AEJ – BULGARIA REPORT ON THE STATE OF JOURNALISM AND FREEDOM OF SPEECH IN 2017
AEJ-Bulgaria’s annual report on the media and free expression in Bulgaria in 2017 says many media are suffering from the tightening grip of a national ‘culture of pressure’ against their editorial independence. The consequences include numerous violent attacks, widespread self-censorship and a collapse in public trust in media content generally.
The general trend is negative. Bulgaria ranks 109th out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders’ 2017 World Press Freedom Index, with the country expected to go further down the list in the next edition of the ranking. Alpha Research sociological agency indicates that more than 65% of Bulgarians do not trust the media.
The “Culture of Pressure” on the Bulgarian media is on the rise. http://www.aej-bulgaria.org/eng/p.php?post=2637&c=288
Every two years since 2011 AEJ-Bulgaria has conducted a Survey* on the state of Bulgarian media and the nature of undue pressures on them. The pressures are reported in the Survey anonymously by the journalists themselves.
· Ongoing tendencies of control and restrictions on media pluralism were evident from the last two surveys on freedom of speech in Bulgaria, in 2015 and in 2017.
· In 2015 the main sources of pressure were the media owners and the advertisers. Pressures through the marketing departments on the editorial content were greatest in the private media.
· In 2017 the survey shows a resurgence of political pressure.
· 26 % of journalists admit that they self-censor their articles and the owners are restricting criticism toward the government or VIPs.
The general picture: In Bulgaria there are many media print outlets and TV and radio stations, formally the legislation is good and there are constitutional guarantees for freedom of speech. However few critical and serious journalistic investigations dare to touch powerful people and structures. Important questions about who really owns the media and who is behind the nominal owners remain murky.
The owners of media that criticise the government suffer the highest risks of administrative harassment or actual legal charges.
Many media that attack the activities of civil society and praise the government also receive financial support from the government through funds granted to support the communication of EU projects. Thus the authorities buy media comfort.
During 2017 we saw a PARADOX: private TV and radio channels are less independent than public ones
The public media – BNT (Bulgarian National Television) and BNR (Bulgarian National Radio) were relatively more free and open to critical journalism than the private channels.
One of the biggest cases in the last 2 years was the disappearance of the political cartoons made by Tchavdar Nikolov for the Nova TV (private TV) in 2016. The channel is in the portfolio of a major media group that owns many online media, and the cartoons of Tchavdar Nikolov disappeared from all the platforms at once after a particularly sharp political cartoon of the prime-minister.
Bulgarian National TV -Public media: At the beginning of 2018 a new program director was appointed: Emil Koshlukov. He tried to change the editorial content of the second morning Talk show “The day starts with culture”. The incident demonstrates a mindset that is far removed from a democratic understanding of the mission of public media and reminds some previous events like the one that happened in July 2016 when the minister of culture Vejdi Rashidov warned the anchor of the show on BNT, Georgy Angelov, that he pays his salary, saying: “do not bite the hand that feeds you” (which was taken to mean that the state pays for the news.). The AEJ reacted: http://aej-bulgaria.org/bul/p.php?post=7516
MAJOR MEDIA PROBLEMS MONITORED BY AEJ IN 2017
Physical Attacks against journalists:
2 July 2017 – the cameraman Peter Dzhanavarov was hit by a nationalistic “hero” Petar Nizamov-known as Perata, while the cameraman with bTV (a big private TV station) was filming a protest in the town of Asenovgrad. Nizamov received considerable media attention through his aggression toward refugees even on bTV itself. http://www.aej-bulgaria.org/eng/p.php?post=2523&c=perata
26 July 2017 – The famous TV anchor Ivo Nikodimov (Bulgarian National Television BNT, Channel 1) was attacked by three people in a central park in Sofia. The attackers escaped. Although the reasons for the attack remain unknown, it is extremely alarming that a prominent TV journalist can be subjected to aggression in broad daylight.
4 October 2017, The Zornitsa Akmanova case (a reporter for the TV programme Lords of the Air). Her car was set on fire in the central Bulgarian town of Karlovo. On the following day, the owner of a car garage in Karlovo, Plamen Dimitrov, was arrested in connection with the attack on Akmanova’s car. On 9 October, Dimitrov was released on bail after being charged with a single act of fraud against a client. No charges have been brought in connection with the burning of Akmanova’s car or the threats she says she has received.The Council of Europe’s online Platform for the Safety of Journalists www.coe.int/fom noted that the attack on Akmanova’s car was the third case in 2017 of threats or violence against reporters for Lords of the Air. In July 2017, Dimitar Varbanov said he had received threats in relation to his investigation of dangerous working conditions at a construction site in the town of Veliko Tarnovo. In the spring 2017, his colleague Eva Veselinova was physically assaulted while filming an investigation into alleged fraudulent practices on the part of a construction company in the town of Pazardzhik. http://www.aej-bulgaria.org/eng/p.php?post=2592&c=283
December 2017 – the editor-in-chief Maria Dimitrova and Georgy Ezikiev, the publisher of the regional online media Zov News in Vratza, received several death threats after an investigation into a drug trafficking network connected with a money loans company in the town. https://rsf.org/en/news/death-threat-bulgarian-news-website-publisher
AEJ-International President Otmar Lahodynsky met the chief officer of the Bulgarian Directorate for Combating Organized Crime in Sofia to press for journalists to be protected against physical attacks.
Verbal attacks against jornalists by politicians and public figures:
August 2017 – Nikolay Barekov, Bulgarian politician and MEP (ECFR Group), wrote on his Facebook profile that he had summoned the state’s General Prosecutor to investigate alleged “corrupt practices, hiding income and money laundering through purchases of luxurious property” by NOVA TV’s host Anna Tsolova. He added he is preparing similar claims against BTV’s host Anton Hekimyan, his producer Anna Todorova and Victor Nikolaev – co-host of NOVA’s morning political show with Tsolova. The name of Barekov himslef has been mentioned in published articles on hiding taxes and plundering millions of leva from the Corporate Commercial Bank, or CCB, which collapsed in 2014. According to findings of the State Revenue Agency of Bulgaria, he himself had not filed his tax declarations for several years. http://www.aej-bulgaria.org/eng/p.php?post=2552&c=barekov
The AEJ-Bulgaria issued a statement calling for politicians to cease threatening journalists: http://www.aej-bulgaria.org/eng/p.php?post=2552&c=146&d=2017-08-15%2016:43:13&n=mep-nikolay-barekov-blames-journalists-for-his-own-sins
Mr Barekov responded with a direct attack calling the AEJ “paid urinals [in Bulgarian jargon equivalent of “bootlicker” or “lackey”], ”
The AEJ-International reacted against the MEP’s crude outburst here https://aej.org/page.asp?p_id=600 and sent a letter asking the President of European Parliament to use his good offices to intervene, but the official response from his office was not encouraging. More articles: http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/bulgarian-mep-under-fire-for-attacking-journalists-08-15-2017
September 2017 – the TV anchor Anna Tzolova disappeared from her prime-time morning show.The official explanation was that she is preparing a lifestyle talk show. She is still off air.
October 2017 – Viktor Nikolaev, the co-host of the morning talk show of Nova Television, received a direct threat on air on October 5 from Anton Todorov, a Member of the Parliament from the ruling party GERB and a deputy chair of the parliamentary commission for anti-corruption. The MP directly linked the departure of the woman anchor Anna Tzolova with the probing questions she had asked, and said that Viktor might follow the same path and his chair could also become empty.
In the same broadcast Mr. Valeri Simeonov, a deputy prime minister for economic and demographic policy and a co-chairman of the United Patriots coalition, continued the line drawn by Anton Todorov. On air he told Viktor Nikolaev that it is easy to arrange any kind of “gate” (exit) against anybody. Later he told journalists that he was using an “analogy” and he didn’t mean to threaten the journalist.
On 11 of October AEJ-Bulgaria organized a protest in support of journalists asking tough questions to politicians and the MP Anton Todorov resigned. More here: http://www.aej-bulgaria.org/eng/p.php?post=2577&c=283
Bulgarian language link: http://www.aej-bulgaria.org/bul/p.php?post=8691&c=150&d=2017-10-09%2010:35:40&n=8691
Legal pressure within state institutions against owners of media outlets critical of the ruling coalition and the government:
December 2017 – The Commission for the Seizure of Illegally Acquired Property (KONPI) opened a case and blocked some properties of the owner of Economedia Ivo Prokopiev. Although the attack was not directly aimed at Economedia but at its majority owner, it may be supposed that KONPI’s actions were provoked by articles published by outlets belonging to the media group that are critical of the political status quo and known for in-depth investigations of the wrongdoings of officials.
Summer 2017 – Further evidence of undue pressures on media emerged in the summer of 2017 when Mr. Sasho Donchev, the owner of the Sega newspaper, another media critical of the government, said that Sotir Tsatsarov, the chief prosecutor of Bulgaria, had “advised” him not to risk his “nice business”. http://www.aej-bulgaria.org/eng/p.php?post=2613&c=283
* LINK TO AEJ-Bulgaria survey in Bulgarian