Bulgaria: When media ceases to act as a watchdog

Bulgarian freelance journalist Boryana Dzhambazova writes about the lack of press freedom in her home country.

In February I visited Montana, a small town in Northwest Bulgaria, the poorest region in the country. A story a local teacher told has stuck with me. Last September her school invited local media to cover the opening of the new school year. One of the media outlets, however, responded that they would only be interested in reporting on the event if the school paid them 200 euros (around $278).

This case is symptomatic of the plight of Bulgarian media.

According to the latest World Press Freedom Index, produced by Reporters Without Borders, Bulgaria ranks 106th out of 180 countries, just one position above Congo, a country notorious for the oppression of journalists. Compare that to 2007, when Bulgaria joined the European Union; that year, the country ranked 51st. Indeed, for several years in a row, Bulgaria has been the worst country in the European bloc for media freedom.

And that is just the tip of the iceberg of challenges that Bulgarian reporters face. Threats are a common way to intimidate journalists. Last April Genka Shikerova, a television presenter known for her unflinching approach to interviewing politicians, found her car burnt outside her home for the second time within a year. Unfortunately, she is not the only one to suffer this sort of attack. In 2012 investigative reporter Lidia Pavlova, who reports on organized crime, also saw her personal and company cars destroyed after she and her son had been receiving threats for years.

Boryana Dzhambazova is a freelance journalist in Bulgaria.

Boryana Dzhambazova is a freelance journalist in Bulgaria.

Recently, the state also began flexing its muscle to pressure journalists. The Financial Supervision Commission, a government body in charge of ensuring the stability of the banking system, had demanded that several publications reveal their sources for stories exposing problems in the banking sector. After they refused to do so, some of the publications were “rewarded” with hefty fines, as the commission claimed the published articles were market manipulation. The unprecedentedly high fines are seen by many local and international media observers as an attempt to silence any critical reporting. As Reporters Without Borders puts it, the state agency has turned into a “media cop”.

Another big concern is the lack of transparency regarding who owns what in the media sector.

For example, Irena Krasteva, a former head of the state lottery, used to own a number of national publications. Her son Delyan Peevski, a member of the Parliament, was appointed to head the country’s State Agency for National Security in the summer of 2013, prompting a wave of antigovernment protests which lasted for months, despite his resignation.

But last April, Krasteva announced the sale of her publications to an Ireland-based company which was registered only a few days before the deal, according to reports in Bulgarian media. Who is now the effective owner of this media empire? One can only speculate.

The curtain was lifted slightly last year when Peevski got into a public argument with Tsvetan Vasilev, the head of a local bank which had its licence revoked in 2014. The feud, which would put to shame many Hollywood screenwriters, included both men alleging that the other was planning to have him killed. The banker had often denied in the past that he had anything to do with the media group, but the brawl forced the unusual duo to admit they had originally been allies.

Such Kafkaesque scenarios discourage independent journalism and often lead to self-censorship. Almost 26 years after the fall of communism, most Bulgarian papers have turned the old saying “He who pays the piper, calls the tune” into the definitive rule for determining editorial policy, as corporate and political interests dictate their agenda.

“Most media have retreated from their main purpose – to inform – in favour of conspicuously serving corporate and political interests,” said Nelly Ognyanova, media law expert and professor at Sofia University. She argues that “this allows the emergence of media oligarchs with great influence”.

Since I started working as a journalist 10 years ago, I have watched many of my journalism friends, excellent reporters and talented storytellers, leave the craft for other careers. Disenchanted with the state of Bulgaria’s media, they are now working in fields where not only are they much better paid, but they also do not have to compromise their professional ethics.

Ognyanova sees a similar trend. “Independent writers leave the media sector or marginalize themselves due to lack of opportunities to work according to professional standards,” she said.

Is there a way out? I chose mine years ago by going freelance. Despite the lack of job security, I revel in my editorial independence.

As a university professor, Ognyanova believes education could be an engine of change and that the new generation of reporters could use digital tools and new media to inform and serve their audience. “But education is not enough,” she said. “This profession requires dedication, integrity and strength. There is no path to liberating media without the involvement of journalists themselves.”

Perhaps it is still too early to hope that next time I go to Montana I will hear about an exciting new media venture that wants to inform its fellow citizens rather than ask them for a bribe. But I still dare to hope that one day this might be the case.

Boryana Dzhambazova is a freelance journalist, based in Sofia, Bulgaria. She started her journalism career in 2005, writing for both Bulgarian and foreign publications. Since then she has covered a wide range of topics – from economic and political developments to social affairs and human rights issues. Her articles have appeared in the International New York Times, Business Week, Fast Company, and GlobalPost among others.