Politicians are ‘primary censors’ of Bulgarian-language media, poll of journalists finds

Politicians are the “primary censors” of the Bulgarian-language media, demanding to edit interviews with them before publication and to determine questions in television interviews in advance, a survey among journalists in the country has found.

The findings of the poll, by the Association of European Journalists – Bulgaria, were released on October 17. More than 200 journalists took part in the survey.

Interference in the work of the Bulgarian-language media took various forms, such as turning down interviews, remarks about how a topic is covered, direct contacts with media owners and chief editors, and re-editing of finished materials, according to the survey.

Often there were politicians who, on giving interviews to newspapers, wanted to read and edit the story before publication. In television interviews, questions were decided in advance and politicians balked if the interviewer asked a question that they had not agreed to answer.

Speaking to public broadcaster Bulgarian National Radio, Iliya Vulkov of the AEJ- Bulgaria said that previously, access to politicians had been easier but now there were intermediaries who acted as “gatekeeper and Cerberus” to control this access.

Bulgarian media seldom covered consumers’ problems when it came to, for instance, banks and mobile phone operators – their major advertisers.

About 92 per cent of those who took part in the national survey reported external interference as a common occurrence. Two out of three said that they knew of external pressure on colleagues.

Two-thirds ranked political pressure as most commonplace, followed by economic pressure, pressure from state and municipal bodies, from advertisers, while 13 per cent listed threats from organised crime groups.

Close to a quarter said that pressure resulted in the journalists suffering psychological and health problems.

Fifty-seven per cent said that the conditions led to a loss of interest in working as a journalist. Forty-nine per cent said that external pressure made them cautious in their reporting.

Close to 70 per cent of the Bulgarian journalists who took part in the survey said that they had changed employers three times to 10 years. This showed that there was great uncertainty in the profession in the country, Vulkov said.

This uncertainty stemmed from difficult working conditions, extremely low salaries, overwork, stress and frustration. These, more than interference in editorial matters, were the leading reasons for journalists to switch employers.

The AEJ – Bulgaria’s Nikoleta Daskalova said that in most Bulgarian media workplaces, there was no trade union protection for journalists.

Young journalists entered the business highly motivated but the working conditions made them lose their “hunger” for the profession.

A further problem was the continuing juniorisation of the Bulgarian-language media. Employers hired young and inexperienced reporters because they were cheaper, and instead of training them, simply threw them in the deep end.

The results of the survey, the fourth on the topic done by AEJ – Bulgaria, came a week after Bulgarian journalists held a protest in Sofia, following controversies about alleged threats by politicians – one then a ruling party MP and another a deputy prime minister – to have a television interviewer fired over the questions he asked them.

The ruling party MP, Anton Todorov, ended up resigning from Parliament after this and other controversies in which he was embroiled. The deputy prime minister, Valeri Simeonov, denied that he had issued a threat and has said that he was taking court action against media that had reported that he did.

International media freedom surveys in recent years have ranked Bulgaria as lowest in the media freedom index in the European Union.

The AEJ – Bulgaria survey found that of those who took part, 42.4 per cent of Bulgarian journalist rated the freedom of speech situation in the country as bad, 27.8 per cent as very bad, 25.3 per cent as satisfactory and 4.5 per cent as good.

(Photo: University of Illinois via flickr.com)



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.