NOT VERY FREE

by Anthony Georgieff

Media woes illustrate quality of Bulgarian democracy

Just after the fall of Communism in late 1989, the government-run Bulgarian media were in a state of both fear and anticipation. Having been a part of the state propaganda apparatus for so many years newspapers, television and radio stations feared the system of repression had not yet gone, but anticipated a forthcoming new one ‒ where freedom of speech would become a Constitutional right. Fear prevailed, however. News of mass pro-democracy rallies taking place in the centre of Sofia went unreported by local journalists. The general public in Bulgaria learned about them ‒ through dispatches sent out by BBC and other Western correspondents to London, Munich and New York, which were then re-broadcast by Bulgarian local media. News in those days did travel relatively fast, but its itinerary was rather complex.

In 2012, under Boyko Borisov, the situation is, of course, entirely different. Private TV and radio stations proliferate, and hundreds of local and national newspapers vie to survive in the Internet-dominated present. News becomes known instantly, if not through sleepy TV stations broadcasting pre-recorded programmes that can not be interrupted even by an earthquake, then through Facebook and Twitter. However, there is one important, almost literal parallel between 1989 and 2012. News, especially if it is sensitive and not too much to the liking of those in power, has to travel a long way.

Here is a case study. A Wikileaks report sent from Sofia by then American Ambassador John Beyrle stated in plain language: "Accusations in years past have linked [Prime Minister Boyko] Borisov to oil-siphoning scandals, illegal deals involving LUKoil and major traffic in methamphetamines. Information from SIMO tends to substantiate these allegations. Borisov is alleged to have used his former position as head of Bulgarian law enforcement to arrange cover for criminal deals, and his common-law wife, Tsvetelina Borislavova, is the manager of a large Bulgarian bank that has been accused of laundering money for organised criminal groups, as well as for Borisov's own illegal transactions. Borisov is said to have close social and business ties to influential Mafia figures, including Mladen Mihalev (AKA "Madzho"), and is a former business partner of OC figure Roumen Nikolov (AKA "the Pasha").

The above paragraph is listed as 06SOFIA647 on Wikileaks.org and its existence in Bulgaria was reported by Bivol, an Internet site that represents itself as the partner of Wikileaks in Bulgaria. From Bivol, the report was picked up by other domestic media.

As a matter of policy, the US Government does not comment on Wikileaks reports, so any attempts by Bulgarian journalists to extract further information about their prime minister in this way would have been in vain.

However, the breakthrough came in Germany, where Tageszeitung, a major daily, quoted a former CIA head that SIMO was an "administrative term" for the Central Intelligence Agency (and as such "should not have been used in the cables").

From here on it transpires that the CIA did in fact hold sensitive information linking the current Bulgarian prime minister to organised crime, but never disclosed it to Bulgarian prosecutors who, at least in theory, should order further investigations. Instead, the American Embassy is giving Boyko Borisov, who says he is pro-Western in general and pro-American in particular, all the support he needs for his internal and external policies.

Putting two and two together would have resulted in an interesting media story in any country whose prime minister was implicated in this way, one might have thought. Not so in Bulgaria.

According to research conducted by one of the journalists involved with Bivol, the news was picked up by the Deutsche Welle Bulgarian-language Internet site and then published by the BGNES news agency in Bulgarian and by the Novinite site in English. There was no such story on TV. Neither state-run BTA, nor private news agency Focus reported it. No radio broadcast it. There was no such story in the newspapers (with three exceptions). Now add two and two together again, and see whether such media behaviour is "normal" in a state that, on the one hand, is still reeling in the woes of Post-Communism, yet on the other is a full member of the EU.

As in the course of the past three years Bulgaria has persistently been put at the rock bottom of international freedom-of-the-press indices and surveys, both European and American, the EU decided to act. At a hearing in Brussels organised by the Liberal Group of the European Parliament, several Bulgarian reporters testified about the repressions they had personally had to endure in Bulgaria, as well as about the more general issues surrounding the limited freedoms of the domestic media.

Ivo Siromahov, a member of the Slavi's Show team of scriptwriters, said that the relationship between the media and the government in general and the media and the prime minister in particular evoked the attitude of the Communist-era newspapers to dictator Todor Zhivkov.

Yavor Dachkov, a journalist, added that in Bulgaria the government put both direct and indirect pressure on the media. The newspaper Dachkov worked for, Galeriya, had brought out clandestine recordings of telephone calls in which Prime Minister Boyko Borisov ordered the chief of customs, Vanyo Tanov, to discontinue tax probes into the business of a local entrepreneur. The prosecutors never acted on the tapped calls, though they were deemed to be genuine. Instead, the entrepreneur in question died in a hotel room shortly after the scandal, and a bomb was planted in front of Galeriya's editorial offices. The blast did not kill anyone but caused significant damage. The case remains unsolved.

Stanimir Ilchev, a Bulgarian MEP, said Bulgaria has become "increasingly autocratic," which allowed the "proliferation of servility" ‒ bringing this country "in line with states like Mongolia, East Timor and Senegal."

Dutch politician Neelie Kroes, the current EU commissioner for digital agenda, personally oversaw the hearing and said she took it upon herself to watch Bulgaria closely. "Fight, I will defend you!" she told the Bulgarian attendees.

Still, the question remains how smaller and independent media outside the large media groups in Bulgaria can fight against the huge apparatus of the state and its propaganda channels.

Nebulous ownership of the media and the lack of proper legislation to guarantee freedom of speech, especially for print media, are of course major problems, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. As one observer put it, the situation in Bulgaria can be characterised by covert state financing for docile media ‒ mainly through advertising contracts, which in these cash-strapped times are mainly EU, and the integration of the political establishment with the self-styled Bulgarian system of oligarchs. The at times monstrously intricate network of personal likes and dislikes, of political preferences or negations, of under-the-table deals with politicians and "businessmen" have rendered the media toothless and dependent on handouts. According to another Wikileaks cable, Prime Minister Boyko Borisov is directly involved in this, offering cash payments for favourable media coverage and directly threatening the disobedient.

The lack of free and independent media in Bulgaria is also indicative of the quality of democracy in this country. Without free media you cannot have free and fair elections, and without free and fair elections you cannot have a democracy ‒ and democracy in all cases needs a strong and well-fed media watchdog. Sadly, in Bulgaria that watchdog is at the moment just a poodle being (sometimes) fed on juicy government steaks.

Unless the power of the media watchdog is reinstalled fast and without prejudice, the return of the practices of late 1989 may become irreversible. Then the World Service of the BBC and Radio Free Europe will find themselves having to reintroduce their Bulgarian-language broadcasts in order to inform Bulgarians what is happening in the centre of Sofia. Otherwise, fear will become permanent and anticipation will disappear.

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