In Bulgaria, as elsewhere in the region, there is a growing concern about the instrumentalisation of the media, which has long neglected the classic virtues of journalism, such as objectivity, impartial and relevant reporting, to the advantage of the political order that manipulates the public and takes control over society.
In the Bulgarian context, there is a clear external attempt to destabilise the society. In essence, Bulgaria is a small chessboard for foreign interests. National political parties openly manifest their international sympathies.
While the still ruling GERB of Boyko Borisov and the marginalised liberal opposition are openly pro-European, the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) promotes a much more flexible and friendly approach towards Russia. Bulgarian President Rumen Radev and the BSP criticise sanctions against Russia and attempt to sabotage a further strengthening of NATO influence in the region. Far right-wing parties, in particular Ataka, openly replicate the Russian narrative.
As a consequence, there is no single coherent response grounded in a national consensus to the issue of foreign interference. The Bulgarian authorities prefer to stay off the radar with regard to information warfare to the extent that the Russian Federation has spotted an opportunity to undermine the unity of the European Union.
A recent statement of the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) questioning the Russian sponsored exhibition of the Bulgarian “liberation” during WWII highlights the incompleteness of Bulgarian national interests. While the MFA had a clear statement, President Radev took a much more ambiguous policy towards Moscow.
This example shows that the danger is not simply external but has a major internal component.
Bulgarisation of media ownership
Should the media play a clearer role as a public shield against any external attempts to manipulate the open society? In the current information war between Russia and the West, the media need stronger support to expose disinformation coming from the inside and from abroad.
A 2017 country report of the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom indicates “significant risks to media pluralism in Bulgaria”.
Placed as 111th, Bulgaria performed worst of all EU member states and ranked among the Balkan states. The media landscape is largely monopolised either by the government or, with some minor exceptions, to moguls who perceive it as a handy tool to influence the public.
The risks to media pluralism have not diminished in the past two years. The adoption of a new media law, in 2018, and the “bulgarisation” of the ownership of Nova TV in favour of a government connected oligarch, has led to further impoverishments of the media landscape.
Government control over public media was further increased through political appointments to governing bodies. Such practices of the Bulgarian authorities were exposed during a recent scandal concerning the removal of journalist Silvia Velikova from her morning program on the Bulgarian National Radio (BNR).
Within such an environment, the media serve as an instrument of social influence over public opinion rather than as a provider of information. While the protection of open public discourse is important for the development of a democratic society, this cannot be observed in reality.
How to protect society from an instrumentalised media that are unable to protect citizens from external manipulation, but also use their position to protect and promote the interests of oligarchic overlords?
Currently, there are two types of disinformation activities in Bulgaria. Both take inspiration from the EU. In the first instance, the Bulgarian government organised a new authority on disinformation coordinated by Vice-Minister Tomislav Donchev, following an EU initiative.
This recently established disinformation authority works “when it can and when there is time”, as reported by RFE/RL. The initiative suggests that the government does not deny the existence of disinformation activities in the media. Donchev confirmed that the “disinformation stream” constitutes 30 to 40 per cent of the entire news flow. Regardless of such a high percentage, it remains difficult to identify the exact sources of disinformation.
In the second case, the EU institutions and bodies play a direct role. Both the Commission and Parliament have organised events that were aiming to attract public attention and were supported by local NGOs.
In addition, many of these NGOs were involved in the creation of a website called bgvsdisinfo, which cooperates with private and public educational institutions to support whistle-blowing of disinformation.
The fact that many of such initiatives are supported by external bodies, highlights the foreign stakes at play but also the limitations of domestic initiatives.
Start at the beginning
Fighting disinformation should begin with public mobilisation as well as the desire to improve the quality of journalism. In a system where the media are not independent entities but another lever of the powerful, there is no room for morality and authority.
In Bulgaria, Hungary and Poland, the public service media have become government propaganda machines that differ only from the explicitly pro-Russian channels in that they are financed through public funds and not by external actors.
What kills us is not so much external influence, but the compromises we make with ourselves as a society so that we can survive in this soulless “thug land” reality. Where they need a livelihood, where they want a career, where they have fears, pseudo-journalists are ready to write whatever they have to in order to get paid.
Undoubtedly, the pursuit of journalistic ethics will take its toll. Moreover, some journalists do not see the point of helping to maintain a healthy media environment, as they would lose their role as a propaganda tools for needy politicians.
When all the media is in the hands of the government and moguls, how can a journalist be completely free? Years ago, a colleague from the Czech newspaper owned by today’s Prime Minister Andrzej Babiš told me that he had never felt pressure in his work. Back then, I still thought that there was no need for outside help, because the pressure levers were still waiting to be used.
In Bulgaria, the examples of pressure are thousands, and the case with Mirolyuba Benatova is a shocking one. Moreover, with the waning public desire for engagement, the ruling ones are becoming more insolent. Also the controversial appointment of the new Director of the Bulgarian National Television (BNT) and the removal of Velikova at the BNR are unacceptable moves. Yet, journalists have not received widespread public support.
And as much as I share the argument about the guilt of the overlords and the oligarchs for their manipulation of public reality, I think there is another very important factor – a structural factor.
Over the last three decades, a very sad form of democracy has emerged in the region, which comes down to the perception of politics as a confrontation. In such an environment, there is no room for deliberation, consensus-building or compromise. There is no room for any retreat in the struggle for full control, and the sole purpose is to destroy political opponents.
In such a political civil war, there is no room for independent journalism that seeks sensible solutions to common problems, since practitioners are required to adjust reality to private interests and ideological preferences.
In this environment, every public issue becomes a new battleground that faces hidden, albeit overt private interests. At the same time, Bulgarian society is unable to make any decision because of the widespread feeling that the battle will be lost. And thus, as we slip into the mud of our own fears. In practice, the only interests that are served are those of the governing authorities.