Press Ctrl+Alt+Del. Restart Bulgarian Media.

By Vesislava Antonova

Vesislava AntonovaAt the end of July this year, Reporters Without Borders published a report titled “Mission Possible: Investigative Journalism in Bulgaria.” The report states that, paradoxical though it may seem, it is easy for a motivated journalist in Bulgaria to uncover and collect evidence of corruption and misuse of power. The problem comes after the work is published. Instead of receiving cooperation and applause, journalists face authorities that pretend to know nothing, or, worse, they are followed, harassed, intimidated through smear campaigns, and called “enemies of the state.”

Less than two months after the report was published, the country entered the international news cycle once again. The reason? Two investigative journalists—Dimitar Stoyanov from the news site and fellow journalist Attila Biro from the RISE Project in Romania—were detained by police in the Bulgarian town of Radomir.’s editor-in-chief, Atanas Chobanov, said that, about half a year ago, his publication was given access to a large (70 gigabytes) database containing various documents, private and official, that expose schemes for the misappropriation of EU funds. Work on systematizing the information went on for months. The first article of the so-called GP Gate series was published on Monday.

“After publishing the article, we started receiving information from various sources,” Chobanov said. According to one source, the original documents are transported by car from Sofia to Radomir, where they are destroyed.

A meeting took place between journalists and employees of Bulgaria’s General Directorate for Combating Organized Crime, but the destruction of the documents continued. Suspecting the police would not intervene, decided to send a reporter to the site the source had named. That very evening, Dimitar Stoyanov, a lawyer friend of his, and Attila Biro, who works with on various investigations, drove to a place near Egalnitsa village where the documents were being burned. The police were waiting for them. According to the arrest warrant, the journalists were detained because they had entered a crime scene.

The next day, their arrest became international news.

Reporters Without Borders published an open letter in defense of the journalists, condemning their arrest. The organization drew attention to the frequency with which investigative journalists are subjected to pressure in Bulgaria, ranging from warnings to intimidation and even physical assault. The organization points out that the country ranks lower than any other EU member state in its 2018 World Press Freedom Index; it is 111th out of 180 countries. Bulgaria’s worsening ranking over the years mirrors the decline of press freedom and the erosion of the democratic process in the country.

The media guarantee political pluralism and transparency and serve as a tool enabling the functioning and transformation of democracy. Unfortunately, media producing quality work in Bulgaria are facing a serious crisis. This isn’t surprising, as they have been the target of both political and economic threats for years. Politics and the market have led to media distortion, revealing the very real risks to media independence and the challenges to democracy itself.

Formally, Bulgarian media are politically independent; this, in fact, is a statutory requirement for public radio and television. At the same time, there have been quite a number of events over the past decade that have led people to suspect and even believe this is not the case. In Bulgaria, there are connections and dealings between politicians and the media that are hidden from those they have a commitment to serve, the citizens. The funding model for public media is a sufficiently convincing example: these media are basically dependent on the state budget. Another example is pressure from lobbyists when changes in media legislation are being contemplated.

The Bulgarian media have become apathetic. Their tone is bitter and unsurprised even when they discuss politics, and this has caused quality journalism to collapse. The Fourth Estate needs a major change, a new beginning even, to regain the public’s trust. At present, it fulfills only its minimal, primary function as a chronicler of events. It lacks a critical viewpoint. Fewer and fewer analytical pieces are being published. The media needs a “restart.” It is unclear where the energy for this new beginning will come from, but, at any rate, it will be impossible without society’s help.

Vesislava Antonova has written about media and the media market for Capital weekly since 2004.

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