On September 2, 2020, Bulgarian journalist Dimitar Kenarov went to the center of the Bulgarian capital Sofia to cover an anti-government protest.
He was filming the largely peaceful demonstration calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Boyko Borisov’s government, when a number of individuals began firing projectiles at police, who responded with pepper spray and batons.
In the ensuing violence, Kenarov, who had then put on a gas mask with the brand “Press”, was thrown to the ground by police officers, kicked repeatedly in the face and handcuffed, despite insisting he was a journalist and showed them his card press.
He was eventually taken to the police station and released several hours later.
In the following weeks, the Interior Ministry denied that Kenarov had been arrested, despite available images of his arrest and a medical certificate that he had been assaulted.
When it tried to take the case to court, the prosecution stopped the proceedings, while the interior ministry asked the National Revenue Agency to audit its tax and social security payments.
The episode provoked the international condemnation of organizations such as Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which took the case into account when preparing its latest index of press freedom released in April.
It placed Bulgaria in 112th place in the world, the third lowest among European countries, after Russia (150) and Belarus (158).
According to journalists and academics with whom Al Jazeera spoke, freedom of the press in Bulgaria has declined significantly in the last two decades, not only because of the democratic backlash the country is experiencing, but also because the media is struggling with the increased corruption and financial difficulties.
However, there is hope that the ongoing political changes can improve the situation in the near future.
“EU increased corruption”
When RSF began publishing its press freedom index in 2002, Bulgaria, then a candidate for EU membership, was ranked 38th.
Five years later, when it joined the bloc, it fell to 51. The downward trend continued and, ten years after its accession to the EU, the country ranked 109th.
Bulgaria is not the only EU member to have struggled with press freedom, as other Eastern European states that acceded in the 2000s experienced similar challenges.
Pavol Szalai, head of RSF’s Balkans Desk, told Al Jazeera that press freedom in Bulgaria is being affected by regressive trends in other Eastern European countries, but also by more specific factors.
“Unlike other EU countries, such as Hungary and Poland, where the situation is bad, but they rank higher, in Bulgaria we have observed frequent physical attacks on journalists,” he said.
Meanwhile, there is a dwindling space for independent media and the judiciary is pursuing journalists instead of protecting them.
According to Kenarov, however, violence against media professionals is not prevalent in Bulgaria.
“I cannot say that in Bulgaria they earn more than in others [European] countries, ”he said, adding that he sees his own police-led assault case as an exception.
He believes that people in power arm state institutions to repress critics.
Central and local authorities can exercise control over the media to diminish their control over their work, by distributing state funds for advertising.
After joining the EU, Bulgaria, like other new members, received large funds to help its economic development.
Some went to state advertising of EU development programs, which, given the country’s relatively small advertising market, which is seven million, provides an important source of revenue for both large and small media.
“The EU greatly increased corruption in Bulgaria,” Kenarov said. “By giving this uncontrolled money to the Bulgarian government, in all sectors, not just the media, they created Borisov and helped him establish his clientele network.”
Durant Borisov’s three terms as prime minister since 2009, Bulgaria has witnessed the sale of major national media to businessmen considered close.
In 2019, businessmen Kiril Domuschiev and Georgi Domuschiev acquired Nova TV, one of the three national television channels.
Subsequently, the contract was terminated to several television investigative journalists.
Following Borisov’s withdrawal in May, local media reported that between 2017 and 2021 his cabinet spent more than $ 6 million on EU funds in media advertising, most of which (1.3 million) was for Nova TV.
Borisov has also been accused of protecting Delyan Peevski, a media mogul and former member of parliament from the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, from corruption investigations.
Recently, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Peevski under the Global Magnitsky Act.
U.S. accusations against Peevski include that he “negotiated with politicians to provide them with political support and positive media coverage in exchange for receiving protection from criminal investigations.”
“A group of oligarchs, mainly Peevski […] established the media monopoly, “Venelina Popova, an investigative journalist who worked for Bulgarian national radio for 30 years, told Al Jazeera.
“The big media went through different entrepreneurs, most of whom have aimed to maintain close relationships with those in power so as not to have problems and receive advertising money.”
Peevski is believed to occupy up to 80 percent of the print media distribution market and has been accused of using outlets he owns to litter opponents and critics.
Popova said that last year, after investigating Peevski’s donations to public hospitals at the start of the pandemic, she was called a “propagandist” and a “pawn” in her media. The Bulgarian branch of the European Association of Journalists (AEJ) issued a statement of solidarity with it.
The financial crisis of 2008
Negative global trends in the industry have also affected the Bulgarian media landscape.
According to Martin Marinos, a media scholar and assistant professor at Pennsylvania State University, the tabloidization of the Bulgarian media began in the late 1990s and early 2000s with the entry of foreign media corporations, such as Rupert’s News Corp Murdoch and German WAZ.
“These companies, no matter how much they talk about democracy and civilization, turn outlets into tabloids and care little about journalism,” he said.
This corporate acquisition later paved the way for Bulgarian oligarchs to buy media, particularly after the exodus of foreign companies after the 2008 financial crisis.
The effect was particularly severe, with outlets and journalists more vulnerable to financial pressure, Marinos explained.
Until the 2010s, media workers shared stories of low-paying jobs and repeated job losses.
Along with significant deregulation and lack of control by state institutions, the crisis has also allowed some large companies to take control of the media market, Marinos said.
“There’s no way things can go well if you have a merger of big business and media,” he said.
Marinos gave an example of his fieldwork with TV7, a channel linked to Tsvetan Vasilev, former chairman of the board of the Corporate Commercial Bank (CCB), in bankruptcy: “I visited TV7 [in 2016]. Half of the building was TV7, the other half was the [CCB] bench. Walk down the aisle and walk past people you don’t know if they’re journalists or bankers. “
The Internet and social media, and the effect of Big Tech on the advertising market, have also changed the landscape.
Currently, about 60 percent of online advertising revenue in Bulgaria goes to Facebook and Google.
“[There was] a negative change in the media business model. The role of the print media declined significantly, other types of media lost a lot of revenue and, in general, journalism lost a lot of space for social media, “Ivan Radev, a board member of Al Jazeera, told Al Jazeera. Bulgarian branch of AEJ.
This devastated the smaller media.
Journalists were once again insecure about their jobs and many left the profession, he said.
Bulgaria has the lowest number of journalists per capita in the EU and is believed to have only 3,000 media workers.
“No quick and easy solution”
Despite the challenges, Al Jazeera journalists interviewed expressed optimism for the future.
Much of his hope has to do with Borisov’s withdrawal in May after his GERB party and its coalition partners did not receive enough votes in the April election to form a government.
“There is no quick and easy solution to the problem [with press freedom] it is multi-layered, “Radev said.” But at least this change in policy is being seen as a positive thing because there was a growing perception of the state’s uptake. “
In his view, journalism in Bulgaria would benefit from judicial reform, which would increase accountability for those who misuse public funds.
Politicians, he added, should change their attitudes towards greater respect for media independence.
Kenarov also sees the recent political events in Bulgaria in a positive light.
He said that after an interim government took over from Borisov, the Interior Ministry withdrew its request for a tax audit and began cooperating on its case.
In his view, judicial reform would improve press freedom in Bulgaria, as well as greater EU control over the use of bloc funds.
“When we Bulgarians joined the EU, our hope was not for money, but to control it. We saw the EU as an institution that would be able to control our corrupt institutions, ”he said.
For Popova, Bulgarian journalists have a role to play. There needs to be more solidarity and commitment to ethical standards.
“In Bulgaria we need strong unions. [We do not have] unions that can protect the rights of journalists. The Bulgarian Journalistic Union remains only a nominal post-communist organization, ”he said.
According to Marinos, state institutions must act to regulate the media market and prevent the concentration of media companies in the hands of some large businesses.
He also considers that increasing the budget of the public media is a crucial step in making them more open to diverse and more representative views of Bulgarian society.