How Bulgaria has hit rock bottom on press freedom | Freedom of press

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 the government of then Prime Minister Boyko Borisov when a few individuals started throwing projectiles at the police, who responded with pepper spray and batons.

In the ensuing violence, Kenarov, who then put on a gas mask marked “Press”, was pulled to the ground by police officers, repeatedly kicked in the face and handcuffed. that he insisted that he was a journalist and that he showed them his press card.

He was eventually taken to the police station and released a few hours later.

In the weeks that followed, 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 it tried to take the case to court, the prosecution blocked the process, while the Interior Ministry asked the National Revenue Agency to verify its tax and social security payments.

The episode sparked international condemnation from organizations including Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which took the case into account when preparing its latest Press Freedom Index published in April.

It ranks Bulgaria 112th in the world, third among European countries, after Russia (150) and Belarus (158).

Bulgaria ranked 112th in latest Reporters Without Borders press freedom ranking [File: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP]

According to journalists and academics interviewed by Al Jazeera, press freedom in Bulgaria has declined dramatically over the past two decades, not only because of the country’s democratic retreat, but also because the media is grappling with a growing corruption and financial difficulties.

However, it is hoped that the ongoing political changes could improve the situation in the near future.

“The EU has increased corruption”

When RSF started publishing its press freedom index in 2002, Bulgaria, then a candidate for EU membership, ranked 38th.

Five years later, when he 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 fought for press freedom, other Eastern European states that joined in the 2000s are facing similar challenges.

Pavol Szalai, head of RSF’s Balkans office, told Al Jazeera that press freedom in Bulgaria is affected by regressive trends in 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 are better ranked, in Bulgaria we have observed frequent physical attacks against journalists,” he said. declared.

Meanwhile, the space for independent media is increasingly shrinking, and the judiciary pursues journalists instead of protecting them.

According to Kenarov, however, violence against media workers is not that widespread in Bulgaria.

“I cannot say that in Bulgaria they beat more than in others [European] country, ”he said, adding that he viewed his own case of police-led assault as an exception.

He believes those in power are arming state institutions to quell criticism.

Central and local authorities are able to exercise control over the media to lessen their control over 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 have been allocated to 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 income for large and small media. .

“The EU has dramatically increased corruption in Bulgaria,” Kenarov said. “By giving this uncontrolled money to the Bulgarian government, in all sectors, not just the media, they created Borisov and helped him set up his patronage network.”

“Media monopoly”

During Borisov’s three terms as Prime Minister since 2009, Bulgaria has witnessed the sale of major national media outlets to businessmen considered close to him.

In 2019, businessmen Kiril Domuschiev and Georgi Domuschiev acquired Nova TV, one of the three national TV channels.

Subsequently, several investigative journalists employed by the 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 of EU funds on media advertising, the largest share of which – $ 1.3 million. dollars – had gone to Nova TV.

Borisov has also been accused of shielding from corruption investigations Delyan Peevski, a media mogul and former member of Parliament from the Movement for Rights and Freedoms.

During Borisov’s three terms as Prime Minister since 2009, Bulgaria has witnessed the sale of major national media outlets to businessmen considered close to him. [File: Ludovic Marin/Pool via Reuters]

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 return for protection from criminal investigations.”

“A group of oligarchs, mainly Peevski […] established the media monopoly, ”Venelina Popova, an investigative journalist who worked for Bulgarian National Radio for 30 years, told Al Jazeera.

“The mainstream media has gone through different business owners, most of whom have sought to have a close relationship with the power so as not to have any problems and to receive advertising money.”

Peevski is believed to have up to 80 percent of the print media distribution market and has been accused of using outlets he owns to smear opponents and critics.

Popova said that last year, after investigating Peevski’s donations to public hospitals at the start of the pandemic, she was called a “propagandist” and “pawn” in her media. The Bulgarian branch of the European Association of Journalists (AEJ) issued a declaration of solidarity with it.

The 2008 financial crisis

The negative global industry trends have also affected the Bulgarian media landscape.

According to Martin Marinos, media scholar and assistant professor at Pennsylvania State University, the tabloidization of the Bulgarian media began in the late 1990s and early 2000s with the arrival of foreign media companies, such as News Corp of Rupert Murdoch and WAZ in Germany.

“These companies, as much as they talk about democracy and civilization, they turn the media into tabloids and care little about journalism,” he said.

This company buyout subsequently enabled the Bulgarian oligarchs to buy out media outlets, 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.

Until the 2010s, media workers shared stories of underpaid work and repeated job losses.

Along with significant deregulation and lack of control over state institutions, the crisis has also allowed a few large companies to take control of the media market, Marinos said.

“There’s no way things are going to be right 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 the Corporate Commercial Bank (CCB), now bankrupt: “I visited TV7 [in 2016]. Half of the building was TV7, the other half was the [CCB] Bank. You walk down the hall and meet people you don’t know if they are journalists or bankers.

The internet and social media, along with Big Tech’s effect 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 economic model of the media. The role of print media has shrunk dramatically, other types of media have lost a lot of revenue and, in general, journalism has lost a lot of space to social media, ”Ivan Radev, member of the Social Media, told Al Jazeera. board of the Bulgarian branch of the AEJ.

It devastated the small media.

Journalists were once again precarious 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 professionals in total.

“No quick and easy solution”

Despite the challenges, Al Jazeera reporters interviewed expressed optimism for the future.

Much of their hope is linked to Borisov’s resignation in May after his GERB party and coalition partners failed to receive enough votes in the April elections 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 as there was a growing perception of state capture.”

In his view, journalism in Bulgaria would benefit from judicial reform, which would increase the accountability of those who misuse public funds.

Politicians, he added, should change their attitude towards greater respect for the independence of the media.

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 tax audit request and began to cooperate on his case.

In his view, judicial reform would improve press freedom in Bulgaria – as well as greater EU control over how bloc funds are used.

“When we Bulgarians entered the EU our hope was not for money, but for control over money. We saw the EU as an institution capable of controlling our corrupt institutions, ”he said.

Although domestic politics have played an important role in the deterioration of press freedom in Bulgaria, the Bulgarian media landscape has also been affected by negative global trends in the industry. [File: Denislav Stoychev/NurPhoto via Getty Images]

For Popova, Bulgarian journalists have a role to play. There needs to be greater solidarity and a greater commitment to ethical standards.

“In Bulgaria, we need strong unions. [We do not have] unions that can protect the rights of journalists. The Bulgarian Journalists Union continues to be just 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 considers that the increase in the budget of the public media is a crucial step to make them more open to diverse opinions and more representative of Bulgarian society.

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