Black and white photograph of two women under a bridge holding Bulgarian newspapers that are on fire.

Burning newspapers. Photograph by Georgi Staykov.

Back in 2006, Bulgaria and France had something important in common. Both countries were ranked 35th on a list of 169 nations in the annual media freedom index of the Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a Paris-based NGO.

Yet, over the course of the next 14 years, Bulgaria’s free media index plummeted. Since 2018, the country has been in the 111th place of the RSF index. In 2021, it fell down to 112th. How did the numbers change over the years?

The Peevski Factor

The World Press Freedom Index (WPFI) of the RSF ranks the degree of freedom that journalists, news organizations and internet users have in a country. It does not cover the quality of journalism nor does it look at human rights violations. The ranking measures a series of factors including pluralism, regulation, media independence and transparency.

To understand the poor record of Bulgaria’s media freedom over the past decade, it is important to know how the decline began. In a 2018 report, the Union of Publishers in Bulgaria, a trade body, pointed out that Delyan Peevski’s New Bulgarian Media Group (NBMG) controlled around 80% of the distribution market for printed media, including more than 1,000 kiosks in some 130 Bulgarian cities.

Mr. Peevski is a prominent political figure in Bulgaria. He built his media empire by buying numerous media outlets, including the television channels TV7 and Kanal 3. His public appearances are rare. Before running for an MP position in the November 2021 elections, his last media appearance was recorded back in 2017. 

Mr. Peevski’s media mogul history began in 2007. First, he acquired the daily newspapers Monitor and Telegraph (the latter a tabloid), and the weekly Politika. Facing financial predicament, these media outlets were purchased by NBMG, a company that was owned by Mr. Peevski’s mother, Irena Krasteva. According to the Union of Publishers in Bulgaria, the money used for these purchases came from loans made by the Corporate Commercial Bank (CCB), a local bank in Bulgaria. According to the Union, Mr. Peevski officially became owner of these media outlets only in 2014 when his mother gave him 50% of the shares in NBMG. Over the following couple of years, he continued to buy media outlets and other media-related companies, including the National Distribution Agency, a print media distributor.

In 2009, Mr. Peevski became an MP on behalf of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms’ (MRF). Four years later, the National Assembly elected him head of the State Agency for National Security (SANS), the Bulgarian intelligence agency. The appointment was highly controversial, sparking protests across the country that lasted more than 400 days.

The growing influence of Mr. Peevski over the media has been a key factor in the worsening of media freedom in Bulgaria in the last decade. In 2021, United Group bought one of the biggest TV stations in the country, NOVA Broadcasting Group, and later acquired Mr. Peevski’s newspapers. He said that he no longer owns any media outlets and has no influence on the media landscape.

Political Games

Irina Nedeva, president of the Bulgarian branch of the Association of European Journalists (AEJ), said that the positive media freedom record that Bulgaria enjoyed 15 years ago can be explained by the attempt the country was making at the time to meet a series of criteria that the EU had set for countries that wanted to join the bloc. Bulgaria was one of them.

During the EU accession negotiations, Bulgaria bragged about the measures it took to improve the state of the media, which had good results. However, after Bulgaria officially joined the union in 2007, the enthusiasm for free media started fading away.

“The situation with the media gradually started deteriorating because, [due] to old customs and inertia from previous periods, Bulgarian media outlets were being used as a tool in political disputes,” Ms. Nedeva said. “The political disputes turned into economic battles.

They culminated in the takeover of a massive chunk of the media sector in Bulgaria. As a result, today a large number of private media outlets are owned by conglomerates run by state officials and rich businessmen.

“The media’s role is no longer what it is supposed to be,” Ms. Nedeva said. “Those people use the media outlets as tools of oppression.”

The worsening media environment also scared away foreign investors in the media, many of whom upped sticks between the years 2010 and 2013. In 2010, the German-owned publisher Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung (WAZ) left Bulgaria after selling the country’s largest publishing group, which ran 24 Chasa and Trud, two major newspapers. Others followed suit, including the owners of the two largest privately owned nationwide television channels, bTV and Nova TV.

<em>Printed Bulgarian newspapers Photograph by Georgi Staykov<em>

The withdrawal of foreign investors from the media market in Bulgaria signaled danger for media freedom as politicians increasingly acquired media outlets to use them as tools to influence the public opinion, oppress political enemies, and pursue private agendas.

All that in the end has had a terribly negative impact on independent journalism. The blurred lines between what is considered ethical and unethical when it comes to media ownership, political influence, private economic interests, and government corruption led to a significant deterioration of the media environment in Bulgaria.

In its latest report on Bulgaria’s progress under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism released in October 2019, the European Commission raised serious concerns about these issues. The same year, Bulgaria was ranked as the most corrupt country in the EU, according to Transparency International, a Berlin-based corruption watchdog.

Nelly Ognyanova, a media law expert, said in an interview with OBC Transeuropa that media ownership concentration and lack of ownership transparency are the two major obstacles to media freedom and pluralism in Bulgaria.

In October 2020, the justice committee of the European Parliament issued a resolution regarding Bulgaria’s rule-of-law failings, which marked an unprecedented shift in the EU’s tone toward Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boyko Borisov. He and his ruling party, GERB, were challenged over abuses regarding allocation of EU funds. A total of 35 MEPs from the Civil Liberties and Justice Committee (LIBE) approved the resolution.

“Tax payers money is used for the enrichment of circles associated with the ruling party,” the resolution stated. Although it is not legally binding, this resolution is one of the first political moves to put pressure on the EU to take a closer look at how its funds are allocated.

“Mapping corruption shows clearly that member states with structural deficiencies on rule of law are those most prone to resort to corrupt practices when managing EU budget and funds,” Juan Fernando López Aguilar, the LIBE Committee chairman, said in a statement. “That has to come to an end.”

It doesn’t seem so.

Media freedom illustration by Shadowchaser for a Fine Acts exhibition. It shows the bottom part of a man's leg that steps on three different things in three separate windows - something smelly, something sticky (a gum), and something slippery (a banana). The caption reads Truth might be smelly/sticky/slippery.
<em>Illustration by Shadowchaser for Fine Acts<em>

Attacked From All Sides

Last September, Dunja Mijatović, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, called on the Bulgarian government to take action against hate speech incidents, some which involved high-level politicians, threats and violations of the human rights of children, women and LGBTI people. She also asked Bulgarian authorities to work on improving the protection and working conditions for journalists.

However, in spite of all the criticism and pressure, the overall media situation in Bulgaria doesn’t seem to be improving.

The sources of funding behind media outlets are not transparent. Legislation doesn’t forbid politicians to own outlets. As advertising revenue is insufficient for media outlets to survive, they often accept state money, which makes them vulnerable to influential and wealthy players.

One of the most serious problems, according to various EU reports, remains the allocation of EU financing by the Bulgarian government, a process that totally lacks transparency. The recipients of the funds are often encouraged to go soft on the government. There are many online media outlets, such as PIK, that are overtly pro-governmental. In contrast, courts often make decisions against independent media outlets such as Bivol and Economedia, a publishing group. Moreover, attacks against journalists are rife. On 2 September 2021, Dimiter Kenarov, a freelance journalist who authored articles in The Esquire, The Atlantic and The International New York Times, was apprehended and allegedly kicked in the head by police officers. The same day, policemen used force against Nikolay Doychinov, a photojournalist with Agence France-Presse (AFP), France’s flagship newswire. In a separate incident, members of a bTV news crew needed medical attention after being pepper sprayed.

On 14 September 2021, police summoned Martin Georgiev, a reporter for the newspaper Sega, for questioning about inquiries and pictures he had sent to the Ministry of Interior in regard to police violence during street protests. Mr. Georgiev was questioned without a lawyer, which attracted condemnation from the International Press Institute (IPI), a Vienna-headquartered media freedom organization.

The painful struggle to build an independent media sector in Bulgaria is far from over, and only more trouble seems to be on the horizon.