How Bulgaria hit rock bottom for press freedom | Press Freedom News
On September 2, 2020, Bulgarian journalist Dimitar Kenarov traveled to the center of the Bulgarian capital Sofia to cover an anti-government protest.
He was filming the largely peaceful protest calling for the resignation of then-Prime Minister Boyko Borisov’s government when a few individuals began throwing projectiles at police, who responded with pepper spray and batons.
In the violence that followed, Kenarov, who was then donning a gas mask marked “Presse”, was thrown to the ground by officers, repeatedly punched in the face and handcuffed, although he insisted that was a journalist and showed them his press card.
He was eventually taken to the police station and released a few hours later.
Over the following weeks, the Interior Ministry denied that Kenarov had been detained, despite available footage of his detention and a medical certificate attesting that he had been assaulted.
When he tried to take the case to court, the prosecution blocked the proceedings, while the Interior Ministry asked the National Revenue Agency to check his tax and social security payments.
The episode drew international condemnation from organizations such as Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which took the case into account when preparing its latest Press Freedom Index published in April.
It ranked Bulgaria 112th in the world, the third lowest among European countries, after Russia (150) and Belarus (158).
According to journalists and academics Al Jazeera spoke to, press freedom in Bulgaria has declined significantly over the past two decades, not only because of the country’s democratic backsliding, but also because the media are struggling with growing corruption and financial difficulties.
However, it is hoped that the ongoing political changes may improve the situation in the near future.
“The EU has increased corruption”
When RSF began publishing its press freedom index in 2002, Bulgaria, then a candidate for EU membership, ranked 38th.
Five years later, when it joined the bloc, it fell to 51. The downward trend continued and 10 years after joining the EU, the country ranked 109th.
Bulgaria is not the only EU member to have struggled with press freedom, with other Eastern European states that joined in the 2000s experiencing similar challenges.
Pavol Szalai, head of RSF’s Balkans desk, told Al Jazeera that press freedom in Bulgaria is affected by regressive trends suffered by other Eastern European countries, but also by more specific factors. .
“Unlike other EU countries, like Hungary and Poland, where the situation is bad but they rank higher, in Bulgaria we have seen frequent physical attacks against journalists,” he said. declared.
Meanwhile, there is a shrinking space for independent media, and the justice system prosecutes journalists instead of protecting them.
According to Kenarov, however, violence against media professionals is not so widespread in Bulgaria.
“I can’t say that in Bulgaria they beat more than in other [European] country,” he said, adding that he considered his own case of assault by police to be an exception.
He believes those in power are arming state institutions to suppress criticism.
Central and local authorities are able to exercise control over the media to mitigate their scrutiny of their work, through the distribution of public funds for advertising.
After joining the EU, Bulgaria, like other new members, received significant funds to help its economic development.
Some has been earmarked for public advertising of EU development programs which, given the relatively small advertising market in the country of seven million people, is an important source of revenue for large and small alike. media.
“The EU has increased corruption in Bulgaria to a significant extent,” Kenarov said. “By giving this uncontrolled money to the Bulgarian government, in all sectors, not just the media, they created Borisov and helped him build his patronage network.”
During Borisov’s three terms as prime minister since 2009, Bulgaria has witnessed the sale of major national media outlets to businessmen seen as close to him.
In 2019, businessmen Kiril Domuschiev and Georgi Domuschiev acquired Nova TV, one of the three national television channels.
Subsequently, several investigative journalists employed by television saw their contracts terminated.
After Borisov’s resignation in May, local media reported that between 2017 and 2021 his cabinet spent more than $6 million in European funds on media advertising, the largest share of which – $1.3 million. dollars – went to Nova TV.
Borisov was also accused of shielding corruption investigations by Delyan Peevski, a media mogul and former MP from the Movement for Rights and Freedoms.
The US Treasury Department recently sanctioned Peevski under the Global Magnitsky Act.
Among the US charges against Peevski is that of “negotiating with politicians to provide them with political support and positive media coverage in exchange for protection from criminal investigation”.
“A group of oligarchs, mainly Peevski […] media monopoly established,” Venelina Popova, an investigative journalist who worked for Bulgarian National Radio for 30 years, told Al Jazeera.
“Major media has gone through different business owners, most of whom aim to maintain close relationships with power so they don’t get in trouble and receive advertising money.”
Peevski is believed to hold up to 80% of the print distribution market and has been accused of using the outlets he owns to smear naysayers and critics.
Popova said that last year, after investigating Peevski’s donations to public hospitals at the start of the pandemic, she was branded a “propagandist” and a “pawn” in her media. The Bulgarian branch of the European Association of Journalists (AEJ) issued a statement of solidarity with her.
The 2008 financial crisis
Negative global trends in the industry have also affected the Bulgarian media landscape.
According to Martin Marinos, media scholar and assistant professor at Pennsylvania State University, the tabloidization of Bulgarian media began in the late 1990s and early 2000s with the entry of foreign media companies, such as Rupert’s News Corp. Murdoch and WAZ in Germany.
“These companies, although they talk about democracy and civilization, turn the media into tabloids and care little about journalism,” he said.
This corporate takeover then paved the way for Bulgarian oligarchs to buy media, especially following the exodus of foreign companies after the 2008 financial crisis.
The effect of the crisis has been particularly severe, with media and journalists becoming more vulnerable to financial pressures, Marinos said.
Well into the 2010s, media workers shared stories of underpaid work and repeated job losses.
Along with significant deregulation and a lack of control over public institutions, the crisis has also allowed a few large companies to take control of the media market, Marinos said.
“There’s no way things can go well when you have such a merger of big business and media,” he said.
Marinos gave an example from his fieldwork with TV7, a channel linked to Tsvetan Vasilev, former chairman of the board of directors of the now bankrupt Corporate Commercial Bank (CCB): “I visited TV7 [in 2016]. Half of the building was TV7, the other half was the [CCB] Bank. You walk down the hall and you pass people you don’t know if they are journalists or bankers.
The internet and social media, along with the effect of Big Tech on the advertising market, have also changed the landscape.
Currently, around 60% of online advertising revenue in Bulgaria goes to Facebook and Google.
“[There was] a negative change in the media business model. The role of print media has decreased significantly, other types of media have lost a lot of revenue and, in general, journalism has lost a lot of space to social media,” said Ivan Radev, board member of administration of the Bulgarian branch of the AEJ, at Al Jazeera.
It devastated small media.
Journalists were again insecure in their jobs and many left the profession, he said.
Bulgaria has the lowest number of journalists per capita in the EU and is said to have only 3,000 media workers in total.
“No quick and easy solution”
Despite the challenges, Al Jazeera journalists interviewed expressed optimism for the future.
Much of their hope is tied to Borisov’s resignation in May after his GERB party and coalition partners failed to receive enough votes in April’s election to form a government.
“There is no quick and easy solution because the problem [with press freedom] is multi-layered,” Radev said. “But at least this change in policy is seen as something positive because there was a growing perception of state capture.”
According to him, journalism in Bulgaria would benefit from judicial reform, which would strengthen the accountability of those who misuse public funds.
Politicians, he added, should change their attitudes towards greater respect for media independence.
Kenarov also sees recent political developments in Bulgaria in a positive light.
He said that after an interim government took over from Borisov, the Interior Ministry withdrew his request for a tax audit and began cooperating on his case.
Judicial reform, he said, would improve press freedom in Bulgaria – as well as better EU control over how bloc funds are used.
“When we Bulgarians entered the EU, we didn’t expect the money, but the control of the money. We saw the EU as an institution capable of controlling our corrupt institutions,” he said.
For Popova, Bulgarian journalists have a role to play. There needs to be more solidarity and commitment to ethical standards.
“In Bulgaria, we need strong trade unions. [We do not have] unions capable of protecting the rights of journalists. The Union of Bulgarian Journalists continues to be a nominal post-communist organization,” she said.
According to Marinos, state institutions must act to regulate the media market and prevent the concentration of media companies in the hands of a few large companies.
He also sees increasing the budget of public media as a crucial step to make them more open to diverse opinions and more representative of Bulgarian society.