by Anthony Georgieff

Corruption prompts bad freedom-of-speech ratings

Under Boyko Borisov, Bulgaria, ostensibly, has all the trappings of a democracy. Elections, generally pronounced by international observers to be free and fair, are being held once in a while. Freedom-of-speech is a constitutionally guaranteed right. Arbitrary arrests of dissenters are supposedly a thing of the Communist past. Everyone, in theory, has access to justice. There are televised debates, policy platforms, endorsements. If they get a permission from their city councils, citizens of all shades and hues demanding anything from a return to Communism to a leap into Neo-Nazism can take to the streets and voice their demands. There will be a plethora of "free" and "independent" media only too willing to make them heard and seen.

Yet, Bulgaria is at the rock bottom of media democracy in all of the EU, and even trails behind many non-EU countries of the Paraguay, Guinea, Côte d'Ivoire and Kuwait ilk.

How come?

The easy answer is that cash handouts are being dealt to media willing to be docile while their owners get themselves enriched in the process.

However, the situation is by far not black-and-white. While some media are constantly being harassed by apparently legitimate tax probes and even police molestation, others are only too glad to represent themselves as "victims" of real or imaginary harassment to focus the public attention on themselves – and cater to their own clients. Different media tell their respective audiences what their respective audiences want to hear, conveniently circumventing the multiplicity of opinion rules. Others – citing the multiplicity of opinion rules – slide into the only-too-familiar Balkan cacophony to water down any meaningful opinion. The sense of mayhem is greatly enhanced by the multitude of Internet sites purportedly announcing news and analyses that skilfully intertwine truths with half-truths and outright lies. Many of those are anonymously owned, and some even spring up to just to disseminate a couple of "stories" that get taken up on Facebook, then disappear the moment anyone wants to verify their origin.

In the muddled and obfuscated world of Bulgarian media it is often difficult to make out what is happening two blocks away especially if you don't speak the language and don't know the main players, where they come from, what they stand for and, most important of all, who their current friends and enemies are.

The recent purchase of Nova Broadcasting Group, a company whose portfolio includes major television broadcasters as well as the biggest online platform in Bulgaria, has rejuvenated the debate about media ownership in the EU's poorest member state. The Domuschiev Brothers, who control major industrial and infrastructure entities ranging from pharmaceuticals to real estate and the Port of Burgas, are known to have a friendly relationship with whoever is in power in general and with Boyko Borisov in particular. In media language this means that the prime minister will automatically gain yet another comfortable media outlet for his policies.

Delyan Peevski, nominally an MP for the Turkish-dominated Movement for Rights and Freedoms, is another major media player. His is Telegraf, this country's largest circulation print newspaper. He also owns Monitor, Politika and the sports oriented Meridian Match, and is thought to control a TV channel as well as a number of popular radio stations. Through Lafka, a chain of tobacconist shops, Peevski owns most of this country's print media distribution. The media Peevski controls are as a rule sympathetic to the rulers.

In 2013 Peevski was appointed to head the Bulgarian Office for Criminal Investigation, which prompted mass protests that paralysed public life in Sofia and some bigger towns, and eventually brought down the government of Plamen Oresharski. In 2019 Peevski stood for and was elected an EMP, but refused to take up the position.

Peevski is often vilified as the chief enemy of another major media grouping in Bulgaria, that of Ivo Prokopiev's Capital newspaper and its associates, notably the online media Dnevnik. Notwithstanding their unabashed penchant for former President Rosen Plevneliev and currently for the Yes Bulgaria political party, the Capital group stand out as trying to be accurate, timely and objective, the nearest to broadsheet press this country has.

On the other side of the spectrum are the tabloids. Unlike the Western tabloids, however, the Bulgarians rags do not investigate into the private lives of the rich and famous – at least not those rich and famous who are in power. They go for the Chalga pop folk stars and the models, they go for the little man, but they would not dare send a team of drone operators to the house in Barcelona Prime Minister Boyko Borisov has been alleged to own.

Of the tabloids Weekend appears to have the largest circulation. It is owned by Martin Radoslavov whose partner in the past was Nedyalko Nedyalkov, the publisher of Pik, an Internet site introducing itself as a news agency. Among other things, Pik organises a tennis tournament whose "patron" is... Prime Minister Boyko Borisov. Though their relationship has seen some turbulence in the past, Pik and Borisov are now on the best of terms, with the newspaper doing whatever it takes to ensure any criticism of Borisov gets a "proper" response, mud-slinging included.

If there is one media that is exactly at the opposite end of the pitch, that is Bivol, a site that casts itself as a dealer in investigative journalism and whistleblowing. Modelled on and partnering with Julian Assange's Wikileaks, it is always sharply critical of anything that has even the remotest link to Boyko Borisov. Additionally, it is prepared to go to great lengths to prove that the agents of the state "repress" it owing to what it represents as its professional courage and valour. At times Bivol sounds so convincing that even some serious media take up on its leads, one example being the assassination, in 2018, of a journalist in Ruse which, according to Bivol had been politically motivated. One of the owners of Bivol is... Asen Yordanov, the brother of Pik's Nedyalko Nedyalkov.

Fake news proliferates best in a country where the administration of the state has notoriously failed to keep its citizens informed about its own actions. The case of the most recent Inland Revenue hack scandal, in which the personal data of virtually every Bulgarian of taxpaying age was let into the open, illustrates it only too well.


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