Press freedom in Bulgaria under attack ahead of EU Presidency

The National Palace of Culture, main venue of the Bulgarian Presidency, on 8 December 2017. [Georgi Gotev]

Bulgarian opposition parties exposed on Tuesday (12 December) what they see as an attempt to silence and close down media considered unfriendly to the government of Boyko Borissov. Bulgaria will take over the rotating Presidency of the Council of the EU from 1 January.

Five small political parties from the centre-right political spectrum published a common position as a reaction to the procedure for property seizure targetting Ivo Prokopiev, the co-founder of Dnevnik and Capital, in which they say that the Putin model of substituting the rule of law with state criminality is being introduced in Bulgaria.

The state Commission for the Confiscation of Unlawfully Acquired Property (KONPI) has initiated a procedure to seize Prokopiev’s property, the first steps for a possible future confiscation claim. The move affects family property and shares in companies, including 100% of the stock in the publishing company Ikonomedia, of which Dnevnik and Capital are part.

The Movement for Strong Bulgaria (DSB), “Yes Bulgaria”, the Bulgarian Agrarian Popular Union (BZNS), the Green party and DEOS published a declaration stating that “the regime of Borissov, Tstatsarov and Peevski has transformed KONPI into an instrument of repression against the freedom of the press and the freedom of expression”.

Ironically, DSB and the GERB party of Bulgarian PM Borissov are both members of EPP, the European People’s Party.

Sotir Tsatsarov is the General Prosecutor and Delyan Peevski is a shady power broker and a media mogul. The close relations between Borissov, Tsatsarov and Peevski have inspired cartoonists from the few media outlets that remain outside the Peevski empire.

DSB represents the backers of former Prime Minister Ivan Kostov, many of whom have been anti-communists since the fall of the Berlin wall. “Yes Bulgaria” is a political force built around the push for bolder judicial reforms, headed by Hristo Ivanov, a former justice minister in the second Borisov cabinet.

BZNS is a historic force with roots in the 1920s. The Bulgarian Greens, unlike in other EU countries, are closer to the centre-right. DEOS is a liberal force created in the social media following the 2013-14 protests against caretaker Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski. None of these parties has been able to pass the 4% threshold to be represented in Parliament.

The five parties state that the attacks on Prokopiev are just another move showing that the Putin model is being put in place in Bulgaria. They call on the EU not to close its eyes to yet another trampling of the rule of law in Bulgaria, which joined the EU in 2007 but has not been allowed to join the passport-free Schengen area.

In a statement, Prokopiev said on 11 December that the corrupt political elite of Bulgaria uses the mechanism of “citizen confiscation” to crush its opponents.

 

Prokopiev assesses KOMPI’s actions as brutal trampling of the law and neglect of the objective facts. He also says that he has appealed against KOMPIs acts in court. According to him, KOMPI’s actions are arbitrary, aiming at repression, subjugation of the editorial content of Capital and Dnevnik, and demolition of the economic base of the two media.

The attacks against Prokopiev were largely anticipated.

A delegation of Bulgarian publishers and journalists was in Brussels on 21 November to warn their Brussels counterparts that the very existence of a small group of media which are not part of the quasi-monopoly of Peevski is threatened.

The Union of Publishers in Bulgaria (UPB) is an independent, non-governmental and non-political body representing print and online media in Bulgaria. UPB members are mainly independent media, among others – Economedia AD, publisher of Capital and Dnevnik, Sega EAD – publisher of Sega newspaper, Zebra BGN AD, publisher of Club Z magazine and clubz.bg, Mediapool OOD – publisher of mediapool.bg, Mit Press OOD, publisher of Manager Magazine.

A UPB delegation led by its president, Theodore Zahov, informed ENPA, the European Newspaper Publisher’s Association, and personally Carlo Perrone, ENPA President, of their concerns.

Their main messages are presented in this article.

Media freedom in Bulgaria has constantly deteriorated since the country joined the EU. The2017 media freedom index of Reporters Without Borders ranks Bulgaria as number 109. In comparison, Mauritania is ranked at 55, Mauritius at 56, Madagascar 56, Senegal N. 58, the Dominican Republic N. 59.

This is what Reporters Without Borders say about Bulgaria:

“Bulgaria is ranked lower in the World Press Freedom Index than any other European Union member. This is due to an environment dominated by corruption and collusion between media, politicians, and oligarchs”.

EURACTIV asked the deputy minister for the Bulgarian Presidency, Monika Panayotova, on 22 November to comment on her country’s poor ranking and present possible plans to improve the situation.

Panayotova said that as the holder of the Presidency, Bulgaria would represent the entire European Union and that therefore, the issues of the Presidency and of the press freedom were unrelated.

Commentator Evgenii Daynov wrote on the ClubZ website that the authorities are rushing ahead of the Presidency to muzzle the media, portray NGOs and political opponents as enemies of the state, scare to death the entrepreneurs, wiretap the citizens and give all the profits from the Presidency to friends.

“Within a few days, those in power want to achieve in Bulgaria what Putin built in Russia over several years”, Daynov wrote.