How Bulgaria hit rock bottom on press freedom
The space for independent media is shrinking as moguls monopolise the industry, but some are cautiously hopeful about the future.
On September 2, 2020, Bulgarian journalist Dimitar Kenarov headed to the centre of the Bulgarian capital Sofia to cover an anti-government protest.
He was filming the largely peaceful demonstration calling for then-Prime Minister Boyko Borisov’s government to resign, when a few individuals started throwing projectiles at the police, who responded with pepper spray and batons.
In the ensuing violence, Kenarov, who had by then put on a gas mask marked “Press”, was yanked to the ground by police officers, kicked repeatedly in the face, and handcuffed, despite insisting that he was a journalist and showing them his press card.
He was eventually taken to the police station and released several hours later.
In the following weeks, the interior ministry denied that Kenarov had been held, despite available footage of his detention and a medical certificate that he was assaulted.
When he tried to take the case to court, the prosecution stalled the proceedings, while the interior ministry asked the National Income Agency to audit his tax and social security payments.
The episode provoked international condemnation from organisations including Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which took the case into account when preparing its latest Press Freedom Index released in April.
It ranked Bulgaria 112th in the world, the third-lowest among European countries, after Russia (150) and Belarus (158).
According to journalists and academics Al Jazeera spoke to, press freedom in Bulgaria has significantly declined over the past two decades, not only due to the democratic retreat the country is experiencing, but also because the media is struggling with rising corruption and financial difficulties.
However, there is hope that ongoing political changes could improve the situation in the near future.
‘The EU increased corruption’
When RSF started publishing its press freedom index in 2002, Bulgaria, then an EU membership candidate, ranked 38th.
Five years later, when it joined the bloc, it dropped to 51. The downward trend continued and 10 years into its EU membership, the country ranked 109th.
Bulgaria is not the only EU member that has struggled with press freedom, with other states in Eastern Europe which acceded in the 2000s experiencing similar challenges.
Pavol Szalai, head of the Balkans Desk at RSF, told Al Jazeera that press freedom in Bulgaria is affected by regressive trends that other Eastern European countries are suffering from, but also more specific factors.
“Unlike other countries in the EU, like Hungary and Poland, where the situation is bad but they are ranked higher, in Bulgaria we have observed frequent physical attacks against journalists,” he said.
Meanwhile, there is an ever-shrinking space for independent media, and the judiciary is prosecuting journalists instead of protecting them.
According to Kenarov, however, violence against media professionals is not that prevalent in Bulgaria.
“I can’t say that in Bulgaria they beat more than they do in other [European] countries,” he said, adding that he sees his own case of police-led assault as an exception.
He believes that people in power are weaponising state institutions to crack down on critics.
Central and local authorities are able to exert control over the media to tone down its scrutiny of their work, through the distribution of state funds for advertising.
After it joined the EU, Bulgaria, like other new members, received large funds to help its economic development.
Some were allocated to state advertising of EU development programmes, which, given the relatively small advertising market in the country of seven million, provides for a significant source of revenue for large and small media outlets alike.
“The EU increased corruption in Bulgaria to a significant extent,” Kenarov said. “By giving away this uncontrolled money to the Bulgarian government, in all sectors, not just the media, they created Borisov and helped him set up his clientelistic network.”
During Borisov’s three terms as prime minister since 2009, Bulgaria witnessed the sale of major national media outlets to businessmen considered close to him.
In 2019, businessmen Kiril Domuschiev and Georgi Domuschiev acquired Nova TV, one of the three national TV channels.
Subsequently, several investigative journalists employed by the TV had their contracts terminated.
After Borisov stepped down in May, local media reported that between 2017 and 2021 his cabinet spent more than $6m in EU funds on media advertisement, the biggest share of which – $1.3m – went to Nova TV.
Borisov has also been accused of shielding from corruption investigations Delyan Peevski, a media mogul and former member of parliament from the Movement for Rights and Freedoms.
The US Treasury Department recently sanctioned Peevski under the Global Magnitsky Act.
Among the US accusations against Peevski is that he “negotiated with politicians to provide them with political support and positive media coverage in return for receiving protection from criminal investigations”.
“A group of oligarchs, mainly Peevski […] established media monopoly,” Venelina Popova, an investigative journalist who worked for the Bulgarian National Radio for 30 years, told Al Jazeera.
“The big media outlets went through different business owners, most of whom have aimed to maintain close relations with those in power in order not to have problems and to receive advertisement money.”
Peevski is believed to hold as much as 80 percent of the print media distribution market and has been accused of using outlets he owns to smear opponents and critics.
Popova said that last year, after she investigated Peevski’s donations to public hospitals at the beginning of the pandemic, she was called a “propagandist” and a “pawn” in his media. The Bulgarian branch of the European Association of Journalists (AEJ) issued a statement of solidarity with her.
The 2008 financial crisis
Negative global trends in the industry have also affected the Bulgarian media landscape.
According to Martin Marinos, a media scholar and assistant professor at Pennsylvania State University, the tabloidisation of Bulgarian media started in the late 1990s and early 2000s with the entry of foreign media corporations, like Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp and Germany’s WAZ.
“These companies, as much as they talk about democracy and civilisation, they transform outlets into tabloids and care little about journalism,” he said.
This corporate takeover later paved the way for Bulgarian oligarchs to buy out media outlets, particularly following the exodus of foreign businesses after the 2008 financial crisis.
The effect of the crisis was particularly severe, with outlets and journalists becoming more vulnerable to financial pressure, Marinos explained.
Well into the 2010s, media workers shared stories of underpaid work and repeated job losses.
Along with significant deregulation and lack of control from state institutions, the crisis also enabled a few big businesses to take control of the media market, Marinos said.
“There is no way in which things can go well when you have such a merger of big business and media,” he said.
Marinos gave an example from his fieldwork with TV7, a channel linked to Tsvetan Vasilev, former board chairman of the now-bankrupt Corporate Commercial Bank (CCB): “I visited TV7 [in 2016]. Half of the building was TV7, the other half was the [CCB] bank. You walk down the corridor and you pass people who you don’t know whether they are journalists or bankers.”
The internet and social media, and Big Tech’s effect on the advertisement market, have also changed the landscape.
Currently, about 60 percent of online ad revenue in Bulgaria goes to Facebook and Google.
“[There was] a negative change in the media business model. The role of print media decreased significantly, the other types of media lost a lot of revenue, and in general, journalism lost a lot of space to social media,” Ivan Radev, board member of AEJ’s Bulgarian branch, told Al Jazeera.
This devastated smaller media outlets.
Journalists were once again insecure in their jobs, and many quit the profession, he said.
Bulgaria has the lowest number of journalists per capita in the EU and is believed to have just 3,000 media workers in total.
‘No quick and easy solution’
Despite the challenges, journalists Al Jazeera interviewed expressed optimism for the future.
Much of their hope has to do with Borisov stepping down in May after his GERB party and his coalition partners did not receive enough votes in the April elections to form a government.
“There is no quick and easy solution because the problem [with press freedom] is multi-layered,” said Radev. “But at least this shift in politics is being seen as something positive because there was a growing perception of state capture.”
In his opinion, journalism in Bulgaria would benefit from judicial reform, which would increase accountability for those who misuse public funds.
Politicians, he added, should change their attitudes towards greater respect for media independence.
Kenarov also sees the recent political developments in Bulgaria in a positive light.
He said that after an interim government took over from Borisov, the interior ministry withdrew its request for a tax audit and started cooperating on his case.
In his view, judicial reform would improve press freedom in Bulgaria – as well as greater EU control over how the bloc’s funds are being used.
“When we, Bulgarians, entered the EU, our hope was not for money, but for control of money. We saw the EU as an institution which would be able to control our corrupt institutions,” he said.
For Popova, Bulgarian journalists have a role to play. There needs to be greater solidarity and commitment to ethical standards.
“In Bulgaria we need strong syndicates. [We do not have] syndicates that can protect the rights of journalists. The Bulgarian Journalistic Union continues to be just a nominal post-communist organisation,” she said.
According to Marinos, state institutions must act to regulate the media market and prevent the concentration of media companies in the hands of a few big businesses.
He also considers increasing the budget of public media a crucial step in making them more open to diverse opinions and more representative of Bulgarian society.