Business journalist, (Bulgarian) Economist, and former Reuters Journalist Fellow.
Nearly 30 years after the fall of communism Bulgaria remains the poorest member of the European Union, deeply divided over old allegiances to Russia and new alliances with the West. The news media tend to take an increasingly partisan view of these issues, further polarising society while reducing overall trust in the news.
Now in his third term, Prime Minister Boyko Borisov is the longest serving leader since the communist dictator Todor Zhivkov. His administration has been tainted by a series of scandals involving party members and coalition partners, resulting in declining personal popularity for Borisov. In this process the mainstream media prefer to remain witness to events rather than hold those in power to account — except when it is in the interest of their powerful owners to do so. Not surprising, then, overall trust in the news is just 38%, one of the lower scores in our survey. Bulgaria has fallen in terms of press freedom (Index of Reporters Without Borders) to 109th place, from 68th in 2009.
Newspapers in Bulgaria have come under considerable financial pressure in recent years, despite pioneering successful ‘hybrid tabloid’ newspapers such as 24 Chasa and Trud in the 1990s. These publications mixed serious reporting and analysis with gossip and scandals, attracting the interest of German group WAZ. But low incomes and competition from the internet led to a four-fold decline in circulation between 2003 and 2007. WAZ eventually sold their stake and other foreign investors such as Bonnier and Handelsblatt also pulled out in the wake of the global financial crisis. Four daily newspapers have had to shut down over the past three years and the publisher of the fifth one (Standart) recently walked out, dramatically handing his shares over to journalists. Only one publisher, Economedia, has actively invested in digital. Owning one of the most trusted weekly magazines, Capital, it also provides (so far) the only platform for paid content with a subscription to premium digital and magazine content costing around 29 lev each month (€15).
Elsewhere, with advertising revenues continuing to fall, many news organisations have become increasingly reliant on funding from oligarchs or foreign foundations. This in turn has reduced independence and trust, with the media increasingly becoming something of a battlefield between Russia and the West.
A number of media companies get Western grants, for example, from the America for Bulgaria Foundation. Others receive money from Russia. The pro-Western media (Capital, Mediapool) tend to criticise Russia over its intervention in the Middle East, while ignoring evidence that Western weapons often find their way into the hands of Islamic States. Outlets openly siding with Russia have no hesitation in undermining pro-Western politicians by speculating about their sexuality or making insinuations about corruption.
Television remains an important source of news in Bulgaria, with the online sites of leading broadcasters most heavily used. The Nova Broadcasting Group runs a series of channels and websites including Nova TV (55% online reach) and abv.bg (48%), a popular news portal built on the back of Bulgaria’s biggest email service. For many years, Nova was owned by Sweden’s Modern Times Group, which invested heavily in both radio and online, including acquiring vbox7.com the Bulgarian equivalent of YouTube. The group is in the process of being sold to the Czech billionaire Petr Kellner.
BTV, the second most popular news broadcaster in our survey, also runs a series of TV channels, radio stations, and websites. It too is foreign-owned, having originally been established as a partnership between the Bulgarian mogul Krasimir Gergov and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. A common feature among the leading TV channels is a reluctance to criticise the top political leaders, allowing statements by both the prime minister and the opposition leaders to go unchallenged.
Public broadcaster Bulgarian National Television (BNT) is less popular in terms of reach than commercial rivals, but remains the most trusted for news in our survey. However, the TV service has recently been accused of underplaying the size of anti-government protests, and continuing to employ a host who made a rude gesture towards an activist on an evening talk show. The broadcasting regulator, the Council for Electronic Media (CEM), is politically dominated by supporters of the ruling party.
Bulgarians are heavy users of social media and messaging applications. Viber enables free calls to family members that have emigrated and is popular due to the belief that encrypted conversations cannot be hacked.
Sources and Devices for News
A third say they trust the news they find in search (33%) and social media (30%) — higher than many other countries — likely to be in part a reflection of low trust in the mainstream media outlets that people use themselves (41%). Television news channels have the highest levels of trust with newspapers and digital-born websites trusted least.