Controversy continued in Bulgaria at the weekend after a row erupted over alleged threats against a television talk show host by an MP for the majority partner in government and by a deputy prime minister from the minority coalition partner.
The controversy began when on October 6, GERB MP Anton Todorov and Deputy Prime Minister Valeri Simeonov of the United Patriots made comments in separate interviews with Nova Televizia’s Viktor Nikolaev that were interpreted as threatening to have him fired.
Simeonov, in a statement issued by the government media service, vehemently denied that he had threatened Nikolaev. He said that he was giving Nova Televizia, bTV and public broadcasters Bulgarian National Television and Bulgarian National Radio 24 hours to publicly apologise to him for their coverage of the issue, failing which he would take court action against them for defamation.
Simeonov said that his words had been taken out of context. In the October 6 interview, Simeonov responded to questions from Nikolaev with comments interpreted as implying that Nikolaev’s relatives had exploited the TV show host’s position, and the deputy prime minister added that if he had evil intentions, he could manufacture a controversy about Nikolaev.
Political allies of the deputy prime minister, who is one of three co-leaders of the United Patriots – the grouping of nationalist and far-right parties that is the minority partner in the third Boiko Borissov government – commented on his remarks by saying that they amounted to a joke that had misfired.
The row that followed GERB MP Todorov’s comments was considerable. A few hours after they were made, Borissov’s party distanced itself from them, saying that they were Todorov’s personal opinion.
GERB parliamentary group leader Tsvetan Tsvetanov issued an apology on behalf of the group for Todorov’s comments, but in the face of opposition calls for Todorov to be ousted as an MP, said that this would not be happening.
Todorov had been at the centre of controversy for days. Initially slated as GERB’s nominee to head the Dossier Commission, this was withdrawn when there was an outcry from critics about his background. In a parliamentary debate on the ad hoc committee report on Bulgaria’s fighter jet acquisition process, Todorov hinted that President Roumen Radev, a former Air Force commander, had taken a bribe to support the Gripen offer.
In the same debate, Todorov went to make a defamatory reference to the President’s wife. The GERB MP also alleged that the President’s chief of staff was under investigation by the State Agency for National Security for breaching classified information laws. Todorov also attempted to read out a 30-year-old medical report about an opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party MP.
In the interview with Nikolaev, when the TV show host asked Todorov about his allegations regarding the fighter jet acquisition process, the GERB MP responded by not answering the questions but by implying that Nikolaev’s “strong words” could cost him his job.
Amid the furore that this raised, late on Friday afternoon Todorov insisted that he had been misinterpreted and had not intended to threaten Nikolaev, but apologised to him anyway.
At a hastily-called news conference on October 8, GERB lined up some of its most senior members, including Tsvetanov, to insist that they were behind freedom of speech and apologised if it appeared that they were trying to intervene in the media.
The row comes against a background of a succession of reports over a number of years by international press freedom organisations that rank Bulgaria’s performance on freedom of the media as the worst in the European Union.
The Association of European Journalists – Bulgaria said that it would hold a protest outside the Cabinet office in Sofia on October 11 at 9am.
Referring to Simeonov’s ultimatum to Nova, bTV, BNT and BNR being sent out by the government press service, the AEJ – Bulgaria said that this made it not Simeonov’s personal opinion “but an official position of the state, which openly opposes the largest media in our country”. This act had no precedent in Bulgarian history, the association said.
The AEJ – Bulgaria said that, in addition to the executive, the “war against the media” was being conducted by the legislature as well. “The proof is the fact that confidence has not been withdrawn from MP Anton Todorov and he continues to be part of the largest parliamentary group, that of ruling party GERB.”
In a reference to statements during the interviews with Nikolaev by Todorov about how his former breakfast show co-host’s chair was now empty (some weeks ago, Nova transferred Nikolaev’s colleague Ani Tsolova to another job at the television station), the AEJ called on journalists to bring chairs to the protest, “to show that we are not afraid that our chairs will remain empty, and politicians are the ones who have to fear us”.
At a meeting of Bulgarian journalists in Moldova’s capital Chisinau, the issue was discussed, with recently-appointed director-general of BNT Konstantin Kamenarov saying that there was an old principle in journalism: “There are no bad questions, there are bad answers”.
Sofia Vladimirova, head of the Council for Electronic Media, told the same discussion: “I never imagined, even jokingly, that we would have to defend the right to ask a question”.
Among other parties represented in the National Assembly, the opposition BSP said that GERB had a track record of threatening journalists. The BSP said that GERB’s mentality was to tell journalists, “shut up, or we will run you down, have you fired and crush you”.
Mustafa Karadayi, leader of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, the fourth-largest parliamentary group, said that GERB’s pattern of behaviour was to make mistakes, issue excuses, and then do the same thing over and over again.
(Photo: Maurice Rodin/freeimages.com)