Bulgaria has fallen again in Reporters Without Borders’ annual World Press Freedom Index, to the lowest ranking among European Union countries and lower in the index than all the countries of the Western Balkans.
Physical attacks and death threats against journalists by criminal groups are especially common in Bulgaria, Reporters Without Borders said, which moved the country down two places to 111th place in its index, released on April 25 2018.
“This current holder of the EU rotating presidency has fallen from 36th position in 2006 to what is by far the worst position of any EU country in the 2018 Index.”
“Although the current holder of the European Council’s rotating presidency (until the end of June 2018), Bulgaria is now lower in the Index than all the countries in the western Balkans, some of which are candidates for EU membership,” Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said.
“Corruption and collusion between media, politicians, and oligarchs is widespread.”
Reporters Without Borders said that the “most notorious embodiment of this aberrant state of affairs” is Deylan Peevski a former head of Bulgaria’s main intelligence agency and owner of the New Bulgarian Media Group.
Peevski’s group has six newspapers and controls nearly 80 per cent of print media distribution.
The government’s allocation of EU funding to certain media outlets is conducted with a complete lack of transparency, in effect bribing them to go easy on the government in their reporting or refrain from covering certain problematic stories altogether, RSF said.
Threats and attacks against journalists in Bulgaria have intensified in recent months, the report said.
“It can prove dangerous to be a journalist in Bulgaria.”
Commenting on the situation across Europe, the report said that as well as being threatened and insulted by certain European leaders, journalists are also exposed to the hostility of the criminal groups operating in Europe, which particularly dislike reporters who investigate unscrupulous businessmen and track the cross-border tentacles of their operations.
The European model’s erosion, a trend visible in RSF’s most recent Indexes, has continued in the 2018 Index. The region has been shaken by two murders, as well as by threats to investigative reporters and unprecedented verbal attacks on the media. Even the countries at the top of the Index are affected by this alarming climate, RSF said.
“The traditionally safe environment for journalists in Europe has begun to deteriorate.”
Two murders in the space of five months, the first in Malta and the second in Slovakia, have capped a worrying decline for the continent’s democracies, RSF said.
Malta plunged 18 places to 65th in the Index. Journalist and blogger Daphne Caruana Galizia’s targeted car bomb death lifted the veil on the judicial harassment and intimidation to which journalists are routinely subjected in the island state. Caruana Galizia had been threatened for years and at the time of her death was the target of 42 civil suits and five criminal cases.
Slovakia, down 10 places to 27th, is still reeling from the murder of a 27-year-old investigative reporter who had been covering corruption and the mafia.
In Italy (up six to 46th), ten investigative reporters are currently getting round-the-clock police protection because of death threats and because covering a mafia ring or criminal groups can prove fatal. In Montenegro (up three to 103rd), veteran investigative reporter Jovo Martinovic spent 14 months in prison after contacting a drug trafficker while researching a story.
In Poland, which has continued its fall in the Index (down four at 58th), anti-corruption reporter Tomasz Piatek was threatened with imprisonment after exposing the defence minister’s murky links with Russian organised crime, RSF said.
Political leaders are increasingly the source of the verbal attacks and harassment that create a hostile climate for journalists, the report said.
In Slovakia, relations between the media and (now former) Prime Minister Robert Fico were marred by frequent incidents. He called them “filthy anti-Slovak prostitutes” and “idiotic hyenas” and often sued them. In the Czech Republic (down 11 places to 34th), President Milos Zemanbrandished a dummy Kalashnikov inscribed with the word “journalists” at a press conference, after previously calling journalists “manure” and “hyenas” and suggesting they should be “liquidated” while standing alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In Hungary (down two places to 73rd), Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has accused Hungarian-born US billionaire philanthropist George Soros of supporting independent media outlets in order to “discredit” Hungary in the international public’s eyes, and has branded him public enemy No. 1.
The climate in Serbia (down 10 places to 76th) has become more fraught since Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic was elected president in 2017. He uses the pro-government media tointimidate journalists, who are accused of “treachery” and of being “spies in foreign pay.”
In Albania (down one at 75th), Prime Minister Edi Rama attacked journalists in autumn, calling them “ignorant,” “poison,” “charlatans” and even “public enemies.”
In Croatia, an EU member state since 2013 that is up five places to 69th, the new liberal-conservative HDZ–HNS ruling coalition says it considers press freedom to be of prime importance. But the growing influence of hate speech, which is proving hard to curb, is a source of concern. Politicians have not sufficiently condemned the verbal violence against journalists that has invaded the public arena.
“This sickening atmosphere is not limited to central Europe. Political leaders elsewhere have resorted to this rhetoric, which is not just unpleasant but also dangerous for journalists,” RSF said.