Bulgaria ‘black sheep of the EU’: World Press Freedom Index

Famous investigative journalist Mirolyuba Benatova was fired by Nova TV and now makes a living driving a taxi. [24 Chasa newspaper]

Bulgaria has the lowest standards of press freedom in Europe and is ranked 111th globally in terms of press freedom for a third consecutive year in the Reporters Without Borders annual edition of the World Press Freedom index, which called the country “the black sheep of the EU”.

The COVID-19 pandemic looms large in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index, published on Tuesday (21 April), which warns that the coming decade will be decisive for the future of journalism.

The 2020 edition of the Index, which evaluates the situation for journalists in 180 countries and territories each year, also warns of a geopolitical crisis (due to the aggressiveness of authoritarian regimes); a technological crisis (due to a lack of democratic guarantees); a democratic crisis (due to polarisation and repressive policies); a crisis of trust (due to suspicion and even hatred of the media); and an economic crisis (impoverishing quality journalism).

RSF finds a clear correlation between the suppression of media freedom in response to the coronavirus pandemic and a country’s ranking in the Index. Both China (177th) and Iran (down 3 places at 173rd) censored their major coronavirus outbreaks extensively.

Even in Europe, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary (down 2 at 89th), had a “coronavirus” law passed with penalties of up to five years in prison for false information, a completely disproportionate and coercive measure.

‘Black sheep’

In Europe, RSF point out at Bulgaria as the country with the lowest standards of press freedom, where despite increasing international pressure, the situation did not improve in 2019. RSF particularly highlights Nova TV, which was bought by oligarch Kiril Domuschiev and changed its coverage from rather neutral to pro-government.

It lists the successive lay-offs of journalists from Nova TV (one of them, Antoinette Nikolova, has joined EURACTIV Bulgaria).

The name of famous investigative journalist Mirolyuba Benatova, fired from Nova TV is also mentioned. Benatova now makes a living as a taxi driver. An unwritten agreement between media owners makes sure journalists who have been fired get no journalistic employment elsewhere.

“Corruption and collusion between media, politicians and oligarchs is widespread in Bulgaria. The most notorious embodiment of this aberrant state of affairs is Delyan Peevski, who ostensibly owns two newspapers (Telegraph and Monitor) but also controls a TV channel (Kanal 3), news websites and a large portion of print media distribution”, RSF write.

Bulgaria is last on media freedom in EU and in the Balkans

Bulgaria, which currently holds the rotating EU Presidency, ranks last among all EU countries in terms of media freedom. It is also the worst in the Western Balkans, a region Sofia hopes to bring closer to the EU.

“The government continues to allocate EU and public funding to media outlets with a complete lack of transparency, with the effect of encouraging recipients to go easy on the government in their reporting or to refrain from covering certain problematic stories altogether. At the same time judicial harassment of independent media, such as the Economedia group and Bivol continued to increase”, the report says.

Hungary and Poland, the two EU members under an Article 7 procedure, rank better than Bulgaria – 89 and 62 respectively. Regarding Hungary, RSF says that 2019 was a “relatively quiet year in the Hungarian media” with “no major changes in the ownership structure”.

“The pro-government media foundation, the Central European Press and Media Foundation (abbreviated as KESMA in Hungarian) dominates the media landscape, and market distortion of state advertising to media is still going on”, the report says.

Regarding Poland, RSF says that the government’s drive to subjugate the judicial system is starting to have an effect on the freedom of expression of independent media outlets.

“Some courts are now using Article 212 of the criminal code, under which journalists can be sentenced to as much as a year in prison for defamation, although the civil code offers citizens all the protection they need if they are defamed. Even if the courts usually content themselves with fining journalists, the use of Article 212 encourages self-censorship by the independent media”, the report says.

Overall, Europe remains the continent best upholding media freedom. Norway tops the Index for the fourth year in a row in 2020, while Finland is again the runner-up. Denmark (up 2 at 3rd) is next as both Sweden (down 1 at 4th) and the Netherlands (down 1 at 5th) have fallen as a result of increases in cyber-harassment.

The other end of the Index has seen little change. North Korea (down 1 at 180th) has taken the bottom position from Turkmenistan, while Eritrea (178th) continues to be Africa’s worst-ranked country.

Commission quotes von der Leyen

After the publication of this article, EURACTIV asked the EU executive to comment the RSF report. Commission spokesperson Christian Wigand quoted Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

“Independent journalist is vital to hold governments accountable and to monitor democratic processes, especially in crisis times. As President von de Leyen said, “democracy cannot work without free and independent media. Respect for freedom of expression and legal certainty are essential in these uncertain times. Now it is more important than ever that journalists are able to do their job freely and precisely so as to counter disinformation and to ensure that our citizens have access to crucial information.”

Regarding Bulgaria, Wigand said it was the responsibility of member states to take action to protect media freedom and pluralism. Although the media environment is outside of the remit of the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism, he said that it was mentioned in the 2019 CVM report as a factor raising serious concerns regarding the progress of judicial reforms in Bulgaria.

“Independent and pluralistic media are of key importance for the democratic debate and should be able to operate free from undue pressure, from economic or political interests”, he concluded.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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