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Bulgaria’s Trust Deficit

The spotlight cast by the brutal murder of a journalist reveals a troubled media landscape with the least freedom in the EU.

by Katherine Schulte 18 October 2018

The rape and killing of Bulgarian presenter Viktoria Marinova has shocked the Balkan country  – where murders are comparatively rare  – and left the local journalistic community mired in questions about the crime and the uncertain status of the profession in the country.


Marinova (pictured) was found dead on 6 October in the northeastern Bulgarian town of Ruse. She hosted the “Detector” show on regional station TVN Ruse and had recently interviewed two journalists investigating alleged fraud involving EU funds linked to Bulgarian businessmen and politicians. While some initial international reports made connections between her killing and her work, some Bulgarian journalists say the international media may have misrepresented the case or simply have jumped to conclusions without enough evidence. A suspect who was arrested in Germany two days after the murder was extradited to Bulgaria on 17 October. He reportedly admitted to attacking Marinova after an argument.


In an interview with TOL, Sofia-based journalist Boryana Dzhambazova argues that underfunding, lack of transparency of ownership, and a combination of political and business pressures – even harassment – have led to a culture of deteriorating media freedom, including censorship and self-censorship.


Marinova is at least the third journalist killed in the EU this year, and although her death hasn’t been linked to her TV show, are journalists in Bulgaria concerned? How has the killing affected the community?


Not just the journalistic community, but the whole country, was shocked. The number of murders in the country, according to official statistics, is relatively low, so such an act of brutal violence couldn’t be anything less than shocking. There was some division among the journalistic community, and I think part of that was because initially people needed to figure out the facts, and a lot of initial information was missing.


On social media, there were a lot of comments about the work she was doing – whether she was an aspiring investigative journalist or a real investigative journalist – and some of the reporting, including some of the international reporting, was actually not very factual, unfortunately.


What were some of the facts that the international media got wrong?


I think there was some confusion about her involvement in the investigation of fraud with EU funds, and there were some publications that said she was part of that [investigation]. [However, the story] was more like: she interviewed the two investigative journalists who are investigating that topic, and this was basically the theme of the first episode of her new show.


The coverage after her death had a lot of nuances. I think, considering the dire state of media freedom in the country and the murders of journalists earlier this year, […] when the news broke that a journalist was killed, it wasn’t surprising that some international publications, politicians and watchdogs assumed that it was because of her work and demanded a thorough investigation. Very early after the news broke, there was a scarcity of information, so it was hard to make any conclusions or judgments, so that’s why it’s better to check the facts first. That’s why it’s important to have correspondents and work with journalists who are in the field and can do original reporting.


Has anyone brought up former instances of journalists being in danger?


Well, Bulgaria has the worst media freedom in the EU, but at the same time, we’re not Russia, so until now there haven't been killings of journalists, at least related to their work, in recent years.


However, there are other forms of intimidation, including some physical threats and basically censorship. So this case attracted attention – from both local and international media – because journalism is under threat in the country, and media freedom has been deteriorating for the past decade. If you look at the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index, the drop is significant. In 2007, Bulgaria was 51st. Now we’re in 111th place. There were several cases of physical attacks. That hasn’t really been the focus. There was some talk about the arrests of the journalists [whom Marinova interviewed], in September.


In 2016 and in 2017, there were a couple of physical attacks and beatings of journalists in the country, which as far as I know are still unresolved.


You mentioned Reporters Without Borders. One of the things they said about Bulgaria was that government officials allocated funds from the EU to media outlets without transparency, and so in effect bribed them “to go easy on the government in their reporting or refrain from covering problematic stories altogether.” Have you seen this occur? Do you find that an accurate assessment?


There is no short answer to that question. We’re still seeking to build an independent press. Almost 30 years after the fall of communism, there are very few independent media in the country that are doing investigative work. Many of the newspapers are underfunded and understaffed, and that’s why they don’t have a lot of resources to do investigative journalism. 


There’s a lack of transparency when it comes to media ownership, and when you don’t know where the money comes from, then it’s hard to expect good journalism. Another thing is that in print we see a lot of tabloid-style journalism, lots of hate speech, and – during the refugee crisis – a lot of anti-migrant sentiment. And in a way, some media have become channels for certain political or business interests, and the worst outcome of that is that people distrust the media. According to a recent survey, only 10 percent of Bulgarians think that the media in the country are independent.


Going back to the case of the brutal murder of Marinova, the thing is that people don’t trust institutions, either. So not just journalists. Some of her relatives and friends were asking for justice because they had little trust in national institutions, including the government, the police, and the judiciary. In fact, Bulgarians tend to trust European institutions more than they trust the national ones.


Radio Free Europe reported that people have protested against corruption – calling for the resignation of the government and chief prosecutor – in front of the Palace of Justice. Demonstrators led by the anti-corruption group BOETS have said they’ll protest until Marinova’s killer is found. What is the link protesters see between government corruption and Marinova’s death?


I cannot speak for the protesters or the people who were chanting at one point for the resignation of the government. I can give you my interpretation. I think that, basically, people are frustrated and unhappy that since the fall of communism, Bulgaria has a lot of high-ranking corruption, and also newer corruption, and they don’t see much progress in tackling that issue. So in general they have very little trust in the government, in the judicial system, in the police, in the army.  


You mentioned that in the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index published in July, Bulgaria was 111th out of 180 countries for the level of freedom available for journalists, making it the lowest-ranked in the EU. Do you agree with the finding?


Bulgaria has the worst media freedom in the EU according to that ranking, and in fact, since this year, also in the Balkans. It’s true we have systematic problems. As I said, one of the big issues is the lack of transparency when it comes to media ownership in the country. A lot of journalists are facing political and economic pressure so that much of the press is basically not doing its duty of being a watchdog, but has turned to channeling certain political or economic interests, or trashing competitors because of their ownership, and even verbally attacking or blaming civil society or critics of the government or certain other journalists who are voicing their concerns about problems in the country, [calling them] mercenaries of [investor and philanthropist George] Soros, or basically trying to trash them.


And again, that’s filled with hate speech and basically a big reason to see very little independent journalism. Independent journalists are struggling. There are not enough resources. As I said, most of the outlets are underfunded and understaffed. Good journalism costs money. This is basically a grim picture. The Association of European Journalists in Bulgaria did a survey in 2017. They talked to 200 journalists around the country, and over 90 percent said that they faced pressure, whether political- or business-related, or from some kind of censorship, in their work every day. So that’s pretty high.


At the same time, Bulgaria’s not Russia or Turkey. […] We should make that distinction. But, of course, there’s a lot to be done in terms of improving the media freedom and media landscape.


One way, of course, is training the new generation. With the digital revolution now, it’s easier to give a voice to the voiceless and to tackle tough issues and issues of public interest. Or even if your editors are censoring you, you can always find a platform to publish your investigation, but it’s another case whether this is a sustainable way. Basically, one way to look at it is that people have to support good journalism.


Some helpful links to read more about the media landscape in Bulgaria.

Katherine Schulte is a TOL editorial intern.
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