Europe is the “freest” continent according to most indices and rankings, including Freedom House’s new 2019 “Freedom in the World” report. Though two countries – Serbia and, as the only EU country, Hungary – were downgraded from “free” to “partly free” this year (mainly for government-sanctioned intimidation and legal steps against opposition), the overwhelming majority of the countries remains classified as free.
There is a peculiar outlier, though. A country which is considered free, but which has a level of press freedom comparable to that of the Central African republic (112 of 180) or Afghanistan (118 of 180). A country which is part of the EU, and it is neither Poland, nor Hungary.
The country in question is Bulgaria – ranked 111 of 180 in Reporters Without Borders’ annual Press Freedom Index. Aside from Belarus and Russia, both of which aren’t exactly known for having a democratic system, Bulgaria is by far the lowest-ranking country on the continent.
The reason for this is a mixture of uncontrolled capitalism following the collapse of communism throughout Eastern Europe, endemic corruption throughout the entire system and a portion of bad luck. While in other countries such as Germany, Denmark or France there is usually a clear distinction between the journalistic world and the political world, this distinction is often weak or entirely absent in Bulgaria.
Take for instance Delyan Peevski. A member of parliament and former president-elect for Bulgaria’s main intelligence agency, Peevski is also a media mogul, owning six of twelve major newspapers and controlling 80% of print media distribution in the country. He also has considerable control over Bulgarian digital TV channels. This oligarch has not been hesitant to use his “New Bulgarian Media Group” to push his personal views on issues and attack political enemies. He has also used it for influence peddling – essentially exchanging publicity for political or monetary favors.
“Monetary favors” (i.e. corruption) are another considerable factor which contributes to Bulgaria’s low press freedom ranking. Furthermore, though there are numerous different news outlets available in the country, they rely quite heavily on funding coming from the government, giving the authorities considerable leverage to ask media outlets for favorable reporting and to drop potentially scandalous stories in return.
The impact of a media landscape which is controlled largely by one entity can be grave. During the 2009 parliamentary elections, polls made clear that Boris Boyko would be re-elected for another term serving as prime minister. He, however, was a political adversary of Peevski and the CCB bank, which had lent Peevski the money that had allowed him to build up his media empire in the first pace. Therefore, a large-scale smear campaign was launched against Boyko, descending to levels such as comparing him to a pumpkin. Following the election (and a deal between the two sides), reporting suddenly shifted drastically, and the media network began praising Boyko’s government. It is just one of many examples of the media being used to push a political agenda.
The degree to which politics and reporting are intertwined in Bulgaria can also be seen through a case that took place in October 2017. TV Journalist Viktor Nikolaev had been investigating a story relating to the government’s purchasing of a fighter aircraft. As a result, he was publicly threatened by Deputy Prime Minister Valeriy Simeonov and MP Anton Todorov, who warned him that he would “lose his job” if he didn’t quit investigating the story.
Though Bulgaria’s press freedom is still far ahead of that in countries such as China or Russia, it stands out of question that it is not adequate for an EU member state and full democracy. The country managed to make a peaceful transition from communism to democracy (and was one of the first to do so). Today, this democracy is in a dangerous place – one of the fundamental pillars of a working democracy is a working, free press. And Bulgaria’s press increasingly isn’t fulfilling these requirements.
“2018 World Press Freedom Index | Reporters Without Borders.” RSF, rsf.org/en/ranking.
“Breaking up with Peevski.” The Economist, The Economist Newspaper, 20 Sept. 2013, www.economist.com/eastern-approaches/2013/09/20/breaking-up-with-peevski.
“Bulgaria.” Freedom House, 27 July 2018, freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2018/bulgaria.
“Bulgaria 2017/2018.” Early Marriage and Harassment of Syrian Refugee Women and Girls in Jordan, www.amnesty.org/en/countries/europe-and-central-asia/bulgaria/report-bulgaria/.
“Bulgaria : Corruption and Collusion between Media, Politicians, and Oligarchs Is Widespread | Reporters without Borders.” RSF, rsf.org/en/bulgaria.
“Freedom in the World 2019.” Freedom House, 6 Feb. 2019, freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/freedom-world-2019.
Stier, Frank, and Frank Stier. “Bulgarischer Politiker Peewski: Eisberg Der Korruption – SPIEGEL ONLINE – Politik.” SPIEGEL ONLINE, SPIEGEL ONLINE, 31 Jan. 2016, www.spiegel.de/politik/ausland/bulgarien-dps-abgeordneter-deljan-peevski-sorgt-fuer-kontroverse-a-1074203.html.
“White Paper on Media Freedom in Bulgaria | Reporters without Borders.” RSF, 4 May 2018, rsf.org/en/news/white-paper-media-freedom-bulgaria.