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On media freedom, Bulgaria is ‘stable’ at the bottom of Europe

Bulgaria in red, just like Belarus, Turkey and Russia

By Krassen Nikolov

Journalism has become dangerous in Bulgaria, say Reporters without Borders in their 2019 World Press Freedom Index published on Thursday (18 April). The index evaluates the state of journalism in 180 countries and territories every year. Bulgaria ranks 111th in the index. The country is not just last in the EU in terms of media freedom, but is also at the bottom of Europe. On the report’s map there are only four European countries marked in red as particularly problematic – Bulgaria, Russia, Belarus and Turkey.

The rank of Bulgaria, the EU’s poorest country is “stable”. Since 2014, Bulgaria has invariably been below the 100th place.

“One might have expected an improvement in press freedom in 2018 because Bulgaria held the European Council’s rotating presidency during the first half of the year but instead the opposite occurred. 2018 saw TV journalist Viktoria Marinova’s murder in October and a blatant attempt by the authorities to cover up the circumstances by botching the investigation. Corruption and collusion between media, politicians and oligarchs is widespread in Bulgaria. The most notorious embodiment of this aberrant state of affairs is Delyan Peevski, who ostensibly owns two newspapers (Telegraph and Monitor) but also owns a TV channel (Kanal 3), news websites and a big chunk of print media distribution. The government continues to allocate EU funding to media outlets with a complete lack of transparency, with the effect of bribing recipients to go easy on the government in their reporting, or to refrain from covering certain problematic stories altogether. At the same time judicial harassment of independent media, such as the Economedia group, has increased”, the report says.

Bulgaria’s fall in the index is remarkable. In 2007, when joining the EU, Bulgaria shared the 35th-36th place with France. Now France is 32nd and Bulgaria is between Ethiopia and Mali.

The report also reminds that two journalists were arrested in Bulgaria after spending several months investigating the misuse of EU funds.

The Reporters Without Borders report shows that the subject of media freedom in Bulgaria is likely to be a topic in the next European Commission Cooperation and Verification report (CVM). In its previous report, the Commission focused its attention precisely on the state of the media in the country, although media are not covered by CVM . However, the Commission notes that the media environment is key to the independence of the judiciary, and the situation in Bulgaria is bad.

“International observers have noted a significant deterioration in the Bulgarian media environment over recent years, with a Bulgarian media sector characterised by intransparent ownership and weak enforcement of journalistic standards. Such a situation affects the quality of public debate and therefore risks restricting the access of the public to information, with only a limited number of independent sources”, the report says.

It also explains that “the media environment has a specific significance for judicial independence, with targeted attacks on judges in some media connected to intransparent interests, and with difficulties in finding effective redress”.

However, the Bulgarian authorities do not see a problem with the media in the country. They are constantly trying to divert the topic. The last example of this are the investigations of the few independent media left in the country that revealed the corruption affair with the cheap luxury apartments bought by high-level officials.

“How can one say that Bulgarian media are not independent? They reveal everything, nothing remains hidden. The apartment scandal has been reported from dawn to dusk for the last 20 days. I thank everyone who has done this. The media are absolutely free,” the prime minister Boyko Borissov said while the scandal was raging. As a result from the scandal a few key figures from the leading party GERB resigned. Borissov had made a similar statement, claiming that the media in Bulgaria are absolutely free, after the murder of Viktoria Marinova.

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