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Media Freedom in Bulgaria

Bulgaria's world press freedom index ranks 2006-2017

Concerns over media freedom in Bulgaria have been voiced for several years in a row. The recent Press Freedom Index 2017 of the media watchdog organisation Reporters Without Borders confirms the worrying trend: Bulgaria is again the lowest ranked country in the European Union in terms of media freedom (109th place of 180 countries). Within South East Europe, only Macedonia received an equally alarming result – 111th place.

Bulgaria’s worrying downward trend in media freedom started in 2006, when the country was still ranked 35th in the RWB Index. Within eleven years Bulgaria lost 74 ranks in the Index and the media situation tightened to an extent that only 17 percent of Bulgarians believe the media are independent. In a recent study of the "Reporter" foundation and Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS) 52 percent of Bulgarian journalists agreed that the people in power influence their media. Freedom House shares the assessment of RWB and grades Bulgaria as "partly free" in its 2017 "Freedom of the Press" report. The IREX Media Sustainability Report 2017 concludes: "The main threats to the public’s trust in the media are the huge growth of fake news, a campaign against Bulgaria’s pro-Western orientation, the visible political pressure on the leading national media, and the growing impact of the media described in Bulgaria as "truncheons": tabloid newspapers, online news sites, and television channels used by local oligarchs to exert influence, ruin the reputations of political and business opponents, and manipulate public opinion." Although Bulgarian media perform better than other countries in Southeast Europe, the report summarizes that "the decade of EU membership has been disappointing for development of the media market".

In a rather restrained way, Freedom House assesses that "the media in Bulgaria are generally free of overt government interference, but many outlets are beholden to major advertisers and owners with political agendas. Journalists also face threats and assaults in the course of their work, including from politicians and other powerful interests." The lack of unbiased reporting and quality journalism is usually attributed to a number of factors, including threats to journalists, the lack of transparency in media ownership characterised by interwoven business and political interests as well as insufficient implementation of the existing media legislation and constitutional protections of freedom of speech and expression.

A number of threats and "warnings" against journalists are the most blatant examples of the sort of pressure and intimidation media representatives have to deal with. "In October, a reporter and a cameraman from Nova TV were assaulted in the town of Samokov by a municipal council candidate and several of his supporters. Another reporter from Nova TV, Veronika Dimitrova, was publicly threatened by a politician that month after her investigation revealed connections between his party and a criminal group." Shockingly, so Freedom House note, "impunity for crimes against journalists remains the norm, encouraging self-censorship."

Threats are not the only means to obstruct critical journalists from performing their job. The fact that libel is not decriminalised in Bulgaria, allows for heavy fines against journalists and media outlets daring critical coverage. The IREX Report 2017 states: ""some laws authorize financial penalties for media-related offenses. Defamation is punishable by large fines, and government officials have filed suits against journalists, though the courts tend to favor press freedom in such cases." The IREX report 2017 observed another alarming development: "Several media outlets and tabloid-style websites — many of them owned by or associated with (politician and media mogul) Delyan Peevski — launched smear campaigns against journalists and editors who produced critical reporting on the government or the media mogul."

Although, according to Freedom House, courts overall tend to favour the constitutionally and legislatively well-protected freedom of the press, government officials regularly file suits against journalists. Not only officials can be accused of abusing the law that way. Curiously, Bulgarian law allows banks to impose fines for any sort of disseminating false or harmful information about them, the (false) rationale being to maintain the stability of the banking system. According to the IREX report, "banking regulators imposed fines on two media companies in January 2015, penalizing them for their coverage of a corruption-related 2014 financial crisis and its aftermath."

The ownership structure of the Bulgarian media market remains one of the main challenges for media freedom. Orlin Spassov, lecturer at Sofia University and executive director of the Media Democracy Foundation, illustrates: "Media ownership in Bulgaria is like a Matryoshka doll – there is always one figure behind the other." With advertising budgets from business and the state remaining the main sources of media funding, media find themselves in a situation where critical coverage of their financial beneficiaries might compromise their very existence. Self-censorship is thus not only an unprofessional practice, but also a necessity.

Despite self-censorship for various reasons, denied access to state information adds to the deficiency in media freedom in Bulgaria. The access to information legislation is "considered fairly robust," in the opinion of Freedom House. Authorities, however, still regularly deny orderly filed requests, often for political reasons. Fanny Dadidova of the Access to Information Programme (AIP) speaks of harassment of people, journalists and non-journalists alike, exercising their right to information. The laws, which conform to the highest international standards, are being used in a more and more sophisticated way. Journalists increasingly make use of their right to information, if necessary by resorting to the courts and with the help of the Access to Information Programme or other NGOs like the Association of European Journalists — Bulgaria, the Media Democracy Foundation and the newly re-established Free Speech Syndicate, so the IREX report concludes.

The anti-government protests of 2013 certainly highlighted some of the main challenges for media freedom in the country. As the RWB report notes, "Reporters were repeatedly the victims of police violence during these demonstrations calling for the government’s resignation." On the other hand, the events also gave rise to some optimism about online journalism and the role of social media. Protests were organised mainly over Facebook and the students occupying Sofia University communicated that way. Websites, blogs and social media are the only spheres where journalists can really work independently and where citizens can inform themselves adequately. Three years after the protests, a "renaissance of citizen activism promoting free speech, independent media, and the freedom of expression" is to be witnessed, the IREX report holds. According to the IREX report 2017, it is shown that reporting is not seen as fair, objective, or well-sourced. The mainstream media show a bias for the government while sidelining the opposition or alternative points of view. The tabloid media are not committed to professional and fair reporting at all, and the number of fake-news portals and stories is growing fast." A current study of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS) shows that seven out of ten Bulgarians are confronted with fake news, each fourth Bulgarian is seeing news that contains false facts connected with politics every day.

Sources

Lina Rusch, KAS Media Program South East Europe

2016 adjusted by Rebecca Kittel, KAS Media Program South East Europe

2017 adjusted by Lena von Holt, KAS Media Program South East Europe