The leading Bulgarian parties have shown that they do not intend to take measures to improve the dismal media environment in Bulgaria. A signal of this was the parliamentary debate on 10 May, during which the ruling GERB party qualified the Reporters Without Borders ranking as “manipulative”. Krassen Nikolov has the story.
Krassen Nikolov is a journalist specialised in judiciary affairs. He works for Mediapool and is a regular contributor for BulgarianPresidency.eu for the six months of the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU.
At the end of April, Reporters Without Borders ranked Bulgaria 111th in the world in its annual Press Freedom Index. The country is last in the EU, but more worrying is that it is also the last on the Balkan Peninsula (without counting Turkey). In the last 15 years Bulgaria has collapsed from 35th to 111th.
“Reporters without Borders” names the MP from the Movement of Rights and Freedoms (DPS) and media mogul Delyan Peevski said as one of the reasons for this. Peevsky owns six newspapers and unofficially controls nearly 80% of the press, the international NGO mentions.
“The most notorious embodiment of this aberrant state of affairs is Deylan Peevski,” says the report.
Another reason for the crash in the ranking is the corruption of media by the state. The government finances in exceptionally opaque way many of the media, making sure it would bet in return friendly coverage.
Immediately after the publication of the ranking, DPS deputy chairman Yordan Tsonev rejected the Reporters Without Borders assessment and advised the organisation “to keep some limits [borders] badmouthing Bulgaria” [borders and limits are the same word in Bulgarian]. He reminded that Peevski was the author of a bill for disclosing media ownership, which has not yet been discussed by the Bulgarian Parliament. On the same day when Reporters Without Borders announced its ranking, Peevski’s company announced that it had sold 50% of its media ownership to the American film company New Image. The deal must be approved by the regulators.
This time the assessment by DPS was shared by the ruling GERB party. First, Prime Minister Boyko Borissov announced that the issue of media freedom is a problem for journalists, not for society. “This is your problem – the journalists’. It’s for you to solve it”, he said in an interview with Nova Television.
Then GERB MP Toma Bikov described the ranking as “manipulative” and added that it is was not fair to put Bulgaria in such a backwards position because an MP has several newspapers. He did not even mention Peevski’s name. According to Bikov, the media’s problem is that they try to please their corporate advertisers.
“I will tell you how this ranking is being done (Reporters Without Borders) – they select reporters, they interview them, they ask whether there is freedom of speech, and they say – there is no such. At the same time, Malta is 37th, Slovakia – 26th, and this is there investigative journalists who were targeting the government were murdered. And here an MP has seven newspapers [he said seven, the official fugure is siv]. That’s why Bulgaria is 111th”, Bikov said.
It is true that investigative journalists were murdered in Malta and Slovakia, but in these countries there are at least investigative journalists, unlike Bulgaria, where most media are under full political and economic control. According to Reporters without Borders, even the few independent reporters in Bulgaria have problems.
“It can prove to be dangerous to be a journalist in Bulgaria”, said the organisation.
Ironically, just a day after Bikov’s statement an investigative journalist in the small Bulgarian town of Cherven Bryag was attacked and beaten. Hristo Geshov was attacked in front of his home in Cherven Bryag on Thursday night. This happens after a series of revelationshe made about local government abuses. Hristo Geshov’s latest investigation was about the distribution of food for the poor financed with EU money. These public contracts were always awarded to two companies, one of which is indirectly linked to the Mayor of Cherven Bryag Danail Valov [who won the elections as independent], and the other to municipal councilor of his group Yavor Bakardzhiev.
The attack in #Bulgaria on investigative reporter @HGeshov is appalling and must be investigated as a matter of priority. https://t.co/tyo9Y6ee6D @OSCE_RFoM @CoEMediaFreedom @FedericaMog @SJLambrinidis @ECinBulgaria @euobs @EURACTIV @GeorgiGotev @POLITICOEurope @PoliticoRyan
— Nina Ognianova (@Kremlinologist1) May 14, 2018
In November, the publisher of the news site in Vratsa “Zov news” Georgi Ezekiev was threatened with murder by local gangsters. The reason was a common investigation by Zov news and the Bivol investigative website on drug trafficking, which also involved police officers from Vratsa.
In January 2016, journalist and eco-activist Stoyan Tonchev was brutally beaten with baseball bats for his work.
So far the police hasn’t found anyone responsible for any of the attacks.
The European Commission is fully aware of the media environment in the country. Its high-ranking officials have also suffered from attacks by Peevski’s media group. A former EC representative in Sofia, Joeri Tavanier, was accused of being an informer to the CIA, while Brussels’s reports on Bulgaria were “exposed” as lacking objectivity, because reportedly there were no lawyers among European experts. The EC dismissed the charges but did not take any further action.
In its January 2017 report the European Commission stated:
“The Bulgarian media environment is often characterized by low independence and ineffective enforcement of journalistic standards, which has a negative influence on public debate on reforms. While these issues are outside the scope of the Co-operation and Verification Mechanism, they have a direct bearing on the ability to deliver reform and have made it more difficult for Bulgaria to make progress “, the document says.
In the November report of the European Commission, just before the start of the Bulgarian Presidency of the EU Council, this issue disappeared without explanation.