Why Radio Free Europe Is Returning to Bulgaria

Nenad PejicIn July 2018, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) announced its plan to return to Bulgaria and Romania “amid growing concern about a reversal in democratic gains and attacks on the rule of law and the judiciary in the two EU and NATO members.” The news organization’s motto is “Free media in unfree societies”—an eloquent verdict on the deteriorating media environment in the two countries. Bulgaria is ranked 111th in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index—the worst ranking for a European Union member. It also lags behind all other Balkan countries. Romania is 44th.

Before 1989, RFE/RL was the only source of news from outside the Iron Curtain for many Bulgarians and Romanians, which is why the communist regimes in the two countries made it a criminal offense to listen to its broadcasts. In the years of transition, RFE/RL kept tabs on government and business in the fledgling democracies. As the two countries embarked on the path to reform and membership of Western organizations, RFE/RL folded its operations there, pulling out of Bulgaria in 2004 and out of Romania in 2008. However, “government officials, civil society representatives and journalists in both countries have expressed concern that disinformation, corruption, and social division are undermining their political systems,” prompting the organization’s decision to return. 

RFE/RL’s editor-in-chief, Nenad Pejic, talked to ABF about waning media freedom in Bulgaria, reactions against fake news, and the responsibilities of journalism.

By Nenad Pejic

Fake news or competing viewpoints?

Today, some would argue that truth and lies are actually two competing stories, and that well-told lies attract a larger audience than a weakly told truth. A lie is attractive because it is presented as a spectacle, and truth has no chance of fighting a spectacle if it is not promoted well. Journalists have to recognize spectacles and fiction and strive to promote the truth by breaking into the digital ghetto of those who accept lies without challenging them. Lies and terror have declared war upon the world of facts and values. We journalists cannot ignore this and feign innocence without even trying to debunk the lies! We cannot sit back and behave as if we are above our audience, judging events from a 10,000-foot-high perspective.

I am not saying that we, as journalists, are responsible for the destiny of the societies we live in. However, we are responsible if we do not even contribute to the efforts to improve our societies. There are many of us who would rather follow someone’s orders than follow our own professional guidelines. So, we cannot blame the audience if they question whether they can trust us. I strongly disagree that journalism—a profession that is responsible for informing a society—has no responsibility if people are misinformed. I am afraid that such an illusion about our own innocence can only end in guilt.

A digital Wild West

We are faced with a “digital Wild West” today. You can write whatever you want, and you can lie as much as you can—still, nothing will happen to you as a journalist or media content provider. The waves of lies and manipulation over social media (the Russian media war plays a big part) confused Western societies, and only lately have they started to combat the Russian disinformation campaign. Some countries have introduced laws on media literacy. In Italy, the government, RAI (Radio-televizione Italiana), and Facebook prepared guidelines for kids on how to recognize, and what to do with, fake news. A project was launched on October 31, 2017, in 8,000 Italian schools. The following advice, among others, was shared: do not share unverified news, always ask for the news source, question their facts, and be aware you can be manipulated by social media. As of January 1, 2018, Germany has new rules related to social media (Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz). Companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google have to provide users with a simple way to report illegal and fake content and have to block reported unlawful content within 24 hours. Some individuals have already faced some actions related to their social media posts. Steven Brill, a journalist and entrepreneur, and his colleague from the Wall Street Journal Gordon Crovitz suggested establishing a rating system for websites. All sites would be labeled in one of three colors: green for those that can be trusted, yellow for those that are regularly one-sided and therefore post fake news about opponents, and red for those that intentionally manipulate with fake news. Facebook and YouTube have already invested into preventing fake news from becoming widespread.

Some optimism? 

We live in societies that are deeply divided. When division is high, the audience does not go and search for objective news; they go for media outlets that reinforce their own opinions. However, there is a growing awareness of the damage done by the promotion of fake news; it is not only political, but also social. More and more users are becoming aware they cannot rely on social media as the only source of news. Those who want to find real news can find it on the internet. It is more difficult to find context and professional analyses, and this is the gap we at RFE/RL tend to fill in Bulgaria. 

So, social media as a source of information has reached its peak. Users are sick of the level of lies and manipulation there. A study done in 28 countries in 2018 registered higher levels of confidence in traditional media: the rate is up from 54% to 59%. Simultaneously, confidence in social media decreased from 53% to 51%. Professional journalism is considered the source of truthful news.

The Balkan story

In all Balkan countries, media freedom is in strong decline. The West invested lots of money to help local media outlets grow and become independent from any influence, counting on the economy to support them with advertising. This was the wrong approach because the most profitable companies in most countries have been taken over by tycoons who are close to the individuals and parties in power. In addition, some of those tycoons established their own media and invested their advertising money there. Consequently, free and independent media are left with no regular revenue and rely mostly on grants. In Bulgaria, the media market is strongly divided, and Russian influence over the media is strong. With our return, we plan to be what we have always been—a reliable media outlet offering a credible, professional product.

A crisis medium

Whenever a country is faced with a crisis, the data confirms that the number of people that come to us increases dramatically. Look at recent events in Armenia. Believe or not (Armenia’s population is about three million people), in one month, we had more than 100 million views on Facebook of our Armenia coverage. RFE/RL registered more than two billion views on Facebook and YouTube combined, and our website had over 204 million unique visitors in the last 12 months. These numbers are impressive. The audience is bigger than last year, and this trend has kept up for at least five years.

The situation in the world and in the area of our coverage is getting worse. Crises are following one another; there are more “frozen conflicts,” and less will to solve them. The audience is divided, rich people are becoming richer, and the poor are becoming poorer. In general, I am pessimistic, and the only thing I am sure about is that this will drive audiences back to RFE/RL. I would like to live in a world where RFE/RL is not needed, but this is not realistic.

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