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Hazardous Duty

Bulgaria is steadily becoming a more dangerous place to be a journalist.

by Ivaylo Spasov 28 April 2014

It was a quiet night in early April, and journalist Genka Shikerova, host of a popular morning talk show, was asleep.

 

Suddenly, she awoke to the wail of sirens.

 

The police had arrived in front of her home, where firefighters were trying to extinguish a raging blaze. But it was too late – Shikerova’s car was already a charred hull.

 

It was the second time in seven months that the journalist’s car had caught fire. Although Shikerova covers a variety of high-profile issues, she had not received any specific threats. Nonetheless, investigators determined that the blaze had been deliberately set. No arrests have been made.

 

The attack was immediately condemned by the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, the country’s largest human rights watchdog. In its annual report, unveiled earlier this month, the organization listed the parlous state of Bulgarian media among the country’s most pressing rights issues, alongside persecution of asylum seekers, police brutality, a rise in secret surveillance, and the mistreatment of children in state institutions.

 

Bulgaria’s standing in Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index has plunged from 35th place in 2006, the year before it joined the EU, to 100th among 180 countries surveyed this year.

That is a record low and the worst result in the EU, most members of which traditionally occupy the upper reaches of the chart.

 

Police have failed to achieve any tangible results in investigating a series of crimes against journalists over the past few years, including acid attacks, beatings, and bombs planted in front of homes or newsrooms.

 

The threats are not only physical. The Helsinki Committee also cited “various forms of political and economic pressure; poor transparency of ownership and financing; media concentration; limited pluralism; interference by the publishers in the editorial policy; [and] severe self-censorship.”

 

A poster held aloft during last year's demonstrations, of media magnate Irena Krasteva and her son, Delyan Peevski, declares "Mama invites me on the dancefloor," in a play on words. The acronym for the security agency Peevski was tipped to lead is DANS. Photo by Ivaylo Spasov.

 

Likewise, democracy watchdog Freedom House’s most recent Freedom of the Press study says reporters in Bulgaria “continue to face pressure and intimidation aimed at protecting economic, political, and criminal interests.”

 

In in a recent survey by the Association of European Journalists, about 46 percent of media workers in Bulgaria admitted they regularly practice self-censorship. Their motives vary, from political or corporate pressure exerted on their TV station or newspaper to fear of personal retaliation.

 

Freedom House cites the case of journalist Boris Mitov, who was questioned in April 2013 about an article he wrote on illicit wiretapping of politicians and journalists. Mitov was pressured to reveal his sources. When he declined, prosecutors threatened him with up to five years in prison for “disclosing state secrets.” Numerous journalists staged a protest in his support and the case was dropped.

 

Two months later, parliament speaker Mihail Mikov blamed the media for “fueling a rise in social tension” in their coverage of the anti-government protests that gripped Sofia last summer. In a statement that was criticized by some civic groups for creating a chilling effect, Mikov told journalists there was an “appropriate way to cover the situation.”

 

Then in July, the leader of the far-right Ataka (Attack) party, Volen Siderov – chairman of parliament’s ethics and anti-corruption committee – barged into the offices of government-owned Bulgarian National Television with dozens of his supporters, angry at what they described as biased coverage of the unrest.

 

Fed up, some Bulgarian journalists picketed in front of the Interior Ministry early this month demanding protection and investigations into the attacks. The interior minister, Tsvetlin Yovchev, refused to meet with them because they had been joined by dozens of activists who have called for the government’s resignation.

 

THE VENTRILOQUISTS

 

The hostile environment for reporters and their work is compounded by an outdated, “wild East”-style body of regulations that does little to inspire trust in the media, even among journalists.

 

Bulgaria’s media law has not been revised since 1998, when there was only a single, state-owned nationwide TV station and a handful of regional networks. “This law is outdated because it is focused primarily on the regulation of state-owned media. The big private TV channels and online media that emerged in the 2000s have remained outside the scope of the law,” Georgi Lozanov, chairman of the state-appointed Council for Electronic Media, said during a conference in March.

 

In addition, there is no widely accepted journalistic code of ethics. Nor does Bulgaria’s media law require private newspapers, magazines, or radio or TV stations to provide information about their owners or the source of their funding, which many believe has resulted in a near-monopoly.

 

In 2012 and 2013 some Bulgarian publishers complained in an open letter to the European Commission that nearly 80 percent of newspaper circulation in the country is in the hands of the New Bulgarian Media Group, which is owned by Irena Krasteva, former director of the national lottery.

 

In addition to various media, Krasteva owns the biggest printing company in Bulgaria, which prints newspapers throughout the country. She has contended that accounts of her influence are exaggerated.

 

It has never been clear where Krasteva got the money for the acquisitions, nor what role her son, Delyan Peevski, a member of parliament, plays in those media. In February, however, he gave a rare hint. In an interview for one of his mother’s online outlets, Peevski said he had been asked by a former interior minister to use what he called – for the first time – “my media” to provide cover for a few major criminals. Peevski said he assented.

 

Such opacity was lamented by Neelie Kroes, the EU’s digital agenda commissioner, during a trip to Bulgaria in late 2012.

 

“As a citizen, I want to know who's the owner of the factory whose chocolates I’m buying – let alone the owner of the news outlets that shape my informed opinion on crucial matters in society,” she said.

 

It was the appointment of Peevski, a 33-year-old lawyer and businessman, to lead the country’s main security agency that sparked the massive protests that threatened to engulf the government last year. Peevski quickly stepped down, but the government has never offered an explanation of how such a widely mistrusted figure came to be a candidate to lead a sensitive law-enforcement agency.

 

But as demonstrated by the experiences of Bulgaria and other Balkan countries, including Macedonia and Montenegro, politicians need not own media properties to keep them on a tight leash. As advertising revenues for traditional media plummet globally, some outlets have come to rely on public service announcements and advertisements for government contracts. Press watchdogs say revenue from those sources consistently goes to government-friendly media.

 

The situation is especially acute in Bulgaria, which has about 350 newspapers, 29 of which are national dailies – the highest number in Central and Eastern Europe, according to the World Association of Newspapers.

 

Freedom House says government expenditures “represent the second largest source of revenue for print media in Bulgaria,” behind private advertising.

 

According to government data, over the past 10 months alone, some 6.28 million leva ($4.4 million) was allocated to various media for the promotion of state policies.

 

By some accounts, the result of murky ownership and dependence on government funds has been slipping journalistic standards. Instead of serving as trusted sources of information, the country’s media are “serving political parties and various economic groups,” Nelly Ognyanova, a professor of media law at Sofia University, told a conference earlier this year in the capital.

 

For example, the Monitor, a popular pro-government daily, last year printed on its front page a huge picture of the anti-government protests and claimed, falsely, that they were against the president – who had sided with the demonstrators.

 

“We have witnessed a dangerous and deliberate construction of a parallel reality,” Ognyanova said.

 

And there is little reason to expect that parallel reality to be dismantled anytime soon. One of the country’s ruling parties has chosen Peevski, the man whose appointment almost brought the government down, to run for the European Parliament in May.

Ivaylo Spasov is a journalist in Sofia.

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