Bulgaria’s Fourth Estate: Fiction and reality

The shrill hysteria among some Bulgarian journalists in condemning newly-launched television series the Fourth Estate (“Четвърта власт”) went, however inadvertently, some way to illustrating the problems in the country’s media.

Within hours of its premiere on public broadcaster Bulgarian National Television on September 29, social networks and media websites were cluttered with the rudest words that some hacks had at their disposal, piling insults as high as stacks of yellowing newspapers in a reporter’s room.

The series, set around a fictional newspaper from which the show takes its name, was criticised for, among other things, featuring journalists who were too good-looking, too well-dressed, owning too-expensive cars, having clunky dialogue and generally depicting an operation where the journalists spent too much time faffing around to ever meet a deadline.

To add to this, the show was criticised as an advertisement for Economedia, a Bulgarian-language media company that publishes Sofia-based local newspapers and some of whose staff were involved in the production. One reporter huffed that the implication of the show was that only Economedia had investigative journalists (the current writer has no reason whatsoever to hold a brief for Economedia but fears for the reporting skills of someone who could make a leap of logic as deep into the abyss as that).

On social networks and in comments, the show was – with notably methodical repetition of this point – criticised as wastefully expensive “in a country that cannot pay for treatment of cancer patients”.

The negative reaction (and it must be pointed out that there was ample positive reaction too, including among journalists) was, however, anything but disinterested. There are a number of possible reasons, none mutually exclusive. And, for the record, in exploring these issues, this article is not taking a position whether the show is good or bad. That is not the point.

The show depicts the nexus of interests – corporate and dubious and both – and the media, directly addresses dirty doings by politicians and even goes so far to suggest (horrors!) corruption among Bulgarian journalists themselves.

This makes it hardly surprising that most of the ordure was flung by reporters from print and online media groups that are either rivals to Economedia (itself hardly the country’s biggest or most influential operation) or that have nothing to hold them back from seeking to take down the public broadcaster or individuals employed by it.

Further, there was a clear political dimension. One of the people involved in the production is Nayo Titsin, associated with the prolonged anti-government protests of this year, most notably making headlines for being arrested for crossing police lines wearing a Volen Siderov mask. The private media group whose employees are involved with the production also has been an open supporter of the anti-government protests.

In a media environment dominated by the family of which Delyan Peevski, he whose abortive appointment as head of the State Agency for National Security precipitated huge public support for the anti-government protests, is a member, a campaign against Четвърта власт perhaps is not surprising. In short, this may be about much more than objecting to Bulgarian hacks hardly getting salaries that run to designer clothing and nice cars (the question of whether and how many Bulgarian journalists are nice to look at must be left for private debate elsewhere) or that Bulgarian newsrooms are not necessarily masterpieces of the interior decorator’s art.

But, again, perhaps what stung the most is the idea is that what Bulgarian media offer their readers and viewers is perhaps not the result of a monastic dedication to professional values.

The assertion has been made before that there is no quality reporting or independent journalism in Bulgaria. It will, no doubt, be made again, at those forums that discuss reality, not fiction.

Because, while the chatterati who came to Facebook either to sing the praises of Chetvurta Vlast or to bury it, there were real stories going on, for real reporters to cover. One involved Deutsche Welle, its Bulgarian section, and Corporate Commercial Bank.

Bank on it?

Some in Bulgaria hold that the genuine power in the state is held by Corporate Commercial Bank, holder of a vast share of government deposits, and allege further that this bank is involved in, among other things, the media group to which Peevski is linked by family ties – an allegation that the bank and its owner, Tsvetan Vassilev, vehemently reject.

A series of critical comments by two freelance writers, Emi Baruch and Ivan Bedrov, for the Bulgarian section of Deutsche Welle, in respect of CCB and Vassilev led to a lengthy complaint of defamation being sent to DW.

What happened next is a matter of dispute, in the sense that initial reports said that DW had told Baruch and Bedrov that their services were no longer required; an October 1 news conference in Sofia by DW representatives was told that in fact, the two only had been temporarily suspended.

The bank complained to DW that the two writers had made allegations that it said were untrue, regarding the claimed links between Vassilev and the Irena Krasteva media group, and added that the two had sought to exploit DW’s international prestige to damage the bank’s reputation. Reportedly, the letter of complaint added that Bedrov and Baruch were linked to Ivo Prokopiev, co-owner of Economedia.

News of the DW saga (not universally reported in all media, by the by) was taken up as a media freedom issue in some quarters. There was at least one online petition, while the Association for European Journalists sent an open letter to DW, expressing a number of concerns and raising the issue around whether the two contributors had been let go because of a lack of adherence to professional standards.

“In the name of professionalism, we are convinced that it would be helpful to provide examples of non-compliance with the standards,” said the AEJ letter, which was made public in Bulgarian and in German. “Otherwise, the suspicion would be aroused that the decision was made under corporate pressure, which is not an isolated case, according to the results of our recent survey among Bulgarian journalists.”

Matters led to the DW news conference in the Bulgarian capital, with the German broadcaster saying that Baruch and Bedrov had been suspended only on a temporary basis, and were to be reinstated, while the head of DW’s editorial team for Eastern Europe, Veritsa Spasovska, said that she had interviewed Vassilev so that the broadcaster could present his perspective as well.

It was a fortunate coincidence that an authoritative voice on media issues in Bulgaria came – again – from none other than Germany’s ambassador in Sofia, Matthias Höpfner, speaking separately at a seminar on October 1.

It’s a fiction

“Journalism in Bulgaria is only ostensibly free,” Höpfner told a conference entitled “Freedom and Diversity of the Media: Where is Bulgaria?”

He said that the fact that the number of media per capita in Bulgaria was much higher than in Germany did not mean that there was genuine diversity.

“The media sector is important for the democracy in a country. If the media are dependent, then the democracy is put at risk,” said Höpfner, who has been a consistent critic of the media setup in Bulgaria.

At the October 1 event, he laid out the problems of Bulgarian media – oligarchic dependencies, fake freedoms, a lack of clarity about ownership, abuse of freedoms and self-censorship.

Although Bulgaria’s constitution guaranteed freedom of speech and freedom of the media, there was a difference between theory and reality, he said.

Ownership of the media was frequently non-transparent.

Some media tycoons had the power to influence public opinion and had political influence, he said.

At the same time, self-censorship among Bulgarian journalists was a problem, Höpfner said, referring to what he described as “the scissors in the head”.

Höpfner said that Bulgaria should follow the German example and set up a commission investigating media concentration. Bulgaria needed careful media regulation along with self-regulation.

He added that his statements should not be construed as outside interference in Bulgaria’s internal affairs – there were very few internal affairs in the EU apart from decisions to confer honours, Höpfner said. (His French fellow ambassador left Bulgaria without the previously customary highest honour from the Bulgarian state, in what was widely seen as revenge by the Bulgarian Socialist Party government for the German-French ambassadorial joint statement on the anti-government protests. The government has denied this allegation.)

In other news

Meanwhile, there continued to be no shortage of items in which the media themselves became the story, sometimes deliberately, sometimes not.

As of June, the roadshows by Nikolai Barekov of TV7, a broadcaster owned by the Krasteva company, transmogrified from purportedly an exercise in hearing the complaint of ordinary Bulgarians into a platform for Barekov’s own political ambitions. He is, reportedly, readying himself to be prime minister, on the grounds that only he has the moral stature to do so.

He is coming soon to a town near you, if he has not been already, these events advertised on posters that include the logos of TV7 and its sibling News7. Barekov’s movement is named “Bulgaria without Censorship”.

His political ambitions were confirmed in June, apparently the culmination of a change for someone previously seen as close to Borissov and who turned into one of the then-prime minister’s most adamant critics amid the February protests that led to Borissov’s resignation.

Whatever coverage is coming of Barekov’s movement, it is an open question (perhaps not that difficult to answer, on the other hand) quite how objective media coverage of his activities will be.

Media coverage of activities also has been something of a sore point for Volen Siderov, the ultra-nationalist Ataka leader.

After anti-government website Noresharski alleged that Siderov’s group of MPs had got into something of a contretemps in Brussels over a large bar bill, an allegation that was picked up by mainstream media, Siderov went on TV7 on October 2 to say that he would sue every media that had written about the alleged incident.

Perhaps Siderov, himself a former journalist, knows something about the workings of the media. But his statement kept the letter-writers busy.

Noresharski co-ordinator Nikolay Staykov, in an open letter to the AEJ, described Siderov’s threat of court action as a threat to media freedom.

Siderov, the letter said, preferred not to respond as to whether the information published was accurate, preferring instead to threaten claims for defamation against all media dealing with the subject.

“We oppose any threat to independent journalistic investigations and believe that these actions must be condemned by all institutions and individuals who believe media freedom is a foundation of civil society,” Staykov wrote.

But perhaps the next debate about the state of the media in Bulgaria must await the next episode of the Fourth Estate.

(Photo: The people in this picture with the microphones and cameras are not real journalists, just actors in an episode of Chetvurta Vlast.)

* Disclosure: The current author is the spouse of a Bulgarian National Television employee, but no one in any way connected with BNT or the television show Четвърта власт was communicated with in any way about this article before it was written.

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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.