CIRCUS BULGARIA

by Anthony Georgieff

A surveillance scandal indicates the government's inability to cope with democracy – and the media's almost total subservience to whoever is in power

In recent months Bulgaria seems to have become an almost textbook example of what every freshman in media studies in the West should know by heart: the world is not what it is but what it appears to be on TV.

In 2011, Bulgaria is not what it is but what Prime Minister Boyko Borisov and his tried-and-tested lieutenant Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov tell the major TV channels it is.

The situation seems to have got so out of control that ordinary citizens are beginning to intone again the old post-Communist adage so many Bulgarians became used to during the early years of this country's uneasy transition to "democracy": "Circus Bulgaria."

At the heart of the most recent scandal is a series of Interior Ministry-ordered phone tappings that were leaked to a newspaper. In them various senior officials talk with each other ‒ and with their supreme boss, Boyko "Batte" Borisov himself. The chief of Bulgarian Customs was taped discussing obviously illicit deals, then Batte, meaning Big Brother, Boyko as he is lovingly called by his subjects, suddenly intervenes and orders the customs chief by telephone not to touch a particular entrepreneur, nicknamed Misho "The Beer," because he (the prime minister) had undertaken "certain commitments." The customs chief promptly complies.

Then Big Brother Boyko calls the chief of Sofia Airport customs and orders him to reappoint a football pal who has just been fired. The Sofia Airport boss obeys within the weekend...

Indicative of how this country is run? Many Bulgarians agree that the leaked tapes, in fact, contained nothing extraordinary. It has for long been an open secret that this government is by far more ruthless than its predecessors in protecting the individual economic and political interests of its members and cronies. But the real scandal is that few law enforcement officials ‒ and few branches of the media ‒ actually focused on what Boyko Borisov and his staff were heard saying. The main emphasis was put on how the tapes had been leaked.

Some probes ensued. An independent test commissioned by the newspaper in possession of the digitised recordings was conducted in France. It concluded that the voices were genuine. Then the government ordered another probe by local experts. The conclusion again was that, even though the recordings had been tampered with, the voices heard saying what they were saying were real.

The next step was a bomb blast in the early hours of a February morning. The target: the editorial offices of the newspaper which had run the material. Immediately, various officials, pundits and so on suggested that the editorial staff had planted the bomb themselves in order to attract attention to their newspaper. Tsvetan Tsvetanov, who is usually quick to appear on TV and make some pre-emptive remarks in cases ranging from medical negligence to wrongful arrests, was conspicuously absent from the scene of the crime. Many hours later he would assert that the number of bomb blasts of this sort had, in fact, decreased since the late 1990s, when Ivan Kostov, the man who started Bulgaria's post-Communist reforms in earnest, was prime minister.

All of this would have caused major resignations, sackings and court cases in any country with a free and independent media. But not so in Bulgaria. With the exception of some lesser newspapers not owned by the main print media grouping, which is known for its close relations with the government, as well as some smaller TV channels, all the main players, including the state-run TV and the main private TV station, resorted to some classic media techniques to de-focus the real events and divert the attention of the public the way Boyko Borisov's publicists wanted. The prime minister was repeatedly seen on TV playing down the scandals, his interior minister was everywhere rejecting "hearsay" that he had ordered the tappings himself. Conveniently, all of this happened against the background of the trouble in the Arab world, so much of the central newscasts' airtime was devoted to Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Al-Qadhafi instead of the personages pulling the strings in the EU's poorest member.

Bulgaria's media are very happy to indulge in the usual platitudes about the prime minister inaugurating sports grounds of kindergartens, just as the main task of the Communist period Bulgarian media was to show Communist leaders opening new collective farms and factories. They are also very happy to air alarmist reports about "killer doctors" and the reportedly corrupt judiciary. The cops are the good guys, the doctors and the judges aren't. This is the way Boyko Borisov and Tsvetan Tsvetanov, both former cops, want Bulgarians to see their country.

Of course the power relationship between those in government and the media is a lot more intricate in 2011 than it was in 1988. In 1988 the party bosses just picked up the phone and ordered the National Television anchors to air or not to air a report or an opinion. Now the media live in a mesh of, at times, extremely complicated economic and political interdependencies, which makes it impossible for any controversial inquiry to be broadcast by a major channel unless it has been approved by either those with the political might or by the advertising paymasters.

Sadly, in a situation like this even the biggest scandal will remain just a media squib, with no sackings or prosecutions to follow.

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