigger forces are working against you and polarizes people. For example, following divisive political events in the US, the UK and France, violence has spiked, as more people find themselves mistrusting and in belief they are being cheated in some way.

The erosion of the values of the independent press is so detrimental to our way of life that the “Doomsday Clock”, which symbolizes the threat of global annihilation, remains at two minutes to midnight thanks to the rise of fake news and information warfare, its keepers have said. Nobody knows everything about everything and without a trusted source of information, how can anyone form a concrete opinion –on unfamiliar topics?

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, former US ambassador, senator and presidential adviser, famously said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” The media’s fundamental duty is to report on the facts and put opinions squarely aside, to dust the agenda off the media buzz and strip to hard data, allowing the reader or viewer to form their own opinion. That is not something people just naturally do, and to journalists too it comes with practice and conscious effort.

European Youth Press reasons, “it is crucial to train young journalists to spot biases in the media landscape as well as in themselves […] It is essential that personal stereotypes – whatever they may be related to – not affect professional activities of journalists.” Nowadays, anyone can pick up a camera or write an article and publish a story online. As more and more people take on a journalist’s role, it is pivotal to our democracy that these people have at least a basic understanding of the responsibility that comes with this action.

“Media literacy is important in sustaining democracy by knowing which information sources to trust and which media are trustworthy. It is important to recognize and see through propaganda and sometimes “read between the lines”, stipulates European Youth Press. In sustaining democracy, we have a key role to educate a generation that upholds, instead of diluting, its fourth pillar.

Finding Your Own in After-School Programs

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Students in an ice-breaker exercise.

In an ever-changing world, education systems prove to fall behind the demands of lite in the 21st century. Changing what’s mandatory in school and the content of government-approved textbooks can take more years than it takes for whole new areas of knowledge to develop. A recent round table Chivas 12 Chairs united Bulgarian industry leaders around a call for more adequate and modern education, as a means to combat the high youth unemployment rate in the country.

This is where after-school programs come to the rescue.

While formal education provides students with the necessary basics for all possible career paths, extracurricular classes are what illuminates each unique path in life.

With average class sizes well above 20 students and a lot to teach in a short 40-45 minute lesson, school teachers have no choice but to “lecture” students, hoping the information will settle in everyone. Extracurricular programs have the flexibility to offer the complete opposite. Class sizes tend to be half that of formal education and lessons can run longer. This allows teachers to truly get the students engaged in the learning process. Practical exercises, open discussions and hands-on projects – there is no better way to soak in new information.

Tennis is one fun way to learn and play.

Too often, particularly in hard-to-adapt public schools, students lose motivation in the majority of subjects and find themselves under the pressure to be best at everything. Parents know this will be important to universities and, by extension, their children’s entire career path. In the meantime, students regularly complain that each teacher sees the world as revolving around their subject. Combine that with the hormone rush of puberty and you get a very tense picture of adolescent life.

Who can be consistently interested in a dozen and a half subjects from all walks of life!? Society would not expect everyone to excel at everything, yet our educational system does. Adding more lessons on top of the students’ load may not seem like a solution, but it turns out it is one for most students. While sleep and relaxation are fundamental to alleviating stress, actively having fun is the fastest way to release built-up tension. In the words of Krasimir Valchev, minister of Education and Science, „There is no doubt that extracurricular programs reduce aggression and violence.“ (24 Chasa, 15.02.2019)

This is the second key element to the crucial significance of after-school programs – freedom of choice. The students themselves choose what they want to explore more, whether it is robotics, karate, nutrition, piano, international relations or anything else. When you make a conscious choice to pursue a passion, your brain is tuned to soak in new knowledge. And if you are having fun interacting with your teacher, classmates and task at hand, you soak in that much more.

In summary, in after-school programs not only can students experience an interactive project-based learning environment, but most of all – they choose a personal passion to follow through life.

Some extracurricular activities can take the students on adventures starkly different from their usual classroom setting.