‘They will leave me jobless.’ Why declining press freedom in Bulgaria should worry us all

‘They will leave me jobless.’ Why declining press freedom in Bulgaria should worry us all

Press freedom in Bulgaria has nosedived over the last 10 years. Is its decline a warning of challenges to come across Europe as a whole?

18 June 2020

When Ivan Bedrov joined Radio Free Europe (RFE/RL) in Bulgaria in the 1990s, the station was celebrating victory. The organisation had both an office and transmitters in the heart of Sofia. Listeners were no longer forced to spend hours in their kitchens tuning into the station’s US-sponsored broadcasts. Instead, RFE/RL had a new task: to promote and establish a free and independent press in the rocky years that followed the fall of the Iron Curtain. Instead of sending bulletins from Munich, local journalists took to the streets.

For a time, Bulgaria’s independent media market was flourishing. Bulgaria joined NATO in 2004 and the European Union in 2007, despite disbelief a decade earlier when then-Prime Minister Ivan Kostov declared that Bulgaria would join the block in the next 10 years. In 2004, RFE/RL packed up its Bulgarian operation after 54 years, and prepared to concentrate resources elsewhere. The country’s media no longer seemed to need their helping hand. But it wasn’t the fairytale ending that many had hoped for.

Press freedom in Bulgaria has nosedived over the last 10 years. In Europe, only Belarus and Russia score lower.

In 2020, Bedrov is back working for RFE/RL. He is currently based in Prague, but leading a close-knit team of seven reporters in Sofia. The outlet restarted operations in June 2019: largely due to reports that the country’s media freedom was once more under threat. “When we left Bulgaria in 2004, the dominant opinion was that communism had collapsed, the West had won, freedom would inevitably come, and media freedom as well,” RFE/RL Editor in Chief Nenad Pejic said at the new service’s opening ceremony. “As we see today, this is not the case in many countries.”

The erosion of media freedom in Bulgaria plays out differently to scenes in Minsk and Moscow for example; life for journalists in Bulgaria is not punctuated with the same level of violence or arrests. While some assaults do happen — investigative reporter Genka Shikerova saw her vehicle set on fire twice, while Slavi Angelov, editor-in-chief of the 168 Hours newspaper was attacked by three men in March this year — many journalists say that they feel physically secure. “For me personally, I do feel protected,” says Ivaylo Dernev, a veteran journalist who set up Plovdiv-based news outlet Pod Tepeto. “Our team has received threats in the past, we’ve been subject to pressure, but we have coped. And we move forward.”

The Bulgarian capital of Sofia. Image: Christopher Rusev/Unsplash

Press freedom in Bulgaria has nosedived over the last 10 years. In 2010, Reporters without Borders ranked the country as 70th out of 178 in its annual World Media Freedom rankings. In 2020, that position fell to 111th out of 180 countries. The country trails behind the rest of the EU — Romania was ranked in 48th, while Poland and Hungary were ranked 62nd and 89th respectively. In Europe, only Belarus and Russia score lower.

At the heart of much of this pressure is money. (“Nobody is going to arrest me if I do journalism in Bulgaria,” says Bedrov, “but what they will do is leave me jobless”). The Bulgarian media market has largely followed the devastating trends of global media: continued cuts to jobs as a result of financial losses, pressure to produce clickbait-friendly content to meet advertising expectations, and difficulty turning free web content into paid subscriptions.

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“The biggest problem in the journalism sector is economic,” says Dernev. “It’s becoming more and more difficult for the media to survive with the standard way of doing things, which is attracting advertisement. Our team is very small — just six people, and some external contributing authors. This is all we can afford.”

This dearth of revenue has struck two devastating blows to the Bulgarian press. As foreign and Bulgarian companies have pulled away from the media market, either closing down their outlets or selling them on, the Bulgarian press has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of one man, Delyan Peevski. Reporters Without Borders believes that Peevski controls roughly 80 per cent of Bulgaria’s media market, as well as a large portion of print media distribution in the form of newspaper kiosks. Peevski is also a member of parliament for the Movement for Rights and Freedoms — which currently holds 25 seats out of 250 in Bulgaria’s National Assembly — but is known for close ties to a number of politicians and oligarchs, including current Prime Minister Boyko Borrisov.

Reporters Without Borders are so concerned by Peevski’s influence that they dedicated an entire chapter to the mogul in their 2018 white paper on Bulgarian media freedom.

In it, they described the companies controlled by Peevski as “not operating based on the market principle, but relies on artificial support, so as to be able to defend the behind-the- scenes interests of their owners.”

A street in Sofia. Image: Svetlozar Apostolov/Unsplash

Peevski’s newspapers have particularly been known to unleash brutal smear campaigns, with independent journalists also drawing their ire. Dernev also spoke about vicious newspaper attacks, although he did not mention Peevski’s publications specifically.

“Certain media are as weapons against those who are an inconvenience for the state,” he says. “They have been particularly strong in the last couple of years. Sometimes, after a media campaign of particularly suspicious authenticity, full of titles like ‘scandalous’ and ‘exclusive,’ some judicial pressure will also appear against people that are obviously inconvenient for the authorities. I have been a victim of such pressures, with defamatory publications made about me.”

The disappearance of private advertising has also made the news media particularly dependent on government money to stay afloat.

The disappearance of private advertising has also made the news media particularly dependent on government money to stay afloat. Usually this takes the form of government departments or ministries buying ad space in order to promote new initiatives or programmes. This process, however, is far from transparent. “Bulgaria receives EU money. And in all those EU programmes there is publicity money, but it is the Bulgarian government, who decides how to distribute this money,” says Bedrov. “If you are receiving this money, you are careful not to make [the government] angry.”

The lack of revenue that devastated the Bulgarian media market is by no means a regional phenomenon. But if a similar decline in media revenues is being felt across the globe, then why is the Bulgarian market — and Bulgarian press freedom — struggling so much more than its neighbours, who are often facing similar challenges?

To a certain extent, it’s because Bulgaria has a smaller and less lucrative market than others in the former Eastern Bloc. Bulgaria has a population of just over 7 million, compared to 38 million in Poland and 21 million in Romania. Bulgarian companies and consumers also have less buying power than their Western counterparts, meaning less paid advertising. Both of these factors have accelerated the decline that is also being seen in media markets elsewhere. Bulgaria is not a unique or unusual case, but rather a country which is simply further down the same dangerous path that many other nations are also following.

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But it’s also because the government just doesn’t care about the situation, says Pavol Szalai, head of Reporters Without Borders Central and Eastern Europe division. “There aren’t any specific laws to protect journalists, apart from in the constitution, but it doesn’t seem to be sufficient.”

When independent Bulgarian journalists are subject to smear campaigns and threats, critics say that the government does not strongly condemn or curtail these attacks, creating a climate of impunity sustained by a Bulgarian government slower to act than many of its counterparts. Weak rule of law is often cited by journalists as a contributing factor. “In Slovakia, a journalist was murdered for his work, but we can say police had a free hand to investigate, even though they may not have found who was behind the attack,” says Szalai. “Bulgaria needs that good legislative framework and investigations. It’s never too late to bring justice.”

The problem in Bulgaria is also problematic because of a political class that acts as if there is no problem, and who, critics say, benefit from the media owned by people like Peevski. Organisations such as Reporters Without Borders are now concerned that other countries are falling into a similar pattern as the media’s funding crisis continues to drag on, only exacerbated by an economy suffering post Covid-19. Many worry that governments will not just be unsympathetic or uncaring towards journalism’s decline, but actively promote and exploit the industry’s difficulties so that they can rule without real scrutiny.

Sofia at sunset. Image: Vasko Hristov

“We are already observing these kinds of trends across Europe, particularly in Poland, Hungary, and Slovenia,” says Szalai. “Politicians have their own media [which they fund]. They participate with smear campaigns online by retweeting anonymous accounts. For journalists, it’s hard to fight against these hate campaigns. They need to interview politicians, but when politicians say ‘you are biased’ it’s hard to have a normal dialogue. It’s a way to discredit journalists in front of the public.”

“When politicians say ‘you are biased’ it’s hard to have a normal dialogue. It’s a way to discredit journalists in front of the public.”

For now, it seems that little will improve without a significant change in attitudes on the ground or outside or non-governmental support. Many pin their hopes on the EU’s ability to support press freedom and leverage their financial backing to ensure clean media practices. “There is currently a debate as to whether there should be access to EU funds when the rule of law is not respected,” says Szalai, “and that debate should continue.”

For Bedrov meanwhile, one of the benefits of working for an organisation such as RFE is being able to operate without commercial pressure. Working from a small apartment in Sofia, the team works hard on investigations that try to expose corruption and political influence over the judiciary. It’s the kind of investigative work that is notoriously time-consuming and expensive. They also work on long form explanatory journalism, leading readers through the bombardment of notifications they see on their news feeds everyday. Pod Tepeto also relies to a certain extent on charity, receiving grants from the America for Bulgaria foundation, as well as diversifying their income through other channels.

“[Journalism] should be a business, but the business model isn’t working,” Bedrov says. “We need to stick to the truth and be able to criticise when there’s something to criticise. This is our chance. We can do journalism without relying on the government.”

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