Violence, corruption and censorship: The realities of being a journalist in Bulgaria


After Bulgarian news reporter Maria Dimitrova helped expose an organised crime group from Vratsa’s involvement in fraud and drug trafficking, she received threatening text and Facebook messages. One of the gang’s victims, who spoke to Dimitrova for her report, was later attacked by three unidentified men. According to investigative journalism outlet Bivol, investigators from the Vratsa police precinct, where Dimitrova was questioned, “acted cynically and with disparagement”.

In November 2017, Index on Censorship’s Mapping Media Freedom platform, which monitors press freedom violations in 43 countries, revealed that members of the gang had planned to murder Georgi Ezekiev, the publisher of the Zov News, where Dimitrova works/had worked.

Zoltan Sipos, MMF’s Bulgaria correspondent, says such violations have had a marked impact on the country’s media, adding that “sophisticated” soft censorship is a “big problem”.

“Self-censorship is also an issue in Bulgaria, though the nature of this form of censorship is that its existence is difficult to prove unless journalists come forward with their experiences,” he says.

Under increasing pressure from the government and a media environment becoming more and more censored, journalists within Bulgaria are finding themselves in danger. With an inadequate legal framework, pressure from editors and other limitations, journalists regularly self-censor or suffer the consequences.

Sipos has made 40 reports of media freedom violations in Bulgaria since the project’s launch in 2014.

In May 2018, a report was filed of an investigative journalist was assaulted outside his home in Cherven Bryag, a town in northwestern Bulgaria.

Hristo Geshov writes for the regional investigative reporting website Za Istinata, works with journalistic online platform About the Truth and hosts a programme called On Target on YouTube. In a Facebook post, he said the attack was a response to his investigative reporting and “to the warnings [he] sent to the authorities about the management of finances by the Cherven Bryag municipal government”.

Geshov faced harassment after publishing a series of articles about government irregularities, in which he claimed that three municipal councillors were using EU funds to renovate their homes.

“It is unacceptable that Bulgarian journalists should be the target of physical attacks and that there should even be plots to kill them, simply because they are engaged in investigating official corruption,” Paula Kennedy, the assistant editor for Mapping Media Freedom, said.

“The authorities need to take such attacks seriously and do more to ensure adequate protection for those targeted.”

Bulgarian journalists are also being limited by legislation designed by politicians as a means of censorship. Backed by Bulgarian MPs, amendments to the Law for the Compulsory Depositing of Print Media would force media outlets in the country to declare any funding, such as grants, donations and other sources of income that they receive from foreign funders. Ninety-two members of parliament voted for the amendments on the first reading on 4 July, with 12 against and 28 abstentions. Unlike most legislation, there was no parliamentary debate beforehand.

With the second reading due in September, when it will have to be once again approved by parliament, and the president still has the right to veto it, amendments would force outlets to clearly state the current owner on their website, how much funding they received, who it was from and what it is for.

MPs claim the aim is to make the funding of media organisations more transparent.   

Referred to as “Delyan Peevski’s media law”, the amendments were first proposed in February 2018 by MP Deylan Peevski, a politician and media owner. Almost 80% of Bulgarian print media and its distribution is controlled by Peevski, former head of Bulgaria’s main intelligence agency and owner of the New Bulgarian Media Group.

The amendments will create two categories of media, separating those funded by grants and those who receive funding from “normal” practices such as bank loans, which they are not obliged to declare. Peevski-owned media is funded predominantly through bank loans, with his family receiving loans from now-bankrupt Corporate Commercial Bank.  

There are few independent media outlets remaining in Bulgaria, with fears the new law will only increase the level of self-censorship within the country. Amendments will put additional pressure on media outlets that rely on foreign grants and donations to maintain their editorial independence.

Atanas Tchobanov, co-founder of Bivol, told MMF the amendments are a way to “whiten [Peevski’s] image”, adding: “The bill is exposing mainly the small media outlets, living on grants and donations. If a businessman gives [Bivol] €240 per year with a €20 month recurrent donation and we disclose his name, his business might be attacked by the Peevski’s controlled tax office and prosecution.

“Delyan Peevski has blatantly lied about his media ownership in the past. Then, miraculously, he started declaring millions in income, but this was never found strange by any anti-corruption institution.”

The level of transparency required of independent media owners has become a major issue within the country, threatening independent journalism and editorial independence.

Speaking at the biannual Time to Talk debate meeting in Amsterdam, Irina Nedeva from The Red House, the centre for culture and debate in the Bulgarian capital Sofia, Bulgaria, tells Index: “We live in very strange media circumstances. On the surface, it might look like Bulgaria has many different private media print outlets, radio stations, many different private tv channels, but in fact what we see is that especially in the print press, more of the serious newspapers cease to exist.”

“They don’t exist anymore, they can’t afford to exist because the business model has changed and what we see is that we have many tabloids,” she adds. “These tabloids are one and the same just with reshaped sentences.”

Nedeva is concerned that such publications don’t adequately criticise the government or businesses. “They criticise only the civil society organisations that dare to show the wrongdoings of the government for example.”

In an effort to examine media ownership within Bulgaria, the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom undertook a press freedom mission in June 2018. The mission found money from government and advertising is distributed to media considered to be compliant. EU funding is controlled by the government, giving those in charge the power to decide which publications receive what. This has created an atmosphere of self-censorship, dubbed “highly corrupting” by an ECPMF into press freedom in Bulgaria.

“There seems to be no enabling environment, politically or economically for independent journalism and media pluralism”, describing the media situation as a “systemic symptom of a captured state,” Nora Wehofsits, advocacy officer for ECPMF tells Index. “If the new media law is accepted, it could have a chilling effect on media and journalists working for “the wrong side”, as the media law could be used arbitrarily in order to accuse and silence them.”

Lada Price, a journalism lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University and Director of Education at the Centre for Freedom of the Media describes for Index the role the media owners play: “There’s lots of abuse of power for personal gain and I think, therein lies the biggest issue for free speech in Bulgaria. Media outlets are not being bought for commercial purposes, but for political purposes. They like to follow their own political and business agendas, and they’re not afraid to use that power to censor criticisms of government or any corporate partners.”

Price says that while the constitution guarantees the right to receive and disseminate information, the media landscape in Bulgaria is very hostile for journalism “because of the informal system of networks, which is dominated by mutual, beneficial relationships”.

“There is a very close-knit political, corporate and media elite and that imposes really serious limits on what journalists can and can not report,” she says. “If you speak to journalists, they might say whoever pays the bill has a say on what gets published and that puts limits on independence. There is no direct censorship, but lots of different ways to make journalists self-censor.”

ECPMF also said in its report into press freedom in Bulgaria that the difficulties media workers face are due to the current censorship climate, adding: “It is difficult to produce quality journalism due to widespread self-censorship and the struggle to stay independent in a highly dependent market.”

Funding from the EU and its allocation has become a controversial issue for media outlets in the country. In January 2018 ECPMF called for fair distribution of EU funds to media in Bulgaria, saying “the Bulgarian government should disseminate funds on an equal basis to all of the media, also to the ones who are critical of the government”. It also requested that the EU actively monitor how EU taxpayers’ money is spent in Bulgaria.

Bulgarian journalism is heavily reliant on EU funding and during the economic crisis of 2008/2009, advertisement revenues fell, making both print media and broadcasters much more dependent on state subsidies.

“When it comes to public broadcasters, they are basically fully dependent on the state budget,” says Price. “That means funding comes from whoever is in power, so they are very careful of what kind of criticisms [they publish], who they criticise. Their directors also get appointed by the majority in parliament.”

“The funding schemes that put restrictions on journalism is by EU funding, which shouldn’t really happen,” she adds. “But if you have your funding which is aimed at information campaigns then that is sometimes channelled by government agencies, but only towards selected media, which we see in the form of state advertising, in exchange for providing pro-government politic coverage.”

According to the US State Department’s annual report on human rights practices, released in April 2018, media law in Bulgaria is being used to silence and put pressure on journalists. ECPMF, in a report released in May 2018, described the current legislation as not adequately safeguarding independent editorial policies or prevent politicians from owning media outlets or direct/indirect monitoring mechanisms.

This was also reiterated by the US State Department’s report, which highlighted concerns that journalists who reported on corruption face defamation suits “by politicians, government officials, and other persons in public positions”.

“According to the Association of European Journalists, journalists generally lost such cases because they could rarely produce hard evidence in court,” the US State Department said.

The report also showed journalists in the country continue to “report self-censorship, [and] editorial prohibitions on covering specific persons and topics, and the imposition of political points of view by corporate leaders,” while highlighting persistent concerns about damage to media pluralism due to factors such as political pressure and a lack of transparency in media ownership.

Nelly Ognyanova, a prominent Bulgarian media law expert, tells Index that the biggest problem Bulgaria faces is “the lack of rule of law”.

“In the years since democratic transition, there is freedom of expression in Bulgaria; people freely criticise and express their opinions,” she says. “At the same time, the freedom of the media depends not only on the legal framework.”

In her view, the media lacks freedom because “their funding is often in dependence on power and businesses”, and “the state continues to play a key role in providing a public resource to the media”.

“The law envisages the independence of the media regulator, the independence of the public media, media pluralism. This is not happening in practice. There can be no free media, neither democratic media legislation, in a captured state.”[/vc_column_text][vc_raw_html]JTNDaWZyYW1lJTIwd2lkdGglM0QlMjI3MDAlMjIlMjBoZWlnaHQlM0QlMjIzMTUlMjIlMjBzcmMlM0QlMjJodHRwcyUzQSUyRiUyRm1hcHBpbmdtZWRpYWZyZWVkb20udXNoYWhpZGkuaW8lMkZzYXZlZHNlYXJjaGVzJTJGNzUlMkZtYXAlMjIlMjBmcmFtZWJvcmRlciUzRCUyMjAlMjIlMjBhbGxvd2Z1bGxzY3JlZW4lM0UlM0MlMkZpZnJhbWUlM0U=[/vc_raw_html][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1536667459548-83ac2a47-7e8a-7″ taxonomies=”8996″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

East Timor’s curbs on media freedom

(Photo: Shutterstock)

(Photo: Shutterstock)

Twelve years ago East Timor, or Timor-Leste, was recognised as the 191st member of the United Nations after a devastating 25-year Indonesian occupation. The fledgling democracy has since faced unprecedented challenges in building and maintaining its infrastructure, institutions and society after a UN-effort to  help rebuild the tiny, impoverished island of 1.1m people. Adding to this struggle, the government has recently been criticised after a media law was ratified on 7 May, which seeks to regulate the media by imposing restrictions on journalists.

The legislation requires journalists complete a six, 12 or 18 month internship with a certified media organisation that must be recognised by a government-funded press council. These laws effectively exclude citizen, freelance and student journalists from publishing anything, with the prospect of fines and disciplinary action if they do. Foreign journalists, too, will now be compelled to apply to for accreditation and permission from the same council to report inside the country.  Further restrictions are enumerated in Article 17, which states that “The profession of journalism cannot be performed concurrently with the following functions,” listing civil servants, office holders in local authorities, members of political parties, people in public relations and those involved in advertising. Violation of this “shall be punished by a fine of $250-$1000”, more than a month’s salary for most Timorese.

The constitution of East Timor is written with admirable clarity and Articles 40 and 41 enshrine freedom of the press and of expression for all citizens. The Timor-Leste Journalists Union pleaded its concern about the restrictive effect the law would have upon them, recognising the long shadow of censorship implicit within it. They were endorsed from outside by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), who called “on the government of East Timor to take heed of the concerns raised by its media in developing the country’s new media laws. Any legislation that would limit the capacity of local and international journalists reporting on East Timor also limits the public’s right to know and is of great concern to the IFJ.”

The weekly publication Tempo Semanal is edited by José Belo, perhaps the most eminent and decorated journalist in the country. Belo was rated as ‘one of the top 100 information heroes’ by Reporters Without Borders for his role in documenting the Indonesian occupation and his integral position in building the democratic media in East Timor. He has been vociferous in his criticism of the legislation, saying it “gives excessive powers to a state funded media council with the power to impose penalties that will be used to control journalists.”  One of Belo’s exposé led to the imprisonment of a government minister for corruption in 2012, and despite its democratic nature, the country was ranked at 119 out of 177 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index. Indeed, Australian freelancer Meagan Wymes, of The Dili Weekly, another paper in the capital, wrote that “it is incredibly difficult for journalists to access what should be public information through official channels. When it comes to reporting on corruption in any depth, this tightly controlled environment makes it very difficult. For most investigative stories, leaks are required from within the government or public service.”

Belo went further, saying: “It seems to me the Press Council is likely to be police or prosecutor – even judge – for journalists and media.” Having also worked for outside news agencies – like The Associated Press – during the occupation he was naturally concerned that “foreign correspondents who have played a key role in our struggle for independence will not be able to operate freely” alluding to Article 25 of the new law, which requires agencies of foreign media to register and gain permission before being allowed in to report.

It is the contention of the government that the largely unprofessional nature of the emerging media often results in inaccurate and unbalanced reportage, sometimes blurring the distinction between fact and opinion. A regulatory law and mandatory training is needed to increase standards, they argue. This is not entirely unreasonable and Toby Mendel, an international human rights lawyer for the Centre for Law and Democracy, told Index: “It could be useful for the country to pass a media law. As in most young democracies, the press there is just establishing itself and this inevitably leads to a measure of unprofessional behavior.’” Mendel, though, was critical of a number of “problematic” provisions in the law, and specifically noted “the biggest problem is control over who is a journalist, pursuant to Articles 12 and 13, and the fact no one may work as a journalist without being accepted into the profession. This is completely contrary to international standards.”

There are a handful of daily and weekly publications in East Timor and the print media remains quite small largely due to a near 50 per cent illiteracy rate and high publishing costs. Radio is the widest reaching channel of information reaching some 63 per cent of the population monthly, with public TV estimated to be watched by around half. Internet access is extremely limited, though not censored, and reaches around 1 per cent of the population, according to Freedom House. The US-based NGO also rated the country as “partly free” and reported that already “journalists practice self-censorship and authorities regularly deny access to information. The free flow of information remains hampered by poor infrastructure and scarce resources.” The prevalence of two main languages, Tetum and Portuguese, as well as multiple different dialects, further complicates the process and distribution of news and events to citizens. East Timorese NGO, La’o Hamutuk, added its voice to the sceptics, saying that: “Timor-Leste has already gone for more than a decade without a media law and we have not had problems with media and information, During this time, Timorese people enjoyed their right to information and freedom of expression through various media, after nearly five hundred years of repression and censorship.”

This is a nation where around 60 per cent of the population is under 24 years old and where around 40 per cent of citizens live below the international poverty line. After centuries of Portuguese colonialism –then a brief 10 day sojourn of independence- a quarter century of brutal Indonesian occupation followed razing the infrastructure and intimidating the populace of the island. The UN mission here had to effectively re-author the state from ruin and is regarded as one of their biggest success stories, producing a self-determining democratic government.

For the optimist it may be that the passing of this law is a well-meaning, essentially benign attempt to produce more professional standards of journalistic conduct. Though it seems a number of the conditions extend beyond that, bordering on constrictive regulation. A government statement read: “Its purpose is primarily to regulate the activity of professionals, adequately prepared and ethically responsible, so that they can inform the public objectively and impartially and encourage active and enlightened citizenship by the population, thus contributing to a democratic society.” All very well in theory, then, though its imposition in practice could be much more sinister.

The passage of time will determine what effect this law has on the press in real terms and it remains unclear how authoritatively the regulations will be enforced. If this nascent democracy is going to develop properly, an unhindered press will be vital to that process. However, these restrictions could, in potentia, open the door for parliamentary encroachment and censorship, stunting the growth of a nation just embarking on its first experiment in self-rule.

This article was published on May 20, 2014 for

Argentina: President Kirchner law set to punish critical media group

Attempts to push through a media law in Argentina could end up destroying one of the country’s most critical broadcast outlets. Ed Stocker reports

A bitter battle between Argentina’s largest media empire, Grupo Clarín, and the government shows no signs of ending. President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, continues to try and force through a media law that would see the break up of the conglomerate, the most critical voice against her administration.

Three years ago Congress passed an anti-monopoly bill with broad aims of making the Latin American country’s audio-visual landscape a more democratic, plural environment. But critics argue that its real aim is to stifle dissenting voices, including Clarín.

The law has positive aspects on the surface, argued Guillermo Mastrini, a professor at Quilmes University specialising in media. He said the new bill allows non-profit organisations a third of Argentina’s much-coveted broadcast licences for the first time — potentially setting a benchmark for regional press standards.

“But the real idea that needs to be understood,” he explained, “is that the media law has been much more democratic in its drafting than its implementation. The government has used a decent law to punish broadcast media that doesn’t toe the official line.”

Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Hugo Passarello Luna | Demotix

Argentinian president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Hugo Passarello Luna | Demotix

The implementation of the law has proved difficult since Clarín went to a tribunal over the constitutionality of a clause stating that companies with too many licenses — the right to broadcast in a certain region — would have to divest.

While a ruling on the constitutionality is still pending, Clarín was granted a temporary injunction. [Update 17/12: a judge has ruled this clause constitutional, and Clarín will now appeal. In the interim the federal media authority says it will now forcibly step in and start the transfer of licences.

What has ensued has been a complex and heated legal scuffle, with the government initially arguing that the injunction would end on 7 December, citing advice handed down by the country’s highest judicial body, the Supreme Court.

The government prepared for the 7 December deadline — when the law would apparently come into force — with fervour, saturating pro-government channels with adverts about a date they had renamed “7D” to give it a catchy ring. Clarín retaliated on its networks.

Then, at the last moment, an appeals court extended the injunction, despite the Supreme Court’s stance, thwarting the law once again.

For Daniel Dessein, freedom of expression president at the Argentine Association of Journalistic Entities (Adepa) group, 7D was part of the government’s increasingly confrontational stance towards the media.

“The government elected the date of 7 December as a historic and symbolic moment when the application of the law would allow democracy to triumph,” he said. “It chose a number and a letter for the day, 7D, which clearly alludes to D-Day and the Normandy invasion. The government was basically announcing an attack.”

That “attack” hasn’t gone the government’s way, and it has launched an appeal while strongly questioning the judiciary’s objectivity. The Permanent Council for the Protection of Judicial Independence, a national body of judges, in turn denounced what it called “institutional aggression” against judges.

According to Afsca, the body charged with implementing the media law, the proposed legislation isn’t singling out one group. Earlier this month, its president Martín Sabbatella said that “the spirit of Afsca has always been that no one is different and the rules are the same for everyone”.

Afsca argues that Grupo Clarín is the only media conglomerate that has refused to present divestment plans, from among the some 20 companies that exceed the new licence rule.

The media law continues to divide international opinion. The Florida-based Pan-American Press Society (SIP) sent a delegation to Argentina for the failed 7 December deadline. It later released a statement denouncing what it saw as  “serious problems regarding the free exercise of journalism in the country”.

On the other hand, Frank La Rue, UN special rapporteur for freedom of expression, said on a visit to Argentina in October that the law was “a model for the whole continent and for other regions in the world”.

Clarín argues that its TV and radio stations are some of the few “independent” voices left in Argentina, a country where many stations are dependent on government advertising to stay afloat.

Advocates of the law say it provides a much-needed overhaul of legislation that dates back to the last military dictatorship (1976-83). But for Guillermo Mastrini, the turf war with Clarín is holding up its progressive elements.

“The government has focused its forces more on destroying Grupo Clarín than allowing new broadcast outlets, companies and ideas from civil society to flourish,” he said. “That is the great failure of this law.”

Ed Stocker is a freelance journalist based in Buenos Aires. Follow him on Twitter: @Ed_Stocker

Read more of his work on censorship and free expression here

Statutory regulation of the press will hurt free speech

This article was originally published in The New Statesman

Between the Leveson Inquiry and the crisis at the BBC, it seems journalism is all we ever read or hear about these days.

These crises are heightened because journalists are, essentially, gossips who like talking about journalists. In this, we’re no different from people in any other line of work: programmers talk about other people’s code, plumbers slag rivals’ work – it’s human.

Note I wrote “line of work” rather than profession. That’s because it is very, very important to remember that journalism is not and cannot ever be a profession.

This is at the very heart of the debate over what Lord Justice Leveson should conclude from his findings when he reports in the coming weeks. Can you legally force journalists to behave in a certain way without damaging free expression?

Some point to regulatory bodies such as the Law Society or the General Medical Council, and say that regulation does not affect those professions. But think. One can strike off a doctor or a lawyer – how does one strike off a journalist? Sure, you can sack her, but what if she starts a blog? Starts making phone calls? Starts covering stories?

How do you stop people doing journalism? The old distinction will become ever more blurred as we all now carry publishing apparatus in our pocket. Journalists in the traditional sense had desks, telephones, expense accounts and bad habits. But most importantly, access to a printing press and means of distribution. A decent smartphone carries all this in one (apart from the expenses and habits).

Journalism is one way in which people can exercise their right to free expression, and the danger with statutory regulation is that one can actually create separate levels of access to a right – giving the journalist less of a right to free expression than anyone else. That’s not how rights work.

Some will point out that there are many “statutes” that apply to journalists, and this is true, but these statutes – contempt, libel etc, do not apply just to journalists – they are universal.

Creating a new law governing the press compromises that universality.

Many point to the “Irish model” as an example of statutory underpinning. But this is not entirely correct. The Press Council of Ireland was already established before it was recognised in statute, and then only with membership as a mitigating factor in a libel defence. It was not established by statute. (Bear in mind, by the way, Leveson watchers, that it took five years of negotiation to set up the Irish Press Council. This may go on for some time.)

Meanwhile, Germany (in terms of market size, possibly a better example for the UK) does not even permit specific laws on the press.

A press regulator cannot carry legal compulsion. Politicians already try their hardest to influence newspapers, and allowing them to create statute that will rule over the press will almost inevitably prove too tempting for a parliamentarians fed up of their eternal role as lamposts to the press’s dogs (as HL Mencken had it). Statute specifically dealing with the press will hurt free speech, no matter how much its advocates say it won’t.

Padraig Reidy is news editor at Index on Censorship