One businessman has managed to bring both the state structures and big business in Bulgaria under his tight control. Media was a key piece of that puzzle.
Last month, when Bulgarian prosecutors ordered tax authorities to investigate all of the country’s citizens who paid in excess of €260,000 for a property or car, the absence of one man from that list was particularly conspicuous. His name is Delyan Peevski.
In spite of a declared fortune of over €41m (in both shares and bank deposits), Mr Peevski doesn’t splurge on pricey cars or houses. He still owns a 19-year Opel worth some €500, authorities say.
The government claims that the attack on expensive car and property owners in a country where nearly 100 Ferraris are registered is part of its anti-smuggling efforts.
For many Bulgarians, though, disillusioned by the rampant corruption in their country, the prosecution campaign was yet another PR charade; and even that was tainted by corruption. Sotir Tsatsarov, Bulgaria’s chief-prosecutor, is a friend of Mr Peevski who allegedly secured his top prosecutor position.
Mr Peevski, 38, has garnered so much power into his hands that he practically controls most of Bulgaria’s politics and business. Owning media has also greatly helped.
Mr Peevski understood early in his career how media can be repurposed to influence political life and business actors. Since 2007, he has been building a media empire able to influence political and economic affairs, and to rapidly kill what is left of independent journalism.
Mr Peevski started his political career at only 21 as a clerk in the local transports ministry. Within a short time, he was appointed to the board of directors at the state-owned Varna Port. Since 2009 he has been an MP for the ethnic Turks-dominated Movement for Rights and Freedoms (known as DPS in Bulgarian). In 2013, he had a short stint as head of the State Agency for National Security (DANS), Bulgaria’s intelligence agency.
Mr Peevski’s career has been tainted by a series of political and corruption scandals. For many years, he had a partnership with the banker Tsvetan Vasilev, the majority owner of Corporate Commercial Bank (CCB), the fourth largest bank in Bulgaria in its day. Many of the companies bought by Mr Peevski were acquired with CCB loans. Shortly after Mr Peevski fell out with Mr Vasilev, CCB went bust.
Mr Peevski today owns a battery of companies including the largest equipment trader Technomarket and the cigarette producer Bulgartabac, as well as constructors and real estate companies.
In parallel with his business and political growth, Mr Peevski also consolidated his media enterprise. Back in 2007, New Bulgarian Media Group (NBMG), then a newly incorporated company owned by Irena Kristeva, Mr Peevski’s mother, bought Monitor, Telegraph and Politika, three of Bulgaria’s major newspapers. Seven years later, Ms Kristeva transferred half of the ownership in NBMG to her son.
Today, the media assets controlled by Mr Peevski include national and regional newspapers, television channels, online news portals, distribution agencies, a publishing house, an audience measurement agency and digital TV broadcast infrastructure, according to a 2018 report from the Union of Publishers in Bulgaria, a local publishers association. His group controls more than 80% of the newspaper distribution market and has invested up to BGN 800m (US$ 500.5m at today’s exchange rate) in media assets, according to the publishers union.
A Private State
Mr Peevski’s media investments have badly affected independent journalism and massively distorted the country’s media market. In 2012, Bulgarian Media Union, an alternative alliance of publishers grouping Mr Peevski’s media, was created, leading to divisions in the profession and industry. The newly launched union, headed by Mr Peevski himself, quickly launched attacks on the rival Union of Publishers in Bulgaria.
Mr Peevski’s media have also become instrumental in deciding political race winners. After the bankruptcy of CCB and the fall of the government of Plamen Oresharski, Mr Peevski’s media helped Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), a center-right political party, win the 2017 elections. The same year, political groups supportive of Mr Peevski swept all the seats in Bulgarian parliament. GERB’s head, Boyko Borisov, is now Bulgaria’s prime minister.
Once political opposition had been blown to smithereens, Mr Peevski moved on to the next project: blotting out the last pieces of independent journalism in the country. State institutions, either the judiciary or tax authorities, are used as tools of pressure and repression. Aligned media further help him with smearing campaigns.
One of the targets of Mr Peevski’s attack is Economedia, publisher of the weekly Capital and the Dnevnik news portal. Known for its investigative reports into CCB, including the use of CCB loans for acquisition of news media, the group has often stirred the ire of authorities. Last November, the state-controlled Commission for Forfeiture of Unlawfully Acquired Property, under pressure from the prosecutor’s office, launched investigations into Economedia’s publisher, Ivo Prokopiev and his family. This followed years of inspections by tax authorities, investigations by the state prosecution and police, and fines imposed by financial regulators.
In a separate case, the investigative journalism website Bivol, known for its intrepid reporting into Bulgarian corruption and mafia networks, in past years published a series of articles about smuggling of cigarette made by Bulgartabac, a company associated with Mr Peevski, into the Middle East.
The coverage triggered a constant spate of attacks and harassment by state institutions and Peevski-friendly media. In March 2017, Bivol’s publisher Asen Yordanov saw his entire property seized by the National Revenue Agency, another state institution used to intimidate Mr Peevski’s critics.
Even a comic publication, Pras Press, came under fire. Its cartoons often mock prime minister Borisov, attorney general Tsatsarov and MP Peevski. All major press distributors, owned by Mr Peevski, refused to sell Pras Press’ first issue in March 2017.
All these pressures against independent journalists have sent Bulgaria to the bottom of freedom of expression rankings lately. In 2017, Bulgaria ranked 109th out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index of the Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a Paris-based watchdog. In Europe, only Macedonia, Russia and Turkey fared worse.
No Market, No Freedom
Mr Peevski has once been described by the German newspaper Der Spiegel as a most controversial figure who built his political career on corruption and ties with criminal networks. He rebuffs criticism, which in his opinion is politically motivated. In 2014, when he was elected to the European Parliament, Mr Peevski turned down the assignment, explaining that he only ran in the EU elections to restore his reputation.
Two years ago, he said that he would pull out from all business projects in Bulgaria because of a “continuous media campaign” against him. No signs of that yet.
Even if he goes tomorrow, the Peevski model has already wreaked havoc on Bulgarian media industry. Both the business model and the quality of the media product have suffered irremediably because of him, his political allies and his media. The Peevski model might not be here to stay, but its legacy is going to manacle the Bulgarian media market for many years to come.
Pictured: Delyan Peevski (photo: BTA)