Enemies of media freedom on the rise in Bulgaria, AEJ report finds
An in-depth-ranging Report by AEJ-Bulgaria analyses the retreat of media freedom in the spheres of politics, business and society. Its troubling conclusion is that a repressive regulatory media environment and fierce campaigns to discredit investigative journalism strengthened the grip of the enemies of independent media in Bulgaria in 2018. Here is the Annual Report for 2018 in full:
The media situation in Bulgaria 2018: an inexorable decline
By the Association of European Journalists – Bulgaria, published on December 5, 2018
2018 started with an absurd case of a Court sentence against two regional media outlets in the city of Burgas, in which the media quoted press releases issued by the regional offices of the Ministry of Interior and Prosecutors office, and the end of the year saw the brutal murder of Viktoria Marinova, a 30 year old TV presenter in the city of Russe. The media scene 2018 in Bulgaria will be remembered for that murder, which in itself may or may not have had direct link to her TV work and to the oppressive climate for freedom of speech in Bulgaria. Our own analysis of Viktoria’s murder, published in November 2018, is on the AEJ-Bulgaria website (so far only available in Bulgarian)
General picture: Media freedom in a constant decline
Bulgarian media freedom continues to experience a serious decline: from 35th position in the press freedom ranking of Reporters without Borders in 2006, the year prior to Bulgaria’s EU accession, in 2018 the country was ranked in 111th place, the lowest of all European member states, and also the lowest of all Western Balkan countries, the majority of which still have a long way to go before joining the EU.
The European Commission has also taken note of this alarming process. In its latest report under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) that oversees the country’s “progress” in combating corruption, organized crime and judicial reform, published in November 2018, the Commission put a special focus on Bulgaria’s troubled media environment.
According to the report, “the Bulgarian media sector is characterized by opaque ownership and poor implementation of journalistic standards”. Media smear campaigns against rival media outlets; attacks on many journalistic and civic voices that criticize the government; blaming independent journalists (including some members of AEJ-Bulgaria, specifically the chairperson and members of the Board) as foreign agents or “Soros-oids” continued in 2018. Equipped with the tool of what they like to call “The Fight with the Fake news”, politicians from the ruling centre-right wing coalition (GERB and United patriots) and the editorial lines of some of the biggest print media outlets continued to target “enemies” of the national interests and to spread disinformation on crucial issues.
The mockery and disgrace of Infotainment
Late September 2018 – Dimitar Varbanov, a correspondent of the show “Lords of the Air” (on Nova TV, a popular private TV with nation-wide coverage) in Veliko Tarnovo was reported to have been severely beaten by three people for his investigation into a warehouse offering products for sale after their ‘sell-by’ date. The programme broadcast the video, shot by their own cameramen, of the supposedly “beaten” journalist being transported by police to the emergency ward of a local hospital. But a few days later the whole story was turned upside down, because the police showed the actual video footage of CCTV cameras at the scene. It was obvious that he was indeed pushed out from the warehouse by guards but then he enacted an elaborate hoax by pretending that he was critically hurt and apparently close to dying in front of his cameramen. The shots were staged and filmed in close up in order to produce the most dramatic and shocking pictures of a journalist suffering for his brave work.
The backlash was swift and extremely damaging for the whole media environment in Bulgaria. The message this case gave out was that to say you are a journalist was to admit “you are a liar”. The TV station fired the reporter to try to save its reputation. But in reality the case exposed the deeply dark side of a growing genre of what has been called “Infotainment”. The journalist tried cynically to make his report more sensational and newsworthy for his news editors. Many groups that detest or fear serious and investigative journalism (including politicians from the far right, the far left, the centre right and left, and an array of murky businessmen, corrupt officials and government spokespersons) were able to gloat and declare a victory over the media in general as “liars” and as “fake news”
Disinformation campaigns undermined ratification of the Council of Europe Convention on violence against women
Another shocking episode of media disinformation occurred between December 2017 and the start of 2018, when for three weeks the Council of Europe’s Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence became the target of fierce anti-EU propaganda. As a result Bulgaria failed to ratify the document, a massive campaign of political pressure turned public opinion strongly against the Convention, and it was even declared anti-constitutional by the Constitutional Court.
Safety of journalists
Although in terms of legislation, Bulgaria adheres to the basic standards for protection of the freedom of expression according to the relevant international legal frameworks and freedom of expression is enshrined in the Constitution, new laws introduced into the Penal Code and the Radio and Television Act, 2018, showed the lack of substance in some of those protections. In fact, Bulgarian journalists face significant risks to their person safety and security. .
In September 2018 Dimitar Stoyanov from the Bulgarian site Bivol and Attila Biro from the Romanian Rise Project were detained by police over a case which they themselves had brought to the attention of the Interior Ministry. The case showed worrying deficits in the ministry’s procedures when in dealing with the media. Law enforcement authorities generally show little if any awareness of the rights of journalists, and in this case they actually sought to arrest the two journalists after they had come forward to report a possible crime. The two men were only released after several hours after the intervention of a foreign diplomat from the Romanian Consulate.
The case made headlines in Romania, and the next day it was even reported in the New York Times and Washington Post.
The story illustrated the fact that Bulgaria has so far neglected to apply basic protections to the work of journalists. It appears that no specific measures have yet been taken to raise awareness among law enforcement officials concerning international human rights and humanitarian law obligations and commitments relating to the safety of journalists. Monitoring and reporting on attacks by journalists is predominantly done by local and international non-governmental and governmental organizations – like the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, the Association of European Journalists, Reporters without Borders, the US Department of State, and the Council of Europe.
Viktoria Marinova murder
Victoria Marinova was a 30-year old journalist, TV host and administrative director of TVN, a local TV station in the town of Ruse. A mother of a 7-year-old girl, Marinova worked in the media for several years as a lifestyle and current affairs reporter and was until last year married to Svilen Maximov, the owner of TVN and co-owner of the largest cable TV and broadband Internet provider in the city, Networx.. Two weeks before the tragic events that unfolded around noon on Saturday, 6 October, she hosted the first and what would turn out to be her last episode of Detector, a new TVN program. She introduced an interview with the same two investigative journalists — Attila Biro of the ‘Rise Project Romania’ and Dimitar Stoyanov of Bivol Bulgaria about their recent investigation into “GP Gate”. Both of them were arrested a month ago while they were investigating the destruction of documents that implicated the Infrastructure Company GP GROUP in manipulating funds obtained through EU tenders. The person who conducted the interview was not Marinova herself but her colleague Ivan Stefanov. Marinova delivered the message at the end of the 45-minute interview with the following lines: “The government and the corporate world are strongly pressuring the media owners and the media themselves. The number of forbidden topics is growing all the time. Investigative journalists are being systematically removed”, adding that her programme would provide a forum to investigative journalists and engage in its own investigations in future.
The crime and capture of the assailant
According to the latest available police reports, Victoria Marinova was sexually assaulted and killed while jogging alongside the Ruse Danube River bank close to the city’s largest park. The closest CCTV recorded pictures of her alleged assailant, later identified as 21-year-old Severin Krasimirov, who was said to have been under heavy influence of drugs and alcohol at the time of the attack After a DNA test the Bulgarian police issued an arrest warrant and on 9 October, two days and a half after the crime, Severin Krasimirov was arrested by German police at his mother’s house in the town of Celle in Lower Saxony.
Reactions and internationalization of the case
When the news first broke AEJ-Bulgaria called for caution and declared that all possible motives for the murder should be taken into consideration, including any potential link with her work as a journalist. We explicitly advised against jumping to any conclusion about such a link before the facts of the case had become clear.
As the news concerned the violent death of a journalist, however, it was hardly surprisingly that there were many expressions of shock, and the murder attracted the attention of international media and of organisations concerned with press freedom.
The tragic case highlighted legitimate concerns about the deep-seated problems of the Bulgarian media environment, EU funds-related corruption and widespread mistrust in Bulgarian public institutions. Yet it should be noted that much of the reporting in foreign media was itself based on the false assumption that Marinova was a true investigative journalist. That story conveniently fit a larger European narrative about the increase in serious attacks against the free press, including the recent murders of two other investigative journalists – in Malta and in Slovakia – but it was in large part a misleading description of her working career.
Backlash affecting media freedom
Thanks to that unfortunate lack of caution in much of the international coverage, Bulgaria’s Prime Minister and other members of the government were able to exploit the over-hasty international reactions and the early indications from the investigation – which failed to prove any links between Marinova brutal murder and her work – to promote a backlash against the media in general. The government portrayed itself and the country itself as victims of a fake news campaign from the West. In the late autumn of 2018 one of the minor coalition partners in the government, the nationalist VMRO, talked about proposing a new law against fake news. The proposal has not in fact been presented yet, but there is a risk that the public’s suspicions concerning media manipulation of fake news might create the conditions for new government controls on media freedom.
The Public media in Bulgaria – Two contrasting examples
Bulgarian National Public Radio
The most critical voices towards the government could be heard on the radio. That could be a factor behind the fact that successive Bulgarian governments have drastically slashed the budget for national public radio year by year. That budget still comes from the state due to the lack of political will until now to introduce a license fee system. Even so, the Radio has maintained the high level of editorial independence that is guaranteed by the Law, and a good quality of journalism serving the whole of society continues to be practised there. However, in the past 5 years or more no Bulgarian prime minister has ever agreed to be questioned by a journalist of the national radio service.
Concerns over Bulgarian National Television
Politicians love the TV and think that “The TV killed the Radio star”, so they are always eager to appear on TV screens. Unfortunately this dominance of TV also means that the content of television news and programmes are highly politicised.
The beginning of the year 2018 was overshadowed by some changes in the top management of Bulgarian National Television (The Public Television), which brought a new push for Infotainment and maximum ratings, and intense political pressures against some programmes and individual journalists that were critical of the policies of the government or the ruling coalition.
In March 2018, when the leader of the Parliamentary coalition partner in the government, Volen Siderov from “Ataka” took part as a guest on the TV show “More from the Day”, he allowed himself to overstep the line of acceptability in a series of aggressive comments towards journalist Goran Blagoev. He even appeared to hint that Blagoev was unfit to continue to host his own regular talk-show “Faith and Society”. Unfortunately, many journalists considered that the reaction of the anchor of the live program, Emil Koshlukov, who was also the new programme director of BNT1, was inadequate. Emil Kishlukov, who had invited Mr Siderov into the studio, was widely thought to have failed to defend his colleague from heavy political pressure on a live and popular TV show. The case had much in common with an earlier episode in autumn 2017, when the vice prime-minister and Member of Parliament of the ruling party, Valeri Simeonov, together with another MP, Anton Todorov, used threatening language against another TV journalist of the private Nova TV, Viktor Nikolaev. Both those politicians used their positions to suggest that his role and his employment might depend on whether or not he asked tough questions to politicians. This led to the biggest journalistic protest that AEJ-Bulgaria organized in October 2017. These episodes raise serious issues of conflict of interest, and demonstrate how vulnerable journalists in Bulgaria are to overt political pressure. It is significant that the relationship between the journalist-turned-politician Volen Siderov and the former politician and current Program director of BNT Emil Koshlukov has a long history. Mr Koshlukov once worked for Ataka party’s own television channel.
Another prominent Bulgarian National TV journalist, Maria Cherneva, was publicly humiliated in June 2018 by the management of the BNT and removed from her specialist role reporting on the health system, following an outside criticism made against her over her activities as a member in the Public Council of the Fund for the Treatment of Children Abroad. She was widely recognised as one of the best reporters in the field of health reporting in Bulgaria, who had exposed wrongdoing and corruption inside the system. Athough she was not formally dismissed, she resigned a few months later.
Economical and financial pressure and “precarite”
Three journalist colleagues who left the Standard newspaper complained that its chief editor, Slavka Bozukova, had systematically failed to pay their salaries. AEJ – Bulgaria has repeatedly warned of the difficult social conditions in which journalists in Bulgaria have to work.
Unfortunately, such practices are increasingly becoming normal. Governments allow themselves to place their political interests above media pluralism and the public interest. The dubious relationship between the government and a variety of media owners has led to a deep distortion of the market. The “friendly” media are favored and gain access to public funds, and in return they carry out the wishes of those in power in dealing with their rivals and opponents. Thus publications which criticise the ruling political forces and executive power are placed under severe pressure, and various instruments are used to marginalize or control those media who dare to work as watchdogs on behalf of the public. Pressure is also put on their publishers, with suggestions that their businesses may suffer. Also, state agencies such as the Financial Supervision Commission and the Commission for the Withdrawal of Illegally Acquired Property continue to act in partisan ways, limiting the diversity of media ownership and control.
The economic precarity in which Bulgarian journalists work leads to the outflow of many capable people from the profession and seriously affects the quality of the media environment and hence the quality of democracy and the standard of living of Bulgarians.
Media attacks against journalists – Media and Info wars
In 2018 the main threats came not only from politicians and businessmen but also from the printed press, in the form of articles against journalistic voices in other media.
For example, an article published at the end of July 2018 by the newspapers Telegraph and Monitor, called on bTV (private TV with national coverage) to be “cleansed” of journalists like Svetoslav Ivanov, who is the host of a high ratings Sunday weekly political talk show. The attack on Ivanov came in response to his questions to American businessman Yariv Lerner, executive director of New Boyana Company, on his intention to acquire part of the publishing business of MP Delyan Peevsky, who was the publisher of the newspapers Monitor and the Telegraph at that time. Such verbal attacks can be perceived as a direct threat to the journalist as well as an attempt to put a pressure on the management of the private television.
New legislation concerning transparency in Ownership
Ironically, in 2018, Delyan Peevski, an MP and media mogul who was named by RSF as one of the symbols of “Bulgaria’s corrupt media environment” together with other MPs from his party, proposed legislative changes aimed at making the media ownership and funding channels more transparent. The legal changes were adopted without much public debate in November 2018, and while they offer potential improvements, such as a requirement for the media to reveal all their public and private sources of funding, they also hide certain risks. Particularly problematic is the requirement for media to reveal all their sponsors, including minor donations from citizens who might not wish their identities to be revealed due to fears of state or political party reprisals. In addition, there are doubts that the Ministry of Culture, empowered to oversee and regulate the media transparency, has the capacity for fulfill its role.
AEJ – Bulgaria actions of International solidarity and concerns
On 26 of March 2018 AEJ took an action in solidarity with the many detained journalists in Turkish prisons, by issuing symbolic “accreditations” for 95 imprisoned Turkish journalists to the EU-Turkey summit in Varna.. The idea was to show that they have the right to be there and do their job – to ask politicians hard questions and hold them responsible for the commitments they have made to their society. We also invited journalists attending the meeting to wear symbolic badges with names and pictures of their Turkish counterparts, and to speak on their behalf.
AEJ was extremely alarmed by the murder of Jan Kuciak, and we expressed our solidarity with the investigative reporters in Slovakia as well as with our Romanian colleagues who were beaten during the protests in August of 2018.