The brutal rape and murder of an young, attractive woman has exposed this country's deep problems with government, public trust in institutions, media freedoms, racism and gender issues, and the blurred line between journalism and political activism.
On a Sunday, while the Facebook quarrels on the quality of Central Sofia's renovation works were losing momentum, a piece of disturbing news spread over. A young woman was raped and murdered in the northern city of Ruse, in broad daylight.
The victim was 30-year-old Viktoria Marinova, a producer at a local TV station. She was assaulted and strangled while jogging in a park by the River Danube. Marinova, unknown outside her hometown, had covered mainly lifestyle issues. A new show she was going to produce would focus on current affairs. Its first, and last, run included an insert of an interview with a Bulgarian and a Romanian journalist belonging to an Internet site, Bivol (meaning Buffalo), with claims in investigative journalism. The pair had been briefly detained a couple of weeks previously by the Bulgarian police while they reportedly investigated the destruction of evidence allegedly showing that a Bulgarian construction company, GP Group, stole EU funds while working on large-scale public projects including the abovementioned reconstruction of Central Sofia.
Viktoria Marinova's brutal killing instantly became top news. Hundreds of people were quick to organise vigils in her memory in Ruse, Sofia, Plovdiv and Varna. The murder attracted global attention, too. Major news outlets like the BBC, Time, The Times, The Guardian, the CNN, The Washington Post and so on covered it. Her face was all over the social networks. EU dignitaries and politicians, foreign diplomats and UN Secretary General António Guterres expressed concern about the heinous crime, pressing the Bulgarian government for a quick and transparent investigation. The American Embassy in Sofia offered police assistance.
Several days after Marinova's death, an young man from Ruse was arrested near Hamburg, Germany. He was accused of raping and killing Marinova, possibly under the influence of alcohol and narcotics, then fleeing to Germany where his mother lived. The police had uncovered DNA evidence linking him to Marinova's corpse. He was also filmed by CCTV to be interacting with the woman in the park.
Viktoria Marinova was obviously not the first woman to be killed in Bulgaria in 2018. Her case attracted such a huge amount of international attention because of her profession. In a year that saw increased aggression against journalists all over the world, global sensitivity on the topic is high. For the Bulgarians, however, her death shed light on this nation's biggest problems and so attracted more attention and passions than usual.
Lack of trust in Bulgaria's police, persecution and judicial system
Soon after the news of the killing spread over the Internet, three details spawned suspicion that the authorities, with the help of the servile media, were putting together a coverup.
First, the crime hit the news with a day's delay. Second, the police were quick to suggest that Marinova's job was the least probable reason for the murder. And third, a number of major news outlets reported that the victim was not a journalist, but a "business woman," which in Bulgaria has strong negative connotations. Her former husband was a co-owner of the TV station she worked for and she was on its board.
The Bulgarian police and prosecution have a long history of botching investigations big and small. Instead of going to jail, convicted underworld bosses leave the country never to be seen again. Hashed forensic evidence results in failures in court. A number of high profile assassinations remain unsolved. Journalists have discovered pieces of evidence on crime scenes after forensics teams have left. Anyone who has had to report a home burglary is certain that the police will probably not do much. As a result, citizens do not bother to report crimes against themselves. According to the Interior Ministry, 45 percent of the reported crimes in 2017 were solved, a drop of 3 percent on an year earlier.
The Bulgarian lack of trust in the police is also evident in opinion polls. According to Alpha Research Polling Agency, as few as 20 percent of the Bulgarians tend to trust their police. According to the same poll, just 14 percent trust the courts.
In short, for a number of reasons Bulgarians believe that a crime investigation would most likely fail either because the police, the prosecution and the judiciary are incompetent or because they are corrupt. The former would be more probable if the victim and the perpetrator are ordinary people, while the latter is more likely in cases of wealthier and better connected felons. Owing to that, and because this is the Balkans, all kinds of conspiracy theories flourish.
In the case of Marinova, even when the alleged murderer was arrested and made a full confession a number of Bulgarians refused to accept it. They were convinced that he was either set up by the police or had been paid by someone very powerful and well-connected to make a political assassination appear like a killing.
Partisan "journalists," "opinion leaders"
As soon as Marinova's murder hit the news, social media influencers, fringe politicians and the hacks began peddling the hypothesis that she was killed because of her reporting on high-level corruption. Marinova was the first to cover the so-called GP-gate on TV, they claimed, and she planned to uncover more on corruption in Bulgaria. She was punished for breaking the omertà that binds mainstream Bulgaria media.
The reality, however, was quite different. The TV station where Marinova worked was small, with limited influence outside its broadcast area in the town of Ruse. Before the insert that supposedly caused her death was aired, a number of more prominent news outlets had covered the story. Besides, it was not Marinova who did the interview on the GP-gate in the first place. Her colleagues in Ruse spoke out that she had never been threatened before she was murdered.
The overreaction of some Bulgarian journalists that turned Marinova into a martyr for press freedoms was the result of declining media standards. Some of the most vocal Bulgarian journalists at the moment are political activists rather than reporters. They use facts selectively to fit their opinions and share them widely on the free-for-all social media.
Bulgaria is interesting to the foreign media only when something really bad happens
This country is sufficiently provincial not to generate any news on a regular basis. No terrorism or natural disasters, no oil fields, no nuclear weapons. No stunning achievements in industry or culture.
This means not only lack of coverage but also lack of expert opinion on the intricacies of Bulgarian political and public life. When something internationally newsworthy happens, the foreign media usually rely, often unquestioningly, on local hacks. What is possible often gets represented as actual fact.
Viktoria Marinova, heretofore unheard of outside her hometown, was thus represented as a famous TV reporter and an established investigative journalist murdered over her job, a Bulgarian Anna Politkovskaya.
Bulgarian media freedoms are hardly enviable. Since Boyko Borisov's GERB came to power in 2009, media freedoms have been steadily declining. At present, Bulgaria is rock bottom in the EU. Prominent and not-so-prominent journalists have lost or have been threatened to lose their jobs not only for asking the "wrong" questions and covering the "wrong" stories, but also because of their refusal to ask the "right" ones. Media ownership is at best opaque, which has turned some of the most influential media outlets into weapons for hit jobs against opponents to the owner, the government or whoever is close to the management. As advertisement revenues have declined, a number of media have become conveniently polite to the government where Boyko Borisov holds the purse of the much-desired EU advertising funds.
The situation in the media outside Sofia is even worse. In the smaller towns, including Ruse, people know one another. For local overlords it is easy to put pressure on any journalist who has dared to sniff around. As a result, most of the regional media outlets in Bulgaria have become public relations crutches to whoever Boyko Borisov has appointed to a position of power.
That is why when some colleagues of Viktoria Marinova said that she was hardly killed because of her job, few in Bulgaria believed them. They don't dare to tell the truth, the Facebook lynch mob declared.
In this environment, turning a young woman killed in a sexual crime into a whistleblowing martyr was only too easy.
The Bulgarian media does look Orwellian. The reason is that under Boyko Borisov the country has become increasingly authoritarian.
The EU does pay attention to the bad guys in Hungary and Poland, but it has spectacularly failed to take in Bulgaria where Boyko Borisov and his lieutenants have stayed on this path for much longer. In the 10 years since he came to power, Borisov has acted as a feudal chieftain who solves all problems the moment they appear. In addition to his habitual ribbon-cutting of new asphalt roads, he is seen as increasing the wages of the police, he "finds" money for the construction of sports facilities, he sends a government airplane to bring a famous actor who has fallen sick into a better hospital.
The servile media willingly make his actions into front-page news stories.
The chief reason Borisov is seen in the EU and the West as a good guy, in contrast to Viktor Orban, is because he says he is pro-EU and rarely voices any dissent.
In the wake of Marinova's murder, however, Borisov's famously warm connections with the EU's top brass turned sour. As soon as the chief suspect was identified, Bulgaria's prime minister called in 36 Western diplomats in Sofia to complain about how the foreign media had covered the killing in particular and Bulgaria in general. "I read monstrous things about Bulgaria and not a single one of those was true," he said before the meeting. "The Bulgarian media have the full freedom to say and write whatever they want," he intoned.
He also acted the way he knows best. As a former fireman turned into an overlord presiding over his fiefdom, he ordered the by now infamous GP Group to be excluded from all public projects it was involved in until it became clear whether the company had stolen EU funds. A couple of days later, the company complied and extracted itself from several public procurement deals for major infrastructure projects it had won in legitimate public tenders and bids.
The speed of Borisov's reaction in the wake of Marinova's killing was not only because of the external pressure. The journalist's murder was on the verge of becoming a rallying cry for Bulgarians disaffected with Borisov's rule. Largely, such people are apathetic and only voice their opinions on Facebook. A high-profile crime, however, could energise a critical number of citizens, and the result could be unpredictable. Borisov already saw this: in 2013 he resigned after mass protests against rising utility costs and the self-immolations of a dozen citizens.
Bulgaria's racist problem
Not all theories about who killed Viktoria Marinova were about corruption and lack of media freedoms. Long before the alleged perpetrator was arrested many, including the editor-in-chief of a leading newspaper, claimed that she was the victim of a "Gypsy crime." These claims echoed a popular sentiment among Bulgarians that the most heinous crimes could be perpetrated only by non-Bulgarians, like the Roma, whom the overwhelming majority of Bulgarians consider to be subhuman, or the Muslim immigrants.
After 1989 the Gypsy community suffered high unemployment and declining education which logically led to higher crime rates. These are mostly petty crimes, but it is petty crimes that are the most visible, particularly in small towns and villages. That is why for ordinary Bulgarians if there is a crime, it is most probably Gypsy work. The inefficiency of the police in dealing with such cases has resulted in a strong belief that Gypsy criminals enjoy special privileges and can do whatever they want, and then go unpunished.
Politicians have already exploited these sentiments. One of GERB's partners in the government, Ataka, rose to prominence in the 2000s mainly on its anti-Roma rhetoric.
The notion that a genuine Bulgarian is unable to rape and kill a woman has run particularly strong in aftermath of Marinova's murder.
In actual fact, Bulgarian women do get raped and killed by Bulgarian men, often in cases of domestic violence. Statistics are elusive. 2018 is the first year when the National Statistical Institute has covered violence against women. According to some data, an average of two women are killed in Bulgaria each month, mainly by their partners or other relatives.
Marinova's murder attracted a lot of compassion, but with victims of domestic abuse it is hardly the case. Domestic abuse remains largely a taboo. Bulgarians are reluctant to report it to the police, leaving the couple "to solve their own problems." The police is also ineffective in the protection of victims of domestic violence. When a woman is murdered in such circumstances, the public opinion is rarely on her side. Bulgarians are quick to blame the victim for her own death. The sentiments range from the "she must have done something to provoke such anger in him" to the "she should have left him" to "what about men suffering psychological abuse from their wives."
Earlier this year, an acrimonious campaign scared Bulgarians out of the Istanbul Convention for prevention of violence against women. The #MeToo movement has had zero resonance and effect in Bulgaria.
The more things change, the more they stay the same
Viktoria Marinova was quickly forgotten after it emerged her murder had nothing to do with the notorious Bivol site and its alleged investigations.
Global public attention shifted to the case of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi. In Bulgaria, some fingers were pointed at journalistic ethics, police efficiency, lack of trust in the institutions and Borisov's behaviour.
The Bulgarian government did not change its ways, and neither did the media. A week after Marinova's murder, the only reminder of her were the shrines made by the attendees of the vigils in her memory. Activists-cum-journalists and social media influencers busied themselves with the next scandal of the day with the same sense of infallibility and self-aggrandisement with which they had blown out of proportion the murder of the young woman and mother of a six-year-old child in Ruse. Ruse itself remained the backwater it had been when Viktoria Marinova was alive. Bivol did not apologise for using the terrible rape and murder case to stir up some publicity for itself. Investigative journalism failed to sprout.