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In and Out of the Spotlight

The protesters in Sofia have courted global coverage, but will it help solve the crisis?

by Boyko Vassilev 1 August 2013

Finally, Bulgarian protesters have made international news.


It wasn’t easy, even on 14 June, when they rushed into the streets and rose up against the controversial appointment of media tycoon Delyan Peevski to lead the national security agency. However shocking for most Bulgarians, those events  hardly caught the world’s attention.


Peevski’s name was promptly withdrawn, but then protesters demanded the ouster of the newly formed government of Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski, which had nominated him. One month after the early parliamentary elections of 12 May, crowds in the center of Sofia marched for a new ballot.


Even then global media did not take note. Bulgaria is not very visible on the world stage in the first place, and if you add the dramatic protests in Turkey, Brazil, and finally Egypt, where a president was overturned by the army, few news editors would opt for pictures from Sofia.


We live in curious times. Revolutions might be instigated on Facebook, but they must still be covered on television to be considered newsworthy. The gatekeepers are the producers at global TV stations, based in United States and Western Europe. They set the world agenda – and their logic is purely journalistic: Egypt is bigger than Bulgaria, so we cover Egypt.


Interestingly, though, this logic was put to the test in the case of Egypt. CNN was accused of neglecting the coup in Cairo at the expense of the George Zimmerman – Trayvon Martin case, which matters to few outside the United States. CNN defended its line, but the doubts remain. An increasing number of informed citizens do not believe that global news selection is truly fair.


The Bulgarian protesters understood all that. Many consider themselves part of the so-called “creative class” – advertising and public relations people, journalists, writers, actors, musicians. Who would know better how the world of media functions? Still, they set out to find ways to turn the tide.


They got an assist when the French and German ambassadors in Sofia issued a joint statement that, among other messages, urged the government not to ignore the protest. Then similar comments followed from the ambassadors of the Netherlands, Belgium, and the United States – and from European Commission Vice President Viviane Reding. The protesters started to build on that.


The first performance targeted 14 July, Bastille Day. The day before, a strange group mixed with the traditional demonstration. Some were dressed as the characters in painter Eugene Delacroix’s masterpiece Liberty Leading the People. The central figure, Liberty, was Tanya Ilieva, a model and actress, who left her breast half-naked to imitate the original. French media pounced on the event.


The next evening thousands of people marched to the French Embassy, applauding and shouting “Merci beaucoup!” It was Sunday, but the embassy was full for an official reception. A similarly emotional scene followed in a few days in front of the German Embassy. There, the Ode to Joy was sung and a cardboard replica of the Berlin Wall, with the words “mafia” and the names of Bulgaria’s political parties written on it, was destroyed. German media took note.


Curiously, the move was duplicated by a much smaller counter-demonstration by supporters of Oresharski’s government. They marched to the embassies of France, Germany, and the United States, demanded meetings and afterward said the ambassadors’ words “were misinterpreted by the media.” It was exactly these media, however, which they targeted in order to get their own coverage.


The major battle for publicity was still to come. Both camps took their chances at the Citizen’s Dialogue on 23 July, where Reding talked with Bulgarians – and which I had the enormously difficult task of moderating. The two-hour event was hardly about United Europe. Wave after wave of protesters and counter-protesters, registered as citizens, begged Reding to take their side. And although the vice president reacted within the framework of her position, Brussels got the message: Bulgaria has a problem.


The events that followed only underscored the point.


Several hours after Reding left, a parliamentary committee together with three ministers, union leaders, experts, and journalists gathered in the National Assembly to discuss Oresharski’s proposal to add 1 billion leva ($678 million) to the budget. Opposition and protesters were vehemently against.


The discussion started around 5 p.m. and lasted several hours, enough time for the protesters to lay siege to the parliament, vowing not to let the politicians out. A clumsy attempt to break the siege raised the tension: a bus filled with politicians tried to go through the densely packed square but was stopped by the crowd and pelted with stones, and had to drive back. Police and protesters clashed; there were several wounded on both sides and some demonstrators started to erect barricades. The lawmakers had to stay in the parliament until 4 a.m., when a police operation finally brought them out.


Mutual accusations followed. Everybody was blamed – the protesters for aggression and deliberate provocation, riot police for excessive use of force, security bosses for bad planning, the organizers of the parliamentary session for bad timing, the opposition for secretly masterminding, the government for not stepping back. Bulgarian crisis went into hopeless deadlock just before August, the month of vacations, when protesters must choose between the street and the seaside.


Needless to say, international media covered it extensively – TV networks, The Economist, Time – they all love clashes and bloodshed. Bulgaria’s protest is no longer invisible. But will the global attention reinforce the deadlock or break it? That is a question for which even the creative class has no answer.

Boyko Vassilev
 is a moderator and producer of the weekly 
Panorama news talk show on Bulgarian National Television.
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