On September 2, 2020, Bulgarian journalist Dimitar Kenarov traveled to the center of the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, to cover an anti-government rally.
He was filming a largely peaceful demonstration calling for the resignation of then-Prime Minister Boyko Borisov’s government as several people opened fire on police, who responded with pepper spray and batons.
During the ensuing violence, Kenarov, who had previously put on a “press” gas mask, fell to the ground by police officers, repeatedly kicked him in the face, handcuffed him, even though he claimed to be a journalist, and showed them his press card. :
He was eventually taken to a police station and released a few hours later.
In the following weeks, the Interior Ministry denied that Kenarov was being held despite his detention and a medical certificate stating that he had been abused.
When he tried to take the case to court, the prosecution suspended the proceedings, while the Interior Ministry asked the National Revenue Agency to check its taxes and social security payments.
The episode sparked an outcry from international condemnation organizations, including Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which took the case into account. The latest press freedom index Released in April.
It ranked Bulgaria 112th in the world, the third lowest among European countries, after Russia (150) and Belarus (158).
According to academics interviewed by Al-Azira, press freedom in Bulgaria has declined significantly over the past two decades, not only because of the country’s democratic decline, but also because the media is struggling with growing corruption and financial difficulties.
However, there is hope that the ongoing political changes can improve the situation in the near future.
“The EU increased corruption”
When RSF released its Press Freedom Index in 2002, Bulgaria, then a candidate for EU membership, was ranked 38th.
Five years after joining the bloc, it dropped 51. The downward trend continued և 10 years after EU membership, the country ranked 109th.
Bulgaria is not the only EU member that has fought for freedom of the press, and other Eastern European countries that joined in the 2000s have faced similar challenges.
RSF Balkan Office Director Pavol Salay told Al Jazeera that press freedom in Bulgaria is being affected by backward trends affecting other Eastern European countries, but also more specific ones.
“Unlike other EU countries, such as Hungary and Poland, where the situation is bad but higher, in Bulgaria we have seen frequent physical attacks on journalists,” he said.
While there is an ever-shrinking area for independent media outlets, the judiciary persecutes journalists instead of protecting them.
According to Kenarov, however, violence against media professionals is not so widespread in Bulgaria.
“I can not say that they beat more in Bulgaria than in others [European] countries, “he said, adding that he saw his own case of police attacks as an exception.
He believes that those in power put weapons on state institutions to criticize.
Central and local authorities are able to exercise control over media outlets in order to ease control over their work through the allocation of state funds for advertising.
After joining the EU, Bulgaria, like other new members, received large sums of money to help its economic development.
Some of them are devoted to state advertising for EU development programs, which, given the relatively small market of seven million advertisements, provide a significant source of revenue for large and small media.
“The EU has significantly increased corruption in Bulgaria,” Kenarov said. “By giving this uncontrollable amount of money to the Bulgarian government, not in all areas of the LM, they created Borisov and helped him establish his client network.”
During: Borisov’s three terms As Prime Minister since 1990, Bulgaria has witnessed the sale of major national media outlets to its own businessmen.
In 2019, businessmen Kirill Domushchi գի Georgi Domushchi ձեռք acquired Nova TV, one of the three national TV channels.
The contracts of several investigative journalists working for the television were later terminated.
Following Borisov’s resignation in May, local media outlets reported that his cabinet had spent more than $ 6 million on advertising media outlets in 2017-2020, with Nova TV receiving the largest share of $ 1.3 million.
Borisov was also accused of defending against a corruption probe: Delian Peski, a media mogul and former member of the Rights and Freedoms Movement.
The US Treasury Department recently imposed sanctions on Pesky under the Magnitsky Global Act.
One of Pescu’s accusations against the United States is that he “negotiated with politicians in exchange for their political support, in exchange for positive media coverage, and for protection from criminal prosecution.”
“A group of oligarchs, mostly Pesky […] “It confirmed the monopoly of the media,” said investigative journalist Venelina Popova, who has worked for the Bulgarian National Radio for 30 years.
“The big media has gone through various business owners, most of whom have sought to maintain close relationships with those in power in order to have no problems or to receive advertising money.”
Pesky is believed to control 80% of the print media market, he is accused of using his own means to lubricate opponents and critics.
Popova said that after investigating Pescu’s donations to state hospitals at the beginning of last year’s epidemic, she was called a “propagandist” or a “hostage” in the media. The Bulgarian branch of the European Association of Journalists (AEJ) has issued a statement of solidarity with him.
The financial crisis of 2008
Negative global trends in industry have also affected the Bulgarian media landscape.
According to Pennsylvania State University media scientist Martin Marinos, the tabloidization of the Bulgarian media began in the late 1990s 1990 with the entry of foreign news corporations such as Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp և the German WAZ.
“These companies, as much as they talk about democracy, civilization, they turn them into tabloids, they think less about journalism,” he said.
This corporate dominance later paved the way for Bulgarian oligarchs to buy media, particularly in the wake of the emigration of foreign business after the 2008 financial crisis.
The result was particularly strong և the media and journalists were more vulnerable to financial pressure, Marinos explained.
Back in the 2010s, media workers shared stories of low-paying, recurring job losses.
Significant inflation – along with a lack of control by state institutions, the crisis also allowed several large businesses to control the media market, Marinos said.
“There is no way that everything can go well when you have a merger of big business and the media,” he said.
Marinos brought an example from his field work with TV7. A channel linked to the former chairman of the board of the now bankrupt Corporate Commercial Bank (CCB), bank Veta Vasil. “I visited TV7 [in 2016]Half of the building was TV7, the other half was it [CCB] Bank You walk down the aisle, passing through people you do not know are journalists or bankers. ”
The Internet և Social Media և The impact of Big Tech on the advertising market has also changed the landscape.
Facebook և Google currently accounts for about 60% of online advertising revenue in Bulgaria.
«[There was] Negative change in the media business model. The role of the print media has been significantly reduced, other types of media have lost a lot of revenue, and, in general, journalism has lost a lot of space to social media, ”Ivan Rad, a member of the AEJ Bulgaria Branch, told Al Jazeera.
This destroyed the smaller media.
Journalists were again insecure in their work, և many left the profession, he said.
Bulgaria has the lowest number of journalists per capita in the EU, with only 3,000 media outlets.
“No quick և easy solution”
Despite the challenges, Al Jazeera, one of the journalists interviewed, expressed optimism for the future.
Their high hopes were for Borisov’s resignation in May, after his GERB party, his coalition partner, failed to get enough votes to form a government in the April elections.
“There is no quick և easy solution because of the problem [with press freedom] “It’s multi-layered,” said Rad. “But at least this change in policy is seen as a positive thing, because the perception of state occupation was growing.”
According to him, journalism in Bulgaria will benefit from judicial reform, which will increase accountability for those who misuse state funds.
Politicians, he added, need to change their attitude towards greater respect for media independence.
Kenarov also sees the recent political developments in Bulgaria in a positive light.
He said that after the interim government took over from Borisov, the Interior Ministry withdrew its demand for a tax audit and began cooperating on his case.
According to him, judicial reform will improve freedom of the press in Bulgaria, as well as greater EU control over the use of the bloc.
“When we Bulgarians joined the EU, our hope was not money, but controlling money. “We saw the EU as an institution that could control our corrupt institutions,” he said.
Bulgarian journalists have a role to play for Popova. There must be greater solidarity and commitment to ethical standards.
“We need strong unions in Bulgaria. [We do not have] syndicates that can protect the rights of journalists. “The Union of Bulgarian Journalists remains just a nominal post-communist organization,” he said.
According to Marinos, state institutions should work to regulate the media market to prevent the concentration of media companies in the hands of a few large businesses.
He considers that the increase of the budget of the public media is a decisive step to make them more crystal clear for more diverse opinions, to make them more representative of the Bulgarian society.