Bulgaria: time to tackle the nightmare next door

Stoyan Tonchev via Facebook

Emotions ran high at ECPMF’s Expert Talk on Bulgaria, held in Brussels on 25 January. There was a moving testimony from ECPMF’s Journalist-in-Residence (JiR) Dimitar Stoyanov, followed by a heated debate about the dire state of media freedom in the country.

By Jane Whyatt

ECPMF’s expert talk on media freedom in Bulgaria

The Balkan country is ranked second worst in the EU, and 109th out of 180 nations in the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index. Since it joined the European Union in 2007, Bulgaria has fallen 58 places in the latter league table.

ECPMF Executive Board Chair Henrik Kaufholz set out the scale of the problem. He noted the difficulties that had arisen from the end of communism in Bulgaria and the switchover to democratic freedoms as a EU member state.

“How did we get here?” asked Kaufholz. “We obviously underestimated the transition phase.”

Dimitar Stoyanov is an investigative journalist working for Bivol.bg, a Brussels-based independent Bulgarian news website. Under threat because of his critical reporting, he sought refuge in the ECPMF’s JiR programme. He told policy-makers and journalists at the expert talk in the European Parliament that he had been repeatedly followed by unknown agents after publishing reports on corruption in public life.

“My then girlfriend could not cope with all this, and she ended our relationship,” Stoyanov confided.

He was attacked a number of times and received mafia-style threats and warnings. For six months, he was constantly on the move, never sleeping in the same bed for two consecutive nights.

What’s more, Stoyanov emphasised that his is not an isolated instance. He also referred to the case of Stoyan Tonchev, a critical online journalist beaten up in 2016 by men armed with baseball bats.

Ivan Bedrov of Club Z magazine commented that ‘baseball bats’ is the nickname given to journalists in pro-government media who often publish highly-abusive verbal attacks on critical voices:

“Today, as I am talking to you, I know that my picture will appear in the media, with lies and rude words that I wouldn’t want to pronounce here,” he told the meeting.

Also other journalists gave accounts of ‘baseball bat’ journalism.

And in an interview with ECPMF, the President of the Union of Publishers in Bulgaria (UPB) said:

“We tried to translate the press clippings of abusive articles into English, to show it. Then I realised that it was auto-censored because some of the language was so bad. The people who translate it don’t feel they can post the whole thing – it’s nasty, it’s ugly. It’s rough. I don’t recommend that you read it.”

UPB has prepared a White Paper that captures its members’ arguments in favour of urgent reform of the media, and shared it during the talk. They hope spreading the word will create a snowball effect that will lead to action at the EU-level in Brussels.

Meanwhile, some pro-government Bulgarian journalists, led by Lyubomira Budokova and Natalia Radoslavova, joined the expert talk and argued that the allegations were all ‘fake news’. They defended their newspaper’s owner, Delyan Peevski, against charges that he is too close to the government and owns a large proportion of the national and local media.

Chairing the meeting, ECPMF’s Managing Director, Dr. Lutz Kinkel, allowed these critics to have their say and commented:

“We believe in freedom of expression and open debate. We would like to see these principles applied too in the Bulgarian media landscape.”

The concentration of media ownership in the hands of a few very wealthy and powerful individuals is of concern, too, to the Irish Sinn Féin MEP Lynn Boylan, who attended the talk in Brussels. Via his Communicorp corporation, Denis O’Brien has a chain of private radio stations in Bulgaria, in addition to his extensive media holdings in Ireland and the UK. He is Ireland’s biggest media owner.

Also at the talk was Dr. Atanas Tchobanov, editor of the award-winning Bulgarian investigative news website Bivol.bg, where ECPMF’s Journalist-in-Residence works. Tchobanov commented:

“The idea that the European Union is a safe space for journalism and freedom of speech is given for granted, but Bulgaria is giving a sad counter-example. Declining media freedom since the country joined EU is an alarming fact. Attacks on journalists and monopolisation of the media space are damaging the core principles of the EU project. There are multiple economic and political reasons for this situation, which must be addressed by the European Commission. The Bulgarian EU presidency is a golden occasion to succeed in action. The ECPMF expert meeting was an useful step in this direction, bringing attention to the issues and giving sharp recommendations to the Commission.”

Pauline Adès Mevel, representing Reporters Without Borders during the talk, spoke out for the international community of media freedom activists. She reminded Bulgaria that the pressure will be kept up: “We will keep on being the stone in the shoe.”

Since Bulgaria holds the presidency of the European Union council from now until June 2018, there will be plenty more opportunities in the coming months to keep press and media freedom high on the agenda. And that’s what we will do.

The article was republished from ECPMF with permission.