Bulgaria’s Viktoria Marinova murder case: On rushing to judgment

The aftermath of the murder of Bulgarian television presenter Viktoria Marinova has been an unedifying spectacle in which Marinova was the first victim and the credibility of those who rushed to judgment, the second.

It has been a case study of the media, both within Bulgaria and abroad, feeding themselves into the grinder of the 24-hour news cycle that already spins at a rate fatal to measured thought and sober consideration.

No less, it has been a case study in the pernicious multiplier effect of sharing on social networks, by those all too eager to recklessly to share their clicks not only while the jury was out, but had not yet even been summoned. “Bulgarian investigative journalist murdered”, by the otherwise reputable Politico, was just one example.

To begin at the beginning. At some time this past weekend, Viktoria Marinova, a 30-year-old presenter on a cable channel in the city of Rousse on the Danube, was murdered. Her death was brutal. So savage was the attack, which included rape, that the disfigurement of her facial features delayed positive identification by hours.

Within hours of the news of her murder breaking, Marinova had been transfigured by domestic and especially international media into a heroine of media freedom. A number of Bulgarian media described, with a customary absence of any sensitivity, gruesome details of the manner of her death. Reputable international wire services, in most cases represented in Bulgaria by Bulgarian journalists, instantly linked her killing to the parlous state of media freedom in Bulgaria, unfailingly if accurately pointing to the country’s place as the lowest-ranked in this regard among the current 28 member states of the European Union.

Rapidly, with the linkage of the brutal murder of Marinova with her purported status as an “investigative journalist”, any number of media freedom watchdogs and multilaterals issued strident calls on the basis of these. With detectives just a few hours on the scene, the hard science of forensics only at the beginnings of its application, and with neither motive nor perpetrator known, her name was being listed along with others indisputably whose profession had cost them their lives.

The trampling of Marinova’s violated and battered corpse continued. In some of the Bulgarian-language media, the nature of her relationship with her former husband, divorced in February, was keenly examined. Unnamed sources proclaimed it to be a good one. Exoneration, in this trial-by-media, was swift. As swift as, on social networks, that multiplier effect continued. Continued, more so, as international media picked up the story, on an otherwise slow Sunday. Kavanaugh’s confirmation was a fact. Romania’s failed referendum against same-sex marriage was hardly worth a passing note. Few really care who wins elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina. There was Brazil, of course, but what of the fate of 207 million Brazilians? We have a young and attractive murdered Bulgarian investigative journalist. The old saw is immutable, even in the digital age: “If it bleeds, it leads”.

Yet still, no motive, no suspect. Bulgarian police had only their own old saw, that – in translation – they were pursuing all lines of inquiry. That’s police-speak for “we have absolutely no idea”.

Matters unfolded as such matters do in Bulgaria. Be seen to be there; the simulation of activity. The Interior Minister, who just a few weeks ago was the chief secretary of that ministry and thus the top civil servant in Bulgaria’s law enforcement, was dispatched to the scene. The Prosecutor-General went to Rousse too. The Prime Minister proclaimed, on a basis no one questioned in a headline or copy, that an arrest would be imminent. The best detectives on the force had been sent to deal with the case, he said. In the coming days, there would be breaking news that three additional prosecutors had been sent to the Danube city to assist their local colleagues. We learnt that there was ample DNA evidence. To those accustomed to police procedurals and other armchair detectives, that may suggest that the murder of Marinova was not a professional hit. Or perhaps it was just a low-budget one, a rent-a-thug sent after Marinova on her final, fatal, jog on the banks of the Danube. We are, after all, in the realm of speculation, which has an inexorable physics of its own, of a universe that expands untrammelled.

In such a universe, all evidence has equal weight, most especially if it conforms to a pre-existing bias. An “a-ha” moment. As a presenter, Marinova had hosted a show that had included two people who had been at the centre of an earlier controversy regarding their allegations that a large firm was abusing EU funds. Those people themselves had been in the headlines for the disputed narrative of how local police had acted in response to these allegations – in point of fact, by arresting them, the whistle-blowers. The item about these people had not, in fact, been an interview by Marinova; that had been done by one of her colleagues. As television presenters do, she had prefaced the item.

Little by little, less in international media that had trumpeted the tragedy than in a few isolated voices, some called into question whether the cognomen “investigative journalist” really applied to Marinova. Those who had elevated her, gradually, now would traduce her too.

That term, investigative journalist, has something of the unicorn about it, much spoken of and little seen. For all of the legend of Hollywood and television series, very, very few on this planet justifiably may be accorded that title. There are a number of reasons, but primary among them is that media owners tend not to budget for investigative journalists. Anyone with genuine media experience knows that a journalist may exhaustively pursue an allegation and find nothing, either because it has been concealed or because it is not there to be found. All the while, that journalist has been drawing a salary, but no words published; and perhaps especially in this age of daily quotas – an absurd measure of journalistic effectiveness – that is not a welcome balance sheet. Media owners also may be well aware that, in the event that there is something to be found and subsequently reported, the subsequent and consequent court action may be punitive, literally. With respect to television presenters, the act of presenting text about a story or interview does not amount to investigative journalism. Nor, noble as the act is, is making your media available for interviews in which the protagonists make allegations.

That said, so as to not to dismiss those willing to provide such a platform, should it be omitted to be be said that Marinova had said in what was to be her final presentation that the show was determined to expose corruption and abuse. We may flag that, and be so kind as to assume that the investigation into her slaying has done the same.

Wildfire, the wildfire of headlines and connections made without the kindling to justify them, spreads fast in our 24-hour ever-burning age. Wildfire too blinds vision. Perhaps this was not an act against a courageous journalist. Perhaps it was a brutal sex crime, in a country that so recently, misled by a populist and pernicious campaign, turned its back against the Istanbul Convention and the convention’s declarations against gender-based crime and violence.

Perhaps. As headlines in the Bulgarian media screamed that three days had passed and Viktoria’s killer or killers still had not been apprehended, the police and prosecutors remained staunchly vaguely cautious in their public pronouncements. Perhaps it was a psychopath (consider the brutality). Perhaps there was a personal motive (consider the rage). Her professional activities, as a motive, still were not ruled out. But for those paying close attention, that consideration as a factor was ebbing.

On the night of October 8, there were candelight vigils in honour of the memory of Marinova. There seemed to have been a nuance. In Sofia, where a large crowd gathered in the gloom of the chill autumn night, this seemed to have been about a slain journalist. In Rousse, going by those who spoke to the cameras, this was about the tragic loss of life of a young woman and a mother.

Still, the police and prosecutors were vague. Perhaps because they had little concrete to say? All of those higher-ups in Rousse, and no one to claim the triumph of a solution, to gain their little limelight of a case closed.

A fair question, in the light of some comments on social media, who were first to point this out. Why indeed did so many rush to judgment that Marinova’s life was savagely extinguished because of her work in the media? Because of the belief that it is precisely in the smaller cities and towns that the real large-scale corruption happens in Bulgaria. Places out of the spotlight, where power is feudal and local media largely in the role of forelock-tugging serfdom, bought and paid for by municipal contracts and a self-preserving awareness that to offend local bosses may be seriously injurious.

Then consider the skepticism regarding the very Bulgarian institutions in charge of the investigation. While Marinova’s corpse lay in a morgue, a poll by Alpha Research – one of the very few, if not the only, opinion survey agencies in Bulgaria that may be lent any credence – showed that the approval rating of the Prosecutor’s Office was at a mere eight per cent. Yes, the person who heads that office may get his minute-by-minute coverage of his every pronouncement on the investigation into the Marinova murder, or any other case, but to an audience in which only eight of every 100 Bulgarians may actually believe him?

Trial by media. On the afternoon of October 9, it emerged that there was a suspect. This suspect, in the fog of reports with unnamed sources, either was a Romanian with a Moldovan passport, or a Ukrainian with a Romanian passport. Or something. It was the next “a-ha” moment. It was the stuff of breaking news, of 20-point headlines. But then. Guilt by insinuation. Or not.

DNA tests to link the suspect to the murder were pending. The suspect’s alibi was still being checked. One report said that he had been taken into custody because police found the fact that he been wandering around Rousse for days with no apparent purpose suspicious.

Hours later, with no named sources, it was reported that this unnamed foreigner had been released. It also was reported that someone possibly linked to the murder had left the country. The figurative fog at the murder scene, on that wooded pathway along the Danube, was considerable. Another headlong rush to judgment had fallen on a dead-end.

Viktoria Marinova is dead. She has left a seven-year-old child. She has left grieving colleagues who, on the advice of legal counsel, are not speaking to the media. Barring the fact of their October 9 statement in which they said they said that they – understandably – are grieving for the loss of their colleague.

Quietly, she was losing her status as an investigative journalist. One Bulgarian-language website reported, quite bizarrely, “her colleagues confirmed that she was not an investigative journalist”. A day earlier, the Association of European Journalists – Bulgaria had said: “AEJ-Bulgaria insists that all possible motives for the murder should be taken into consideration, including the one related to her work as a journalist. However, as long as there are no solid and proven facts, the speculations that the incident is connected to the freedom of expression in the country are unacceptable”.

It was a sober and sensible note, all the more so for the fact in a world where the media is under strenuous attack, including from a cheap huckster habitually-lying politician in an established democracy who seeks to denounce the media as the “enemy of the people”, the media in any country or internationally do themselves no favours by being party to rushing to judgment.

If the investigation is effective, and “if” is used advisedly, it may emerge that Viktoria Marinova was a martyr in the name of the best of the ideals of honest journalism. It may also emerge that she was a victim of a killer who neither knew nor cared what the young woman did for a living. At this writing, we do not know; and at this hour, all of those who rush to judgment in the name of their own emotion, or worse in pursuit of the next click or share, do her, her loved ones, her colleagues and her profession a grievous dishonour.



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.