Business journalist, (the Bulgarian) Economist, and former Reuters Institute Journalist Fellow.
30 years after the fall of communism Bulgaria remains the poorest member of the European Union, with an increasingly polarised news media. Growing internet penetration and greater use of digital media represents some progress for a country with a rapidly ageing population.
It’s the extreme polarisation of the media and the return of control by political parties which has defined the past 12 months. In the early 1990s, each political party had its own newspaper. Today they each have their own TV channel. This is partly because television remains such an important and influential source of news in Bulgaria. The links between stations and political parties range from shared business links and interests right through to direct ownership.
The ruling party, GERB, has developed the biggest network of influence. Evropa, a leading cable TV station, is managed by Georgi Harizanov, a disgraced former public servant who was publicly exposed for lying about his university education and has a conviction for racketeering.1 He is also a tennis partner of the Prime Minister, Boyko Borisov, and frequently defends government policies.
Nova TV, a national private broadcaster which is currently the most trusted brand in our survey, is set to be acquired by one of the most influential and notorious Bulgarian oligarchs, Kiril Domuschiev. The businessman is a vocal supporter of the prime minister and his party, and frequently attacks its opponents. It was only the barring of the previous bidder by the competition regulator which gave Domuschiev the opportunity to buy Nova TV.2
The opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party engages in similar practices. It launched its own channel, BSTV, which offers content of interest to the party and old movies from communist times. The nationalist parties which are GERB’s coalition partners have two television stations, and Kanal 3 is close to the second largest opposition party in parliament, Movement for Rights and Freedoms.
Not only the TV stations but the media in general are also increasingly collecting and publishing ‘kompromat’ – compromising material such as video or photographs which embarrass political opponents or other public figures. Both the GERB and BSP use specific journalists as conduits for their own brand of kompromat.
Anton Todorov, the GERB’s spokesman, had to resign after indirectly threatening a journalist on air in 2017. Since then he has specialised in publishing online ‘investigations’ which have all targeted GERB critics.
On the other side, the Socialists have Elena Yoncheva, a former war correspondent who is known for her reports from the Near East and North Africa conflicts. Her investigation into the government’s failure to build an effective wall on the border with Turkey was prevented from being broadcast on the grounds of national security. Her more recent work accused a deputy minister of corruption but the State Prosecution declined to indict the politician, claiming the evidence was insufficient.3
It is unclear whether the party TV channels have affected trust in the news – up 2 percentage points on last year – but they have certainly increased the number of pundits and strongly expressed views on air. And in line with the ‘back to the past’ trend, just recently Radio Free Europe reopened its Bulgarian section. Employing a small number of journalists, it is targeted at active internet users, and offers a morning podcast. Podcasts are proving to be fashionable, and a growing number of publishers and celebrities are producing them.
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. But low incomes and competition from the internet have led to a significant decline in readership and foreign investors have largely pulled out. Three daily newspapers have shut down over the past four years and economic weakness has left Bulgarian media increasingly reliant on funding from local oligarchs or foreign foundations.
The Capital weekly magazine remains the only Bulgarian publication which charges users for its online content. Investigative site Bivol.bg invites users to support it with donations. Payment for online news (7%) is amongst the lowest in our survey.
Internet penetration has risen in the last few years and a wide range of social platforms continue to gain in popularity, from Facebook (85%) to Viber (60%), a commonly used messaging platform in this part of Europe. These are significant developments in a country whose population is ageing fifth most quickly in the world.
Many news organisations in Bulgaria have become 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. 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.