Land of the Unfree Media
Freedom of speech may be the mother of all freedoms, but the average Bulgarian does not seem to care a lot about it. Brussels however does care. Or at least pretends to.
Despite accusations of political manipulations, the idea for an open hearing in the European Parliament on media freedom in Bulgaria this week was a sign in this direction.
For those foreigners who say the media landscape in the country is difficult to decode – except for the obvious key role of people with dubious reputation – let me wrap it up briefly.
WAZ withdrawal from Bulgaria's market spelled the end of free speech in the country, at least according to the colleagues who have been working in the media over the turbulent years of the transition period.
The monopoly on the media market that loomed as the biggest threat for free speech in Bulgaria last year is already a fact. But it seems to be a three-headed monster.
There are three centers around which the media line up as loyal satellites – they are epitomized by 24 Hours, Galeria weekly and Weekend weekly, mouthpieces of Ognyan Donev, Alexey Petrov and Boyko Borisov respectively.
Bulgaria's media landscape – a merger between financial, political and media power - resembles Putin's Russia. It places Bulgaria once again in Europe's backyard and brands it as Russia's Trojan horse in the united bloc.
Thank God, there is no such thing as a monopoly of information, but the purchase of a large number of titles by media mogul Irena Krasteva, backed by the bank holding the biggest share of state assets, and the squabbles over the ownership of the WAZ assets are more than enough to raise the alarm.
Obviously in Bulgaria shady figures can afford to buy back shares in large numbers or are tempted by the prospect of using the media for money laundering or for promoting other economic activities from public tenders, public works, mobile telephony, energy, tourism, etc. The investments are made with the sole goal of turning the media into a tool for communication or pressure.
Feeling financially and emotionally insecure, the journalists in the purchased titles agree to conform and yield to self-censorship. Thus the collusion between political authorities, organized crime and the monopolist is often with the complicity of the (until recently pretty honest) journalists themselves.
The monopolist and the authorities live in a mutually benefiting symbiosis, which poisons the media market and hurts the interests of society, violates EU competition rules, restricts public access to information and freedom of expression.
If you don't want to be fed cheap propaganda, it is highly recommendable to include in your everyday media menu a newspaper outside the monopoly and a few blogs.
Otherwise you will be left with the impression that the explosions that rocked an arms depot in eastern Bulgaria on Tuesday were an ordinary accident, which hit the business of an honest businessman full of integrity.
Three people are missing and – I hate to say it – very likely dead. Causing death by negligence is severely punished in any normal country with functioning judiciary, but it is still to be seen whether the umbrella put up by the interior ministry will protect this businessman too and how this tragedy will be presented in the media fawning on the government.
A respected Bulgarian journalist recently called on Prime Minister Boyko Borisov to listen carefully what the MEPs have to say about media freedom in Bulgaria. And decide which is more important for him – media comfort or Bulgaria's interests.
I personally think Borisov made his choice long ago. Now he is just playing for time as the European Commission considers whether to press Bulgaria on allegations of liquidity support to Corporate Commercial Bank, which is believed to finance the media group of Irena Krasteva.