Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) has announced plans to re-launch news services in Bulgaria and Romania in a bid to strengthen the media landscape in both countries.
In both cases, it marks a return for RFE/RL: the company previously served countries across Eastern Europe, including Bulgaria and Romania, prior to their joining the European Union and NATO. Service to Bulgaria ended in 2004 and to Romania in 2008.
During communism Radio Free Europe on short waves was the only source of uncensored information both for Romania and Bulgaria. The communist regimes tried to scramble the broadcasts, and auditors were listening in secret, fearing from the political police reprisals.
RFE/RL is an editorially independent media company funded by a grant from the US Congress.
RFE/RL President Thomas Kent was quoted as saying that RFE/RL hope that their coverage, carried out by local journalists, will help the growth of a free press, promote democratic values and institutions, and inform discussion in both countries of their place in NATO, the EU and other Western organizations. He added that the broadcaster looks forward to partnering with local independent media and civil society.
Government officials, civil society representatives and journalists in both countries have expressed concern that disinformation, corruption, and social division are undermining their political systems.
Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU in 2007, but the media situation in both countries has not improved since. In fact, Bulgaria continues to collapse in the 2018 Reporters Without Borders media freedom index and occupies the 111th position in the 2018 ranking. This means Bulgaria has lost two positions compared to 2017, but more importantly, Bulgaria is now last not only in the EU but also across the Western Balkan countries.
Romania ranks better, 44th in the 2018 index, having improved since 2017 (46th). Reporter Without Borders said Romanian media has been increasingly transformed into political propaganda tools (particularly in election years).
Beginning in December 2018, RFE/RL will provide multi-media reporting and analysis in Bulgarian and Romanian and partner with local media to amplify existing projects that promote public accountability and debunk false news.
Bulgaria in particular is very vulnerable to Russian propaganda. Some of its media outlets take on board the Russian position on issues such as the Ukraine crisis, or act as Moscow’s advocates to promote big energy projects of Russian interest.
RFE/RL already has a deep commitment to the Balkan region, with bureaus in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia. It also has an acclaimed Romanian-language service for Moldova.