PLENTY OF VENOM

by Anthony Georgieff

Bulgarian media gripped by outpour of hate speech

Imagine you spoke Bulgarian, watched Bulgarian TV, bought Bulgarian newspapers, conferred on important issues with your Bulgarian pals on FB, and delved into the darker recesses of the Internet where there are plenty of nebulous websites purporting to carry news about Bulgaria. If you did that, you have two options. One is to go mad within a couple of hours. The other? You will discover that the sort of Bulgaria "described" by the media is very different from the Bulgaria you see on Bulgarian National Television – or out in the street.

Here is one example. A "news" site with unclear ownership carries the following story, rendered here verbatim: "BLOOD in the centre of Sofia! Bulgarian patriots beat up violently a politician who had been mocking the people!"

You see just the headline posted by someone on FB, of course. If you do click on the attached link, however, the following gem will reveal itself to your incredulous eyes: "VENGEANCE was administered to a Bulgarian politician over his deeds and mockery of the Bulgarian people. A group of Bulgarian patriots decided to take matters in their own hands, and waited on the politician to come near his big-shot apartment in Central Sofia, where the politician was beat up into pulp by the Bulgarian patriots. The participants in the melee wish to retain their anonymity as well as the anonymity of the smashed-up politician, but commented that the smashed-up politician had fully deserved to be beat up, and that owing to the mockery of the Bulgarian people he should have been hanged publicly along the Yellow Brick Road in Sofia, and added that this was only the beginning and that all national traitors are yet to get what they deserve."

Again, the above "news story" is rendered here verbatim. Your attention has been caught? Read on: "The great war starts within a few hours! An 100,000 mixed army starts towards of the capital of the Islamic State!" "UNIQUE! The image of Vasil Levski shines over the Rila lakes!" "Bulgaria is ALIVE!" "Bulgaria is in ecstasy! Mareshki sells diesel at 0.50 leva a litre!" The only possibly truthful story on that site has the following headline: "EXCLUSIVE! Extraterrestrials attacked the Bulgarian parliament!"

Quite obviously, this is not the BBC, and very evidently this is not even the former News of the World. This is something a lot more dangerous because it appears haphazardly on some websites and is being disseminated exponentially by a group of people to thousands of other people before whoever originally posted it withdraws it from circulation, only to substitute it with something ever more awful, sensationalist, alarmist or plain submental.

Significantly, this is happening in a country that is still trying to shake off Communism and where the public is at the same time very gullible, yet very susceptible to all kinds of conspiracy theories.

No one, including law enforcement, can do anything because the sites putting such stories into circulation have unclear ownership; and even if they did, they are not breaking any law because there is no media law in Bulgaria. The only law concerning "electronic media" is a late 1990s bill that is hopelessly outdated and that concerns only Bulgaria's public broadcasters, Bulgarian National Television and Bulgarian National Radio.

Hate speech is everywhere in this country, concludes a study by the Centre for Modernisation of Politics Foundation and the Media Democracy Foundation. The main groups targeted by hate speech are Bulgaria's Gypsies (93 percent), asylum-seekers (73 percent), homosexuals and men originating in the Middle East (70 percent each). Hate speech is most often used by citizens perusing social media, followed by football fans and "commentators" on online media and websites, though even some mainstream media allow it, typically by having anchors sitting by nonchalantly while hate speech is being used by their guests live on air.

EU regulations that media should be responsible for their content, including the content of unmoderated comments, are not applied in this country.

Associate Professor Orlin Spasov singled out Alfa and Skat TV, the mouthpieces of Ataka and the National Salvation Front respectively (both parties represented in the Bulgarian parliament as the latter is a coalition partner of the ruling GERB) as using hate speech even in their newscasts. Other media, including print media, have adopted hate speech as a standard, according to Spasov. Such practices have become mainstream and are put into use periodically, whenever the need arises to discredit certain political parties or individuals of public standing, Spasov said.

Georgi Lozanov, the outgoing chairman of the Bulgarian Electronic Media Council, is even more pessimistic as he thinks that the proliferation of hate speech has reached the point of no return, and no agency of the state can do anything about it without going down to its roots, which are social, economic and political, and as such are difficult to reach. First and foremost, according to Lozanov, hate speech is used by the voices of Anti-liberalism because it holds that hate speech is something good and just. Post-1989 Bulgarians have become used to the fact that public welfare gets distributed through violence. Now we have the "verbal gangsters" who use spoken violence to gain access to public resources, concluded Lozanov.

Other observers are even more radical in their assessment of the Bulgarian media situation. Some say there is really no media in the Western sense in what is the EU's poorest member state. There are just "propaganda" agencies that put into circulation a concoction of half-truths and half-lies, amply peppered with Balkan superstition and prejudice, designed to smear political opponents or business competitors, or just commit character assassinations.

Typically, the main message of these online "media" is that the West (with its tolerance, restraint, tradition and so on) is bad as it tries to "usurp" Bulgaria's "long-standing" values, and vile local politicians are more than willing to cooperate. Putin's Russia is good because the "great Russian nation" is a tried-and-tested ally who liberated us from the Turks.

So, forget about the BBC with its commitment to "inform, educate and entertain." Forget about double- and triple-checking facts and basing news stories on at least two sources. Forget about political correctness and simple human decency. According to international surveys, Bulgaria continues to be rock bottom in the EU in terms of media freedoms.

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