Close-Up Freedom of the press in Bulgaria – “I would fire you”

Journalists protest against interference in front of the seat of government in Sofia
Photo: AEJ-Bulgaria

Politicians and oligarchs are putting the pressure on journalists in Bulgaria. The country is at the bottom of the Reporters Without Borders list for the EU.

Irina Nedeva has not yet lost her optimism. The radio journalist chairs the Association of European Journalists in Bulgaria (AEJ-Bulgaria). In early October, the AEJ organized protests outside the government headquarters in Sofia. Successfully, according to the 49-year-old, because after all, “This time we managed to unite the journalists.” The social reactions have also been positive.
The cause of the media makers’ expressions of dissatisfaction were verbal attacks by two politicians on the TV journalist Viktor Nikolaev. On his morning show “Hello Bulgaria” on the private channel Nova TV, he had the cheek to ask delegate Anton Todorov of the governing GERB party uncomfortable questions about a planned purchase of jet fighters for the army. “You are using strong words,” Toderov told the moderator, “That can cost you your livelihood,” And, “If I was the head of Nova TV, I would fire you.”
The second guest that morning also became imperious. Addressed about government corruption allegations, Valeri Simeonov threatened the journalist with organising a “Viktor-gate.” Simeonov is vice-premier and member of the right-wing populist United Patriots, who also sit in the government.
While Todorov had to resign from his parliamentary mandate in the meantime, Simeonov continues to let it rip. He accused media that reported about his appearance on Nova of spreading dirty lies and spoke of Stalin-style stigmatisation. Now Simeonov also wants to take the case to the courts.

Place 109 of 180

This type of attempted influence on reporting often ends in self-censorship by journalists and is no exception in Bulgaria. A recent study by AEJ entitled “The Great Comeback of Political Pressure” surveyed 200 journalists. When asked if one of their colleagues had ever been pressured, almost 70 percent said yes and 75 percent of them believe that this pressure comes from politicians.
But it is not just this lack of understanding of democracy that endangers media freedom in Bulgaria. On its ranking of press freedom this year, the non-governmental organisation Reporters Without Borders (RWB) lists the Balkan state on place 109 of 180. This puts Bulgaria at the bottom of the EU.
“Media pluralism in Bulgaria is an illusion,” says Irina Nedeva. In many cases no one even knows who owns a medium. “Many newspapers are used literally as a weapon, like a club, to run smear campaigns against individual politicians or business people,” she says. In addition, certain media, politicians and oligarchs are linked together in a kind of symbolic marriage. In such cases, corruption is always involved.
Delyan Peevski is one example of such a “symbolic marriage.” The 37-year-old oligarch has a seat in Parliament for the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), which mainly represents the interests of the Turkish minority. As the owner of the New Bulgarian Media Group, he owns two TV channels and six newspapers. He controls around 80 percent of the print market.

Completely non-transparent

The government can also exert pressure on the media through its distribution of EU funds. Brussels provides funds to the Member States, for example, for educating the population about certain EU programmes. In the face of financial instability and stagnation in the media market, the state is becoming one of the main advertisers by distributing these funds, as an AEJ paper quotes Nikoleta Daskalova from the Foundation for Media and Democracy. “This increases the influence of ministries and local authorities on both national and regional media. These often show loyalty to those in power by lessening their criticism.”
According to Reporters Without Borders, payments of EU funds to certain media are completely non-transparent. Between 2007 and 2012, the Bulgarian government spent the equivalent of 36.6 million EUR on communication campaigns for EU programmes without citing details of how the funds were used. Brussels is aware of the problem, but holds itself back – an attitude that Irina Nedeva criticises. “The EU could do more and should not allow funds to be distributed among the various media players in this way,” she says.

Irina Nedeva, AEJ-Bulgaria: “Media pluralism in Bulgaria is an illusion”

Due to the modest restraint of the European partners, several Bulgarian journalists’ organisations – including AEJ – have now taken the initiative. The occasion is the six-month presidency of the Council, which Bulgaria will take over on 1 January 2018 for the first time since joining the EU ten years ago. The journalists’ proposal: set qualitative and quantitative criteria for how media partners are selected for EU communication concerns during the Bulgarian Council Presidency. The aim is also to counteract the creation of political dependencies.

A general trend

Whether this catalogue comes to be – and whether the government and local authorities will stick to it – has yet to be seen. Nevertheless, Irina Nedeva does not want to paint a completely black picture. Controlling the media and replacing journalists at will is a general trend, she says. However, unlike in Hungary and Poland, there is presently no risk in Bulgaria of a government receiving a two-thirds majority in elections and then being able to amend the constitution accordingly. For this, the political landscape is too fragmented.
Does she expect more scandals like the recent one on Nova TV? “Yes,” says Nedeva. “But a lot will depend on how much we journalists allow politicians to dictate the rules to us.” After all, more and more journalists are realising that they need to distance themselves from the people in power. “And that’s really a positive sign,” says Nedeva.