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AEJ report: Bulgarian media blighted by false news, censorship and political manipulation

AEJ-Bulgaria’s newest survey among the country’s journalists finds a widespread ‘chilling effect’ on their work from targeted smear campaigns, false accusations and other unethical practices. The government, it finds, bears a heavy responsibility for failing sufficiently to protect journalism from political manipulation, conflicts of interest and the allocation of lucrative contracts to media that lack professionalism and serve the partisan interests of those in power. Here is the full AEJ-Bulgaria report:

The level of press freedom in Bulgaria is falling evenlower than in previous years’ ratings by international experts. Bulgaria is ranked 113 in Reporters Without Borders’ 2016 World Press Freedom Index compared to 106 in 2015. This is the lowest position of any member country of the European Union.

 

This trend confirms the outcome of the AEJ-Bulgaria Survey 2015, that showed a specific form of “pressure culture" in the Bulgarian media scene which produces a widespread chilling effect on free speech and leads to high levels of self-censorship. Last year the AEJ Survey highlighted a new and major problem among the various forms of pressure on journalists : the spreading of slander, smears and rumo ur s about individual journalists . That was cited by 40.6% of all respondents.

This year we see significant examples confirming this particular trend:

1. In the summer 2016 Maria Cheresheva, a board member of AEJ-Bulgaria, was widely slanderedin the tabloid press.The website Blitz and the newspaper Weekend cited Maria Cheresheva’s name in a fabricated story, saying falsely that Mohammed Daleel, the suicide bomber who killed himself and injured many others at a music festival in Germany, had been “interviewedand helped’ by her. In fact the journalist never met or did an interview with him, and she has also never worked for the Bulgarian National Television, as was stated in the fabricated accounts.Daleel had been interviewed on Bulgarian National Television, but by a different journalist as publicly said by the BNT. It is a routine occurrence that a substantial number of asylum seekers who cross Bulgaria become an object of attention for the media. 

The named publications also made up fictitious quotations attributed to Maria Cheresheva as if she had been interviewed by these media, which she had not. This technique of inventing quotations about individuals that are liable to damage their reputation has unfortunately become common in parts of the Bulgarian media. It is a symbol of the unscrupulous depths reached by Bulgarian tabloid journalism. The record of MsCheresheva’s work shows that she is a highly professional and dedicated journalist who refuses to have any part in hate driven propaganda.Apart from her journalistic work she is engaged in various forms of humanitarian work, including activities which seek to alleviate the plight of refugees fleeing from war and persecution in their own countries.The calumnies, insults and even alleged crimes that have been attributed to Maria Cheresheva also create a real threat to her security.

Such false allegations are part of a wider attempt by certain malign forces to discredit quality journalism and the credibility of NGOs that are labelled as pro-western. It is a common theme of certain categories of media in Bulgaria to deploy insulting and aggressive language against so-called “foreign agents", the “corrupt West”, and so- called "Soros-oids"**, and other supporters of liberal democracy. This pattern of discrediting so-called liberals also relates to the growth of a deep vein of Euroscepticism in Bulgarian society; although opinion polls show that the majority of Bulgarian people are still pro-European. Such smear campaigns and attempts to manipulate public opinion are routinely used by many sensational and lurid online media that spread fabricated information.

2. The AEJ has identified a number of potential conflicts of interest in the government's contracts with companies and media that have been engaged to communicate the work of the forthcoming Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the European Union. AEJ- Bulgaria is concerned that persons associated with the Minister of culture Vejdi Rashidov and the Deputy Prime Minister Meglena Kuneva are among those who have received public money for such communication work. Thedecision shows that the chosen contractors were four selected media - " Standard" newspaper, " Standart News", agency " Blitz” (the same outlet which we have named as having fabricated false "news" about our colleague Maria Cheresheva) and the agency " Pik". 

This decision about allocation of public funds was made in spite of the fact that the government’s 2014-2018 program announced the goal to create a "public and legislative environment to ensure media independence and pluralism, transparency and publicity of control and ownership of the media." The selected media to receivegovernmental communication money are not signatories of the Ethical code in journalism.Significantly, they have not provided clear information on their websites on the identity of their actual owners. Thirdly, AEJ-Bulgaria has asked the government to say what, if any, research they undertook to check whether or not the selected media demonstrate respect to the universal values adopted by the European Union, including the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU.

We have not yet received an adequate response to our Open Letter. Meanwhile, the government has said that it will review the way in which future contracts decisions are made on allocating public money to private media. This review must be rigorous and it must lead to reforms that result in an open and transparent process of announcing public tenders for relevant contracts and taking decisions without showing any special favor to particular media. The AEJ is concerned that the process used until now is designed to protect the interests of membersof Bulgaria’s political elite through a mechanism of financial support with public money to certain titles of the private tabloid press. This can have the effect of ensuring the protection of members of the ruling coalition from negative coverage by these tabloids, which engage in the publication of fabricated information andslander campaigns.

3. In the summer of 2016 AEJ-Bulgaria protested against a government attempt to put pressure on a National Public TV journalist who was critical of the Ministry of Culture. The Minister concerned, Vejdi Rashidov, sent a letter claiming a "Right of reply" to criticism expressed by several experts in the live morning show of BNT against the government’s policy concerning culturalheritage. He accused the anchor of the program, GeorgyAngelov, of “biting the hand that gives him money to survive", meaning the state. The minister’s response demonstrates, we believe, an attitude and way of thinking that recalls the regime in communist times, which thought that the public media belong to the state and should serve the state’s propaganda needs. The AEJ’s declaration was part of an intense public debate. The BNT continues to stand behind their journalist. The other public broadcaster also supported the freedom of the public media to criticize,and voiced support for the journalist in question. Eventually the minister was forced by the prime minister to apologize.

4. In April 2016 we also witnessed direct censorship done by the biggest private network, Nova broadcasting group, against a political cartoon featuring the Bulgarianprime minister Boyko Borissov. Thecaricature of Chavdar Nikolov disappearedfrom all the websites and his contract with the private Nova TV program was cut after he ridiculed the Bulgarian Prime minister Boyko Borisov as a member of the so-called "Civil squads" created by people with criminal records to "hunt refugees." The cartoon referred to an authentic video recording which showed the capture of migrants in so-called "Citizen's arrests" of unauthorized persons, and the “squad” members tying the hands of migrants with plastic clips. All the copyright cartoons of Chavdar Nikolov on all platforms including his channel on Vbox7 (a video-sharing site on the portfolio of Netinfo) were deleted. 

The AEJ called for an explanation as to whether this act of censorship was result of a pressure from outside. The senior boss of Nova declaredthat there was no external pressureand that he himself did not like the cartoon. Nova TV is owned by the Swiss media mogul MTG. In 2013 it was allowed to acquire the web companies of Darik net, which are connected with the second biggest private Radio network, as well as „Net.info.BG" (acquired from the Finish media group Sanoma)and "Darik news". At the moment when all the cartoons disappeared, MTG also held a large portfolio in a legal affairs portal, a sport news portal, a real estate portal, the video sharing portal 'vbox7', as well as an e-mail portal and some news sites.

5. On 22 of August the Bulgarian Newspaper Zaman, published both in Turkish and Bulgarian, ceased to exist after 24 years of operation both in print and online. Zaman-Bulgaria was not part of Zaman-Turkey, but its editorial team decided, following the forced closure of many media titles and the detention of more than 100 journalists in Turkey, to start a new project.

6. Obstacles to investigativejournalism: in March 2016 the Foundation "Radostina Konstantinova" refused to award the Prize for investigative journalism to the site Bivol.bg despite the decision to do so by a jury of renowned Bulgarian journalists. The articles that were submitted and praised by the jury were investigations into the"Bulgar Tabac - smuggling in the black box" and”Dogan saray - the new summer residence of Ahmed Dogan” (at the Blacksea resort Rosenets). Mr Dogan is the founder and the longtime leader of DPS, a political party which wields considerable influence in the current political landscape.

7. In October 2016 the Chief Prosecutor urged members of the Supreme Judicial Council to refrain from appearances at the media which are “known to be owned by a businessman who is accused by the Prosecutors’ Office”.The occasion was the written opinion of a member of the Supreme Judicial Council, who wascritical of the Chief-Prosecutor, published in the edition, which also criticized the head of the prosecution. The proposal of the Prosecutor violates two fundamental human rights that are supposedly guaranteed by the Constitution and in international treaties to which Bulgaria is a party – namely, the presumption of innocence and the freedom of everyone to express their opinion.

TheChief Prosecutor later withdrew his proposal, explaining that his goal had been achieved. Within the emerging debate he and other council members supported the measure.What happened may be perceived as a signal to the thousands of ordinary magistrates to be careful when contacting the media and to avoid those who criticize the leadership of the prosecution.We believe that such indirect censorship is unacceptable in a democratic state, even more when it comes from a senior official authority.

* The Survey was conducted online among 143 journalists at national level in 2015. 53.8%, admit having been subjected to presure while ex ercising their profession. An even larger number - 72% - say they witnessed colleagues of theirs be ingsubjected to undue pressure. A new leading problem rises among the forms of pressure in 2015 – rumo ur -spreading and slander of journalists - mentionedby 40.6% of all respondents.

** the neologism comes from the name of the philanthropist George Soros, because much of the tabloid media accuse foreign foundations, especially the Open Society Foundations founded by Mr Soros for multiculturalism and the undermining of national traditions.