Bulgaria’s media and the protests: From Barekov to BNT

Spare a thought for Bulgaria’s reporters. After six months of covering the winter protests, an election campaign and the current protests, they seem rather tired, and dare one suggest, perhaps even a little bored and frustrated.

Those reporters are, however, ground troops in a wider battle; not just the battles of partisan politics, contests among business groups and the protests themselves, but also the battle – which too few are fighting – to rescue the Bulgarian media from the mess it is in.

The manifold weaknesses of the Bulgarian media have been brought to the fore by the series of dramatic events this year, starting with the protests that were mobilised around cost-of-living issues. Apparently well-organised and well-funded from behind the scenes, those protests caught much of the media wrong-footed, and coverage tended to be episodic, lacking context and superficial; and this in a country where the media already had been juniorised, under-resourced and lacking serious newspapers. Not all of the media, however, seemed caught napping. Some media seemed well in sync with the February 2013 protests that ultimately would lead to the resignation of Boiko Borissov as prime minister. Specifically, the role and line taken by TV7 would bear bitter fruit throughout the election campaign and during the current anti-government protests.

The ownership and structure of the media in Bulgaria has a direct bearing on the biases displayed in coverage. And, as was to become clear from some of the extraordinary statements by some politicians, those reporters seeking to do a straightforward job of reporting would face a specific backlash – from within the very chamber of Parliament.

A further dimension is that the “traditional” media hardly have a monopoly on the narrative. Many do not wait for television news bulletins or rely on internet and print media for their news – especially so in the case of the June/July protests, where social media are at the forefront: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube.

As an aside, it seems that no one in a position of influence in Bulgaria, whether politically or commercially or both, has yet learnt the lesson: it is no longer true, if it ever was, that public opinion can be controlled through control of the media. There are two simple examples of this, from a potentially longer list. The first is the floundering among the previously pro-Borissov media when his government collapsed in crisis. The second is that Bulgarians – who, above all else, are anything but stupid – have reacted with such scorn and rejection of the media group that owns TV7, News7 and those stations’ executive director, Nikolai Barekov.

For much of the years of the ascendancy of Borissov, Barekov, in the employ of various media, was seen as the acolyte of this strongman of Bulgarian politics who had ridden the crest of a carefully-generated media wave for so long.

In turn, the media owned by Irina Krasteva, mother of Delyan Peevski, leaned consistently towards favourable coverage, down to carefully-chosen flattering photographs of Borissov (for more on the relationship between Borissov and the media over the past more than a decade, see Bulgarian journalist Ivan Bakalov’s 2012 book, entitled In the Shadow of Boyko Borisov).

Early 2013 brought a dramatic turnabout, as the coverage by the New Bulgarian Media Group, a stable including, apart from TV7 and News7, Telegraf, Monitor, Ekspres, Wikend and Politika) took up the cudgels against Borissov and his GERB party, against GERB deputy leader and then interior minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov in particular, and with Barekov as its face, the television stations aligning themselves with the protests.

This was to continue during the election campaign, which in itself was by most observers’ standards the dirtiest in Bulgaria in many years – a notable episode was Barekov’s live coverage of the ballot-printing controversy on the “Day of Contemplation” on the eve of the May parliamentary elections – and into the current regime of the so-called “expert” cabinet formed by the Bulgarian Socialist Party and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, and the nationwide protests that followed the abortive appointment of Peevski as head of the State Agency for National Security.

For some Bulgarians, not necessarily those who had supported Borissov and GERB, the actions of Barekov were unacceptable. At live election campaign events, he and his team were the subject of shouted abuse, flung objects (in one case, according to a local media report, including bags of excrement) and, by the time of the June protests, particularly virulent rejection online – especially because of the link to Peevski.

Barekov and the television stations of the group are quite the newsmakers. Ivan Totev, elected in 2011 as mayor of Plovdiv on a GERB ticket and thus one of the party’s main figures left standing in a position of influence, complained of a breach of journalistic ethics when a crew from TV7 entered his garden without notice or permission to question him about his car and other matters. In episodes not dissimilar to the outrage among Forestry Act protesters in 2012 who turned against bTV because of its coverage, TV7 vehicles have been daubed with anti-Peevski signs and pelted with toilet paper, while in one case, a reporter attempting a live crossing was drowned out by a protester blowing a whistle into her microphone and in another, a TV7 reporter was targeted with toilet rolls and a water pistol (he used the former to dry himself off from the latter; Barekov said that he would lay criminal charges of hooliganism).

It has not only been the protesters lampooning Barekov and TV7. Popular satirical television show Gospodari na Efira (“Lords of the Airwaves”) on Nova Televizia devoted some time, in one episode, to contrasting the coverage by other television stations with that of News7 – especially because of a camera angle that cut off the view outside Parliament of anti-government protesters, to say nothing of the station’s reports of “very few” protesters while at the same time, other media and the Interior Ministry put the number in Sofia at more than 10 000.

TV7 and News7 came in for more criticism online from supporters of the anti-government protesters when the stations commissioned a Mediana survey that said that less than a third of Bulgarians actually wanted the government to resign, that if elections were held the Bulgarian Socialist Party would get the largest share of votes and that Plamen Oresharski (appointed in May to sit in the prime minister’s chair in the BSP government) was one of Bulgaria’s top three most popular politicians.

These statements were, to say the least, out of kilter with an earlier survey by Alpha Research showing more than 80 per cent support for the protests against Peevski and a clear majority in favour of the government resigning.

The stations also have been involved in negative coverage of President Rossen Plevneliev, who took office as head of state in January 2012 after being elected on a GERB ticket; while repeatedly underlining that he is guided by the constitution in being non-partisan and finding himself in these past six months acting strenuously to keep the country on an even keel, Plevneliev repeatedly has praised the conduct of the anti-government protesters. Plevneliev’s withdrawal of confidence in the BSP government after the Peevski debacle and his implicit backing for calls for reforms and new elections increasingly have made him a target for the BSP-MRF-Ataka axis.

Out came reports alleging substantial offshore holdings by Plevneliev, allegations that he rejected as untrue, citing the fact that lawful disclosures required by statute make his financial affairs a matter of public record.

When a special app emerged online that enabled users to identify and ignore “Peevski” websites, Barekov alleged that this was a “hacker attack” that had been commissioned by the President’s spouse, Yuliana Plevnelieva.

Whatever one makes of this, and whichever side individuals may take in this particular arena in the wider warfare, it is a clear case of media-as-player in the narrative. Elsewhere, there has been a struggle over just how some media in particular are played – in particular, public broadcaster Bulgarian National Television.

In the Bulgarian media landscape, most quests for political influence have been conducted through private media ownerships, leaving the public broadcast media aside – somewhat of a contrast to the stereotype in South Eastern Europe of state media being His Master’s Voice while private media are independent.

Nonetheless, this does not exempt BNT* from being contested terrain.

Invoking the law that requires BNT and Bulgarian National Radio to transmit the proceedings of Parliament whenever MPs vote that they should, the current governing parties in the National Assembly have been particularly active in putting themselves on air, more so than any Bulgarian legislature in recent years.

This has a twofold purpose. First, it recently has had the effect of putting the BSP, MRF and Ataka MPs on screen (not GERB, because of the boycott by Borissov’s party) as an exercise to show just what important things they are doing. Second, putting the morning sittings of Parliament live on BNT precludes that station from showing live coverage of the “coffee-drinking” anti-government protests outside the parliamentary building.

The regular live coverage of the protests by major television stations including BNT clearly has annoyed the parties currently in power.

In a special address to the National Assembly on June 26, the Speaker of Parliament and BSP MP Mihail Mikov issued an unsubtle directive to BNT and others to change their coverage of the protests, alleging that they were stoking tensions.

This ham-fisted approach by Mikov (who also had rumbled against Plevneliev) resulted near-instantaneously in a petition of objection from a large number of journalists, and from international watchdog Reporters Without Borders.

The group said that it was alarmed by Mikov’s statement in accusing “several TV stations” of fuelling a rise in social tension, called for “responsible behaviour” on the part of journalists and reminded them of “the appropriate way to cover the situation in the capital and in the country.”

“We urge Mikov to rectify these comments,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Such interference in the editorial freedom of the broadcast media is inconceivable in a democratic state that is a member of the European Union, all the more so when the person responsible is the National Assembly speaker.”

Bulgaria is ranked 87th out of 179 counties in the 2013 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. This is the worst ranking of any European Union member state.

The Association of European Journalists-Bulgaria also issued a statement, “deeply regretting” the fact that Mihov had attempted to lay blame on the media and journalists for the escalation of tensions in the capital.

The association said that, hopefully, this was not a call for the imposition of self-censorship or a threat against the budgets of the public broadcast media.

Regarding BNT, there is another factor in the contest for control, as hearings and a decision are pending by the Council for Electronic Media on who will be the television station’s director-general after autumn. Attempted political pressure regarding the decision should probably not be regarded as improbable.

More immediately, BNT also came under pressure even more direct than that of Mihov, in the person of Volen Siderov, leader of Ataka.

White noise
This is not the place for a comprehensive list of the bizarre episodes in which Siderov has been involved in recent weeks (and certainly not all the recent years).

To note just one, his incursion into the offices of BNT, in which he led his phalanx past the police guard at reception, citing his status as a member of Parliament, and made his way into the office of BNT director-general Vyara Ankova.

Earlier, he reportedly told supporters that he would visit all the state and privately-owned TV stations to obtain “more positive” and “balanced” coverage of his activities. Already, he had criticised the media for failing, in his view, to properly cover the “hooliganism” and “terrorism” of the anti-government protests (agents provocateur have been arrested during the protests, and going by a recent Interior Ministry statement, some were carrying knuckledusters and knives; frequently these arrests have taken place after protesters pointed out to police those who were seeking to spark confrontation; otherwise, the protests are peaceful if noisy, and a common sight is families, of hooligan mothers and fathers accompanied by toddler or sometimes tiny baby hooligans in prams and strollers.)

Going by the statements that emerged afterwards, Siderov got no change from Ankova, and all that emerged was that there were clearly differing perspectives on how professional journalism is conducted.

In turn, Siderov was condemned by Reporters Without Borders, in the same statement that criticised Mihov.

“Using force to enter a TV station and abusing parliamentary immunity is not appropriate behaviour for the leader of a political party, especially one who is a parliamentarian (sic),” Reporters Without Borders said.

“Bulgaria is a member of the European Union. Regardless of their politics, its parliamentarians cannot behave with such contempt for media editorial independence. The example they are setting is deplorable and unacceptable. They could have obtained a meeting with BNT’s management through normal channels.”

News cycle
Whatever the pressures and criticisms, the achievements or failures, the Bulgarian media itself will continue to be under stress because of the protests, not only because reporters now have the morning “coffee-drinking” sessions to cover too, as well as the regular if somewhat paltry rival pro-government protests.

The anti-government protesters have vowed that they will not get tired, but in the absence of any accurate count, it seems that turnout for evening protests, especially on weekdays, is lessening. On top of that, the peak of the summer season is some weeks away, which could reduce the numbers of protesters while, in turn, if it is true that Parliament intends taking the month of August off, the shouts of “resign!” and “mafia!” will be directed at an empty building.

Fatigue will be a factor all round, fatigue for the now-established routine of protest, possibly fatigue for those in power if there is any possible psychological weariness from the fact of deluding themselves that they are popularly in power, certainly fatigue for the reporters talking to-camera each evening as they track the protest groups, both pro- and anti-government, fatigue that by now neither side has nothing much new to say.

And for now too, inasmuch as it is clear that many thousands of Bulgarians are not prepared to accept the state of the country, and that polarisation is deepening, it is also clear that a media landscape that has been built up over the years – with its monopolies, its bias, its sundry inadequacies, the general triumph of mediocrity – is not going unchallenged either.

(Photo: Michal Zacharzewski, SXC)

* Disclosure: The current author’s spouse is an employee of BNT . This article was written and posted sight unseen by anyone from BNT.



Clive Leviev-Sawyer

Clive Leviev-Sawyer is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of The Sofia Globe. He is the author of the book Bulgaria: Politics and Protests in the 21st Century (Riva Publishers, 2015), and co-author of the book Bulgarian Jews: Living History (The Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria 'Shalom', 2018). He is also the author of Power: A Political Novel, available via amazon.com, and, on the lighter side, Whiskers And Other Short Tales of Cats (2021), also available via Amazon. He has translated books and numerous texts from Bulgarian into English.