‘The latest trend in Bulgaria: lawsuits to intimidate journalists’


Independent media are under pressure in Bulgaria, according to the latest edition of a survey conducted by the Association of European Journalists-Bulgaria every two years, with support from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We talked to the association’s president, radio journalist Irina Neveda.

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Image: ©Vihren Georgiev
Irina Neveda.

Besides being president of the Association of European Journalists-Bulgaria (AEJ), you’re also a journalist at a national radio station. What is the current state of the media in Bulgaria?

‘National newspapers are disappearing, and print media is in serious trouble. Small, independent regional media outlets are struggling to stay afloat. Journalists are earning less and less, and as a result, a lot of them are looking for work elsewhere.’

Freedom of expression and media freedom are under pressure in Europe. What are your biggest concerns?

‘Social media magnifies the discontent felt by various groups in society. And disinformation campaigns portray the mainstream media as an enemy to be attacked. In Bulgaria we’re concerned about the influence of politics on the media, particularly television. This applies to both public and commercial broadcasters.’

How do politicians in Bulgaria treat journalists?

‘Political leaders openly ignore or belittle us. Some political leaders, especially those with a lot of power, avoid press conferences where journalists can ask questions. They prefer to address the public via Facebook streams. During the time of our last stable government, a plan arose to move parliament to a restored building. Reporters would have to work out of the basement. They would have to use a separate entrance, and follow what was happening in parliament on TV screens. The idea was to insulate MPs from critical questions. Compare that to the Netherlands, where journalists can meet with MPs and ministers, where press conferences are held and where interviewees sometimes speak off the record. After extended protests, sparked in part by restrictions on media freedom, the plans were abandoned.’

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Journalists from Central and Eastern Europe visiting the Netherlands at the invitation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Every two years you conduct a survey of journalists. What are the biggest challenges?

‘Our latest survey, which AEJ-Bulgaria conducted with support from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, gives a good sense of the kinds of problems facing journalists today. Ten years ago the main issues were pressure from the government and self-censorship. Over the past two years Bulgaria has been entangled in an ongoing political crisis.'

'Governments have fallen one after the other: soon we’ll be having our fifth election in a short span of time. This gives journalists a bit more leeway because the pressure is no longer coming from one side for any length of time. These days, we also have to deal with the pressure created by marketing and advertising campaigns from the private sector.'

Another new development is the rise of SLAPPs (strategic lawsuits against public participation) – lawsuits undertaken for the express purpose of intimidating journalists. For example, an insurance company recently demanded half a million euros in damages because its name was mentioned in an article by the independent news site Mediapool. The journalists had used an official transcript of a cabinet meeting, in which the company’s name was mentioned. In my country this is something you can get sued for!’

How do you respond to such attacks?

‘AEJ immediately started a crowdfunding campaign. Within three days we had enough money to fight the lawsuit. So there’s an awareness that media freedom is in the public interest.’

In what other ways is the media under pressure?

‘The media landscape is more diverse than it was five years ago. Major commercial TV broadcasters are now in the hands of foreign companies. Although there’s no longer a concentration of media ownership, as was previously the case, you still have to ask yourself who is pulling the strings. There are relationships of dependence between media magnates and those in power. Some tabloids seek to tarnish the reputation of NGOs. Instead of showing journalistic solidarity, some media outlets will give the authorities a platform to attack independent journalism.’

Can you give an example of this?

‘This can happen if a journalist’s investigation is critical of the actions of the Bulgarian authorities. Take the investigation into the pushback of undocumented migrants on the Turkish-Bulgarian border, conducted jointly by Sky News, ARD, the Times, Le Monde, SRF, Lighthouse Reports, Domani and the Bulgarian section of Radio Free Europe. My colleague Maria Cheresheva was involved in this investigation. According to the powers-that-be, the investigation was funded by ‘external forces’ that are trying to cast Bulgaria in a bad light. Local media picked up on this interpretation, which was also supported by posts on social media. Independent, critical investigative journalists are being labelled as traitors simply because they are exposing wrongdoing. The political elite isn’t yet ready to recognise that independent investigation can be helpful to a country’s development.’

Together with other women journalists from Central and Eastern Europe, you came to the Netherlands to attend a programme on media freedom. What are the similarities and differences between different parts of Europe?

‘In both the Netherlands and Bulgaria it’s getting more and more difficult to do good work as a journalist. Traditional media are under attack. Both countries are dealing with the enormous impact of social media, which can rapidly enflame and polarise the public debate. We differ from the Netherlands in terms of the degree to which we recognise this issue. In the Netherlands politicians and journalists are talking about these problems, such as the fact that the country’s ranking on the World Press Freedom Index has dropped. In Bulgaria we lack this capacity for self-reflection. We prefer to deny problems exist, or sweep them under the carpet.’

What should be done to improve the situation in Bulgaria?

‘In the Netherlands I was impressed by the fact that you have protocols in place for responding to threats. They explain what individual journalists can do, how to report threats and what steps editors, the police and public prosecutors can take. This mechanism doesn’t exist in countries like Bulgaria, where the police and public prosecutors often don’t understand that threatening journalists and limiting freedom of the press is not in the public interest. It starts with raising awareness at all levels: if individuals, editors and institutions don’t appreciate the importance of media freedom, it’s not easy in practice to take action when that freedom is under threat, even if you have laws on the books.’