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Murder in the Facebook Era

The barbarity of the killing of a Bulgarian TV presenter seemed the calling card of a crazed killer, so why was that version so quickly discarded? by Boyko Vassilev 25 October 2018

The terrible news broke on the sunny Saturday of 6 October. Victoria Marinova, a 30-year-old mother of a small girl, was brutally raped and killed in broad daylight, while jogging along the embankment of the Danube River in her hometown of Ruse, Bulgaria.


The barbarity of the deed, which according to the police left an abundance of evidence, would seem to suggest a deranged, impulsive killer – but not in the era of Facebook. A few hours later, another version emerged. The profession of the victim offered a thread that – thin as it was – had many Bulgarians, and the whole world, hanging on it.


Freshly divorced, Marinova had taken over responsibility for a small, local television station from her business-savvy ex-husband. However, she was not content to be just a manager. Described as socially active, empathic, and helpful, the young woman started to present on TV, initially on lifestyle issues. Her last endeavor was the “Detector” show, highlighting investigative journalism.


Marinova managed to produce just one broadcast, in which she introduced an interview (carried out by another colleague) with two investigative journalists from a news site. The topic was hot. The journalists were alleging fraud by a big construction company, and a cover-up by the authorities, involving EU money. While working on the story, the journalists had been mistakenly detained by police, which made the case famous outside Bulgaria.


In Bulgaria itself, Marinova was not the only one who chose to cover the story. Yet her last words on air included a reference to “corporate pressure and systematic removal of investigative journalists” and a promise to deliver more stories on this topic. That was enough for many to believe – or to claim without believing – that Victoria Marinova was killed because of her journalistic work.


It did not stop there. It was a leading story in many foreign media outlets, including the BBC, CNN, Deutsche Welle, The Telegraph, and others, and there were statements from foreign personalities and journalist organizations. “Again a courageous journalist falls in the fight for truth and against corruption,” tweeted European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans. “Those responsible should be brought to justice immediately by the Bulgarian authorities.”


That call was heeded. On the fourth day, a suspect was arrested after having fled to Germany. He was a 21-year-old man from Ruse’s Roma quarter, who, according to the police, committed the crime after a whole night of drinking and drugs – and perhaps, his mother suggested, having also stopped his medication for mental illness.


The man had apparently nothing to do with Marinova's journalistic work. Police confirmed a DNA match, and said Marinova's possessions were found in his home. At a hearing in court, he wept in front of cameras from major TV stations, stating that he was guilty but he still could not believe that he could have done it. He also admitted meeting her and having some kind of interaction – possibly a quarrel, possibly hitting her – but could not remember the details. The man seemed as deranged and impulsive as the crime had originally seemed, before the Facebook commentators stepped in.


Then it was Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s turn to take the floor. Outraged, he made an angry statement about the people who had speculated and “defamed their home country,” putting it in line with Malta and Slovakia (where journalists were recently killed almost certainly because of their work). Borissov also threatened to withdraw his support for Manfred Weber – who had tweeted about Marinova’s case – in the German politician's bid to become the European People’s Party candidate for next European Commission president.


Borissov even summoned Western ambassadors to tell them that they and their media outlets had not consulted the Bulgarian government before making public statements.


Yet this is not the end of the story. Now, with the dust clearing, the time has come to ask some tricky questions of everyone.


How does the world make up its mind about countries like Bulgaria? Whom do the important people of the EU's institutions and of international NGOs listen to? How do respected media outlets – who claim to fight fake news – gather their information? Do they do their checks, double checks, even triple checks?


On the other hand, why did Bulgaria – in last place in the EU for media freedom, according to the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders – strike everyone as the sort of country in which a journalist could be killed for his or her work? Why do Bulgarians prefer to trust a manufactured drama, instead of their own government and institutions? Shouldn't Borissov worry about this lack of trust, instead of boasting of his own vindication? And how about the corruption story that Marinova chose to cover: why was it so credible? Why does any corruption story look credible in Bulgaria?


Is there also a huge failure somewhere else – perhaps in the fact that a person could be raped for almost an hour in broad daylight, and killed? Or perhaps we should be looking at incomplete Roma integration, or at neglected ghettos?


But first and foremost, where is the truth? If it cannot be perceived amid the fog of prejudice and deliberate speculation, we are in deep trouble. We, the people, are in trouble, not just journalists.

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