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Waiting for Freedom of the Press in Bulgaria

Caricature of the former prime-minister and media by Christo Komarnitzki.  Used with permission

Caricature of the former Prime Minister and media by Christo Komarnitzki, used with permission

More than 20 years after the instatement of democracy in Bulgaria, the country should be well out of a transitional period, at least regarding basic democratic rights such as freedom of speech and media freedom. This, however, is not the case. According to some recent studies and public sentiment, Bulgaria is rated as the country with the worst state of media freedom among EU member states.

A few months before the resignation of his cabinet, former Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov made a controversial public comment after website Bivol, a partner of Wikileaks in Bulgaria, had published a document that allegedly revealed [bg, pdf] that the now former Prime Minister had been under police investigation in the 1990s. This comment to media representatives from Borisov came only four days after he announced on Bulgarian National Television that he wasn't controlling the media in the country:

The thing they [Bivol] did, I can do to all of you who are standing here today. I can order the [government] agencies to form similar trials against all of your journalists, or anyone.

Along with issues of government corruption and social inequality, which first sparked mass protests almost immediately after the new polls in May and then an occupation of Bulgarian universities by students, key issues in the country include the state of freedom of the press in Bulgaria, which now seems to be on the public agenda.

On September 16, 2013, the car of Bulgarian journalist and co-host of a popular morning show on bTV Genka Shikerova, known for her in-depth interviews of Bulgarian politicians, was set on fire outside her home in Sofia, bringing more concern about media freedom and the safety of journalists in Bulgaria. Reporters Without Borders published an interview with Shikerova recently, while OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatović urged “swift investigation” into the suspected arson attack.

Mijatovic had also made an earlier official statement regarding threats against journalists in Bulgaria after a television crew from Bulgarian SKAT TV was verbally and physically assaulted by Ataka Party leader Volen Siderov and other members of his political party in Bourgas while trying to interview him. In this statement, she said:

Such intimidation not only threatens the affected journalists, it can also harm free expression and have a chilling effect on media freedom.

According to a Freedom House study of democratic development in 29 countries Bulgaria is also rated as one of the five countries in Europe, along with Russia, Kosovo, Estonia and Romania, which face democratic issues and challenges. In the report Freedom of the Press 2013, a part devoted to developments in Bulgaria states:

A number of private newspapers publish daily, and most are owned by two rival companies. Two of the three leading national television stations, bTV and Nova TV, are owned by foreign companies. The third is state-owned Bulgarian National Television (BNT). Like Bulgarian National Radio, BNT generally provides news coverage without a clear political bias, but the legal structure leaves public media vulnerable to potential government interference.[...] The New Bulgarian Media Group, which takes a staunchly pro-government line, continued to acquire outlets during the year, raising concerns about concentration.

Alternative information outlets

Students occupy Sofia University and use laptops to send information out; photo from the Early-wakening students Facebook fan page, used with permission.

Students occupy Sofia University and use laptops to send information out; photo from the Early-waking students Facebook fan page, used with permission.

With the traditional media landscape as closed as it is in the country, many are turning to social media and websites as alternative sources of information. Many people are turning mainly to small or mid-sized websites that are not owned by any of the big media companies to stay informed.

Orlin Spasov, a Bulgarian media expert and director of Media Democracy Foundation, commented [bg] on a Bulgarian news site about the media situation in relation to the polls in May:

Много медии следват политическата конюнктура и се ориентират не ценностно, а спрямо нея, пиковете в подкрепа на една или друга политическа формация са основен ориентир на голяма част от българските медии.[...]

Нашите изследвания показват, че социалният интернет – Фейсбук, блоговете, сайтовете за видеосподеляне – се радват почти на толкова голяма степен на доверие, както и телевизията.

Many media follow the political conjuncture and they orientate not according to values, but according to this [politics] and pick in support for one political formation or another, as a main point of orientation for a large part of the Bulgarian media.[...]

Our research shows that the social web – Facebook, blogs, video exchange sites – enjoy almost as much [public] trust as television.

Twitter user @zzdravkov tweeted a sentiment that seems to be becoming more common in Bulgaria:

I wonder whether it is too hard for the governments from the last six years now that phones with cameras have appeared, as well as the Internet and social networks?

— zzdravkov (@zzdravkov) October 13, 2013

Social media has played a key role in protests for a large part of Bulgarians who use the Internet. According to research [bg], in 2012, 57 percent of Bulgarian citizens use the Internet regularly, and earlier studies point out that over two million people in Bulgaria were active Facebook users in 2009 alone.

In a story about the recent developments in Bulgaria, Euronews points out that social media emerged as a crucial source of information in leading both the anti-government protests that began in June and the current sit-ins by students at several Bulgarian universities:

#ДАНСwithme has become the main hashtag – along with #Bulgaria, naturally – around which tweets, videos, blogposts and messages about the demonstrations have focused.[...]

Protesters on the internet are using both blogs and social media to voice their anger and let the world know their feelings about the political situation in Bulgaria.

In a blog post [bg] titled “About the Success Reached and the Possible (Eventual) Victory of the Protests”, Professor Nikolay Slatinsky wrote:

Хубавото на социалните мрежи и блоговете е и това, че те помнят и пазят позиции, мнения, становища, виждания – кой какво е писал, казал, изрекъл, споделил преди време и когато е трябвало, а не post factum.

The nice thing about social networks and blogs is that they remember and save stated positions, opinions and points of view – what someone has written, said, shared in the past, and when it was needed, not post factum [after the fact].

Many observers and bloggers in Bulgaria reflect on whether the energy expressed on online networks is a reason for social developments, such as the recent protests, or a consequence. Slatinsky adds:

На протестите трябва да се гледа и мисли малко по-различно (Защото сме не в 20 век, а в мрежовото общество на 21 век)[...]
А това е време на мрежовите структури, а не на йерархическите (каквито са и партиите); на социалните мобилизации по хоризонтала, а не по вертикала; на спонтанно възникващите общности; на автентичните изблици на обществена енергия; на стихийните самоорганизации.

One should view and think about the protests a bit differently (because we are not in the 20th century but in the networked society of the 21st century)[...] And this is a time of network structures, not of the hierarchal ones (like those belonging to the parties); of social horizontal mobilizations and not vertical ones; of spontaneously born communities; of authentic eruptions of social energy.

Bulgarian journalist and blogger Ruslan Jordanov writes on his blog about the phenomenon of the power of social mobilization on online networks:

Прощъпулникът на гражданската съпротива показва нещо много важно -
всеки е медия, всеки е журналист, от всеки нещо /или много/ зависи.

The first steps of the citizen opposition show something very important -
everyone is media, everyone is a journalist and something /or much/ depends on everyone.

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