Bulgaria's Muzzled Media

By MILENA HRISTOVA

 

Bulgaria has hit the record-low spot number 100 in the World Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders, released on February 12. The disheartening, but hardly surprising ranking comes after a year of mass protests, political tensions and tons of censorship and self-censorship at news rooms.

Shady media market players have spread their tentacles to the distribution and printing sectors.
Shady media market players have spread their tentacles to the distribution and printing sectors.

To slightly misquote Orhan Pamuk, being born in Bulgaria could be bliss, but first you have to survive. Especially if you are a journalist. And a (relatively) honest one.

 

Nothing could describe better the predicament of the Bulgarian journalist at the moment.

 

The danger of monopolists and ugly distortions on the media market that loomed as the biggest threat to free speech in Bulgaria last year is already a fact, its impact – clear.

 

On February 12, 2014 Bulgaria hit the record-low spot number 100 in the World Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders. Thus the country gained the status of the lowest ranked European Union member state after a tumultuous year marked by five months of major protests and political tensions.

 

Now Bulgaria's media landscape – a merger between financial, political and media power - resembles Putin's Russia. It places Bulgaria once again in Europe's backyard and brands it as Russia's Trojan horse in the united bloc.

 

There are two centers around which Bulgarian media line up as loyal satellites – to put it simply, they are either loyal to (and paid by) people close to the current coalition of Socialists and Turks or the previous cabinet of Boyko Borisov.

“I resign lest blood be shed,” reads a front page headline of a newspaper, known to be linked to former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov (pictured). Borisov resigned last February after mass protests. Photo by Dimiter Muftieff
“I resign lest blood be shed,” reads a front page headline of a newspaper, known to be linked to former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov (pictured). Borisov resigned last February after mass protests. Photo by Dimiter Muftieff

Obviously in Bulgaria shady figures can afford to buy back shares in large numbers or are tempted by the prospect of using the media for money laundering or for promoting other economic activities from public tenders, public works, mobile telephony, energy, tourism, etc. The investments are made with the sole goal of turning the media into a tool for communication or pressure.

 

Feeling financially and emotionally insecure, the journalists in the purchased titles agree to conform and yield to self-censorship. Thus the collusion between political authorities, organized crime and the monopolist is often with the complicity of the (until recently pretty honest) journalists themselves.

 

The monopolist and the authorities live in a mutually benefiting symbiosis, which poisons the media market and hurts the interests of society, violates EU competition rules, restricts public access to information and freedom of expression.

 

What about the victims of abuses of power that could only be uncovered by a free and unmuzzled press? What about each and every Bulgarian, who becomes more and more likely to be cheated by those with power, or denied inconvenient information?

 

Bulgaria's journalists do have a Code of Ethics. It was signed in November 2004 with the sincere hope that it will help improve professional standards in this field and build a civic society.

 

Alas, unlike the Media Code of Ethics in other countries, including France, it does not feature the so-called 'conscience clause', which can be invoked when duties imposed on the journalist conflict with his/her voice of conscience. The clause would allow journalists to not feel obliged to conduct themselves unethically merely to protect their job, but be free to quit and claim damages.

 

This is not the case in Bulgaria, where the media market and the relations between journalists and publishers are very often purely barbarian. It is easy to see that the clause was not included simply because many employers (publishers) would not have signed it in this format.

 

True, the press is in crisis not only in Bulgaria, but across the whole of Europe. In Bulgaria however the situation is very serious because this is a country with an unstable democracy and a fragile civil society.

 

Thank God, there is no such thing as a monopoly of information!

 

If you don't want to be fed cheap propaganda, it is highly recommendable to include in your everyday media menu a newspaper outside the monopoly and a few blogs.