Free press in Bulgaria?

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Bulgaria has tanked again in the World Press Freedom Index, compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). At 111th place out of 180 countries, Bulgaria is at the bottom of all EU countries, and across Europe only trailed by the authoritarian-leaning regimes of Bularus, Turkey and Russia. While press around the whole world is marred by a struggle to remain independent and trustworthy, Bulgaria faces its own unique threats to journalism with potentially grave consequences.

RSF summarizes, “Corruption and collusion between media, politicians, and oligarchs is widespread”. Some wounds are still fresh in Bulgarian minds. “The most notorious embodiment of this aberrant state of affairs is Deylan Peevski, a former head of Bulgaria’s main intelligence agency and owner of the New Bulgarian Media Group. His group has six newspapers and controls nearly 80% of print media distribution.” Arguably, Peevski’s appointment to the top of the intelligence agency is what brought thousands of protesters to the streets in 2013 and eventually toppled the government a year later.

That is not to say Bulgarians are fully aware of the deep connections between government, corporations and the press. Instead, it underlines the embedded mistrust most people harbor towards any information they are presented. How can believe you are hearing unbiased news, if private interests are writing the story to begin with? As RSF states, “The government’s allocation of EU funding to certain media outlets is conducted with a complete lack of transparency, in effect bribing them to go easy on the government in their reporting or refrain from covering certain problematic stories altogether.”

The deliberate misinformation is upheld with force, when needed. Pauline Adès-Mével, the head of RSF’s EU-Balkans desk, reminds of the recent “unprecedented campaign of harassment” on reporters from Bivol, an investigative outlet, uncovering corruption and collusion at the highest levels. “One of the reporters participating in this investigation, Maria Dimitrova, […] received threatening messages by SMS and on Facebook. And shortly after Dimitrova managed to get one of the gang’s victims to talk to her, three unidentified men physically attacked her informant.”

Topnovini.bg maintains, “Journalists are with damaged social and labor rights and are unable to perform their work responsibilities adequately.” In the face of huge corporations hiding information and misdirecting attention, it can indeed become dangerous to report on current events. Many media opt for covering neutral topics or resort to entertainment-only programs.

The loss of a source of truth for the public is not something to overlook itself. For instance, in 2018 the Sofia University Student Television Channel was restructured and a promotional call for journalists was released. However, professors and other staff from the Faculty of Journalism and Mass Communications responded with an open letter calling for the TV channel to rediscover the core responsibilities of reporting. As European Youth Press states, “Superficial and biased media coverage of topics related to national, ethnic and religious minorities leads to misunderstanding, stigmatization, hatred and, as a result, split in the society.”

Furthermore, the Bulgarian national broadcaster Nova reports that now there are as many more than 4000 cyber attacks per day, including deliberate misinformation campaigns from foreign and domestic entities. This number is currently tripling year on year, while recent advancements in artificial intelligence are making it nearly impossible to distinguish a completely computer-fabricated news story from a real one.

In the end, it may as well be that journalism’s pitfall is a blessing in disguise. As RSF points out, “Despite the growing obstacles and threats to press freedom, the Internet seems to be a means of guaranteeing a safe and promising platform for journalists who want to pursue their investigative reporting and maintain their editorial independence.” Reporters Without Borders examines this thoroughly in their report “Mission So Possible: Investigative Journalism in Bulgaria”, giving the example how upon the complete public publishing of government registers in 2016, journalists seized the opportunity and rummage through the data to uncover suspicious EU funds beneficiaries, among other dubious actions with public funds.

Impressively, the exposure led to the halt of a number of multi-billion projects, as it became clear that the same limited number of organizations was granted the majority of infrastructure public tenders. As the report concludes, “This was a proof that the transparency of State institutions and open data are a key condition for tackling corruption and limiting abuse of taxpayers’ money.”

In conclusion, press has the crucial responsibility to enable decisions to become informed decisions, where Bulgaria is a hot spot sorely in need of better freedom of press and speech.

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