What will Bulgaria’s EU presidency do for press freedom?
Bulgaria, with the worst press freedom record in EU, is to take over presidency in January.
According to the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders [RSF], Bulgaria is the worst country in the EU country in terms of press freedom. In the last rankings it stands at a dismal 109th position out of 179 in the 2017 Press Freedom Index. This puts it on a par with Bolivia, Gabon and Paraguay.
On January 1, Sofia will take over the rotating presidency of the European Union, but will it clean up its act?
On August 24, 2017, journalist Dilyana Gaytandzhieva was fired by her newspaper. As a reporter for the mass-circulation Trud [“Labor”] daily, she had published a story outlining allegations that massive amounts of US, Saudi and Bulgarian weapons were shipped by the Azerbaijani Silk Way airline to Syria.
Weapons to Syria
Ultimately, the arms ended up in the hands of jihadists related to Al Qaeda and the Al Nusra Front.
The documents explained how the US, Saudi Arabia, Bulgaria and other countries chartered the Azerbaijani Silk Way airline to transport massive amounts of weapons to Syria.
The documents also corroborated Gaytandzhieva’s own findings from a trip, in December 2016, to Aleppo after troops of the Syrian government army had retaken the city.
There, she said, locals had pointed her to an underground warehouse, left behind by alleged Jihadists, filled with mortar grenades and assault weapons made in Bulgaria.
National security questions
However, one-and-a-half months after the story was published, Gaytandzhieva says she received a call from by the State Agency for National Security [DANS ] telling her to visit them.
“I didn’t get a subpoena, or further notice that I would have been interrogated, I just got a phone call by a special agent from the Bulgarian National Security Agency the previous day,” she told RFI.
DANS only questioned her about the leaked documents, not about the weapons supplies [story] in general.
“I felt anger because nobody interrogated me after I found Bulgarian weapons in Aleppo in December of 2016,” she says.
Two hours after her run-in with the Agency, the editorial manager of her newspaper urged her to come to the office, where, to her shock, she was told she had to immediately leave her job, even though she was preparing a follow-up trip to Syria.
Petio Blaskov, the owner and editor of Trud, did not reply by emailed queries by RFI as to the reasons why Gaytanzhieva was fired.
“There are many cases like this,” says Lada Trifonova Price, a Lecturer in Journalism with Sheffield Hallam University, “it is a pattern.
“Journalists are being either physically attacked with violence, intimidated or harassed, or fired from their jobs or demoted,” she says.
The reason, RSF explained, is an “environment dominated by corruption and collusion between media, politicians, and oligarchs including Deylan Peevski, a former head of Bulgaria’s main intelligence agency and owner of the New Bulgarian Media Group.
A 2014 study by the European Association of Journalists – Bulgaria chapter - found that “more than half (52%) of the journalists in Bulgaria admit that political pressure is continuously exercised upon their media. More than 30% say that politicians pressured them themselves.
This can take many forms. Rossen Bossev, a journalist with Capital Weekly, an economic publication, relates that his newspaper was fined heavily after a series of publications on fraudulent actions by corporate commercial banks.
“But instead of looking at the alleged fraud, “the prosecutors’ office in Sofia opened a preliminary investigation into the officials who leaked [the information],” says Bossev. The journalists who investigated the leaks ended up being questioned.
They were charged for writing about misconduct at corporate commercial banks, or what is said to be “attacking bank stability in Bulgaria.” The punishment, handed down by the Bulgarian Financial Supervision Committee is €75,000 and an additional €5,000 for the journalists’ refusal to disclose sources.
There are more severe examples. Sheffield lecturer Price cites the case of Stoyan Tonchev, owner of the local news website Zad Kulisite (Behind the Scenes) who was known for his investigations into alleged corruption and abuse of power in his city, the Bulgarian Black Sea resort town of Pomorie.
On January 14, 2015, Tonchev was brutally beaten by what he described as a “man dressed in black.” The Committee to Protect Journalists, which highlighted the case, reported that Tonchev reports that the attacker “repeatedly hit him on the head with a blunt object while asking, ‘How long will you keep writing?’"
Tonchev survived with a skull fracture, a concussion, a broken nose, and multiple hematomas that disfigured his face and after he was hospitalized for two weeks.
According to Price, an arrest was made, but the person who allegedly assaulted Tonchev was released on bail. “So far there’s been no result into this investigation,” she told RFI.
Bulgaria running the EU
On January 1, Bulgaria will head the rotating presidency of the European Union for a period of six months.
After meeting on 8th of November with Bulgaria’s Prime Minister, the former karate coach and Interior Minister Boyko Borisov, European Council President Jean-Claude Juncker stated that Bulgaria’s upcoming presidency is “a unique chance for this marvelous country [ … ] to show, to prove, to demonstrate that the Bulgarians know what is what when it comes to Europe. Europe is part of the DNA of Bulgaria.
Indeed, part of Europe’s DNA flows into Bulgaria in the form of financial support, but not always to the places it was intended to go.
This years’ report on the state of the Bulgarian media commissioned by the International Research & Exchanges Board [IREX], an international, non-profit organization that specializes in global education, says that some of the media with links to the media empire of Delyan Peevski, “are among the biggest beneficiaries of EU funds distributed by the government.”
“It is really disgusting,” says Bossev. “The government is contracting mediators who subcontract those sites."
In this way, “yellow press” tabloids that, according to Bossev, “spread fake news” receive EU money via the government meant, “to promote the Bulgarian presidency of the EU.”
This is done through a process that RSF says “is conducted with a complete lack of transparency, in effect bribing editors to go easy on the government in their political reporting or refrain from covering certain problematic stories altogether."
Meanwhile, the EU does take notice and on several occasions has issued stern warnings and reports that highlight abuses to Bulgaria’s media freedom.
“Unfortunately, journalists in Bulgaria are not happy about that,” says Price, the Sheffield Hallam University media lecturer
“The EU seems to be taking the hands-off, soft approach, despite its spoken commitment to media freedom and the importance of journalism for democracy," he said.
“They are constantly calling for the government to respect media freedom, to society to debate, to see how it can be changed, but there are no specific actions to achieve this."
The fact that the Bulgarian government is sensible to criticism was evinced when it withdrew the fines against Capital Weekly and other media outlets after pressure from the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe [OSCE], the Council of Europe and NGOs. However, no apologies were offered.
RSF’s Pauline Adès-Mével expressed hope that Bulgaria will become “more efficient in its fight against mafias and rampant corruption before taking on the EU presidency” in January.
As for Dilyana Gaytandzhieva, she is now working as a freelancer, again working on an investigation related to the weapons trade.
“I definitely feel better as I am not obliged to follow editorial policy,” she wrote to RFI.
However, her task will not be easy. According to Nikolay Staykov, of the Sofia-based Anti-Corruption Fund, the Bulgarian military industry is going through a “golden time; all big and the smaller manufacturers work on double shifts,” and there is a “kind of national consensus to remain silent on what’s going on with these weapon exports,” he says.
Gaytandzhieva knows this. She explained that the director of DANS [the agency that called her in for interrogation], the ministers of Defence, of Economy and of Interior, are all members of the Commission for Export Control which gives permits and export licenses to arms dealers. This means that the director of DANS is well aware of all those weapons deals as well as Bulgarian ministers.
“How are they going to investigate themselves? In Bulgaria, there is no such thing as freedom of speech, in Bulgaria the media organisations serve politicians, not the Bulgarian people,” she said.