The 2018 World Press Freedom Index was released on April 25th by Reporters Without Borders. Bulgaria slipped two spots going from 109 in 2017 to 111 in 2018. The country now ranks lower than any EU member state and most EU candidates. It outranks only Turkey (#157 on the list) but given that Turkey currently has more jailed journalists than any other country in the world, that’s not really a surprise.
What bothered me were the distinctly higher rankings of some other European countries which don’t exactly have a stellar record when it comes to press freedom. Let’s not forget about the 2017 murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta (ranked #65 in 2018 having slipped 18 spots since 2017). Or how about the much more recent March 2018 murder of Slovakian investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée? Slovakia currently ranks #27 on the list, having gone down 10 spots.
Given these figures in nations where journalists were outright murdered in cold blood for investigating corruption, at first glance Bulgaria’s low rank appeared to be at best arbitrary and at worst political. So I decided to look into it and, lo and behold, my initial knee-jerk reaction was not exactly accurate. No such index is free from human error and bias, but the truth is always more nuanced.
Methodology: The World Press Freedom Index
RWB are very transparent in their methodology and for anyone interested, they have detailed information on how they go about compiling their index. They measure seven indicators – pluralism, media independence, environment and self-censorship, legislative framework, transparency, infrastructure, and abuses.
The ‘abuses’ indicator is calculated through a separate formula to ensure that its severity is appropriately measured, i.e. a country with instances of abuse should score lower than one with poor media independence and other tighter controls according to RWB. RWB calculates the first six indicators first, then uses a second formula to calculate the combined score of all seven indicators, taking into account the greater of the two scores. Given that the severe nature of the ‘abuse’ indicator is controlled for, the implication would be that Bulgaria scored lower than Slovakia and Malta despite their abuses.
Delyan Peevski as a symbol for the failure of Bulgarian media
RWB helpfully outlined three main factors which led to Bulgaria’s low score: misusing EU funds as bribes, threatening journalists, and Delyan Peevski. Although using EU funds to ‘persuade’ media outlets to not cover certain political issues and threatening journalists are both serious allegations, I wanted to focus on Delyan Peevski. He is a fascinating character who epitomises much of what is wrong with journalism in Bulgaria today.
At the tender age of 37, this man owns 80% of print media distribution under the New Media Bulgarian Group which publishes six major Bulgarian newspapers. He is also a politician affiliated with the Party for the Movements of Rights and Freedoms (DPS), a political party which focuses on protecting the rights of minorities in Bulgaria. Because wielding considerable power in both national media and politics is not enough, Peevski also took over Bulgartabac back in 2011 when the state-owned tobacco company was privatised.
So, right now, there is one man who is not only an influential politician and a prominent businessman but also happens to have control of 80% of print media distribution in Bulgaria. Let that sink in for just a moment.
In a functioning democracy, the press should be a symbol of transparency, accountability, and freedom. It should present a balanced viewpoint and multiple perspectives on issues of importance. How can it do any of these things, if it is under the control of a man who is a walking conflict of interest? Not even the most naive constituent could believe that Peevski’s newspapers could come close to anything resembling unbiased journalism.
Peevski’s response to ‘fake news’
The below image comes from the website of Monitor, one of the newspapers attributed to Peevski, who lovingly call him ‘our publisher’ whenever they refer to him in their articles. The image is an excellent example of Peevski’s misuse of his media. It comes from an article from the 26th of April, 2018, a day after the World Press Freedom Index was released.
It is a reactionary piece aimed at the non-Peevski affiliated media providers who did choose to cover the report by RWB and named Peevski. The article uses tropes such as ‘fake news’ to discredit these publishers and the news organisations they are associated with. You will notice that Deutsche Welle, at least its Bulgarian branch, has been named and shamed among others.
The red text at the top of the image reads “Factory for Fake News” whereas at the bottom, the white text reads “One lie, repeated 100 times, becomes truth”. Yes, Mr Peevski, I suppose that’s why you needed to ensure control of 80% of our print media distribution. Then you could have the mainstream media pander to your narrative and repeat every lie one hundred times.
Let’s give ourselves a pat on the back, we didn’t murder any journalists last year! On second thought, that’s difficult to do when there is little to no dissent and everyone panders to the party line. Ours is a structural problem. We are a new democracy. We are a country that, up until a few decades ago, was shackled to the communist propaganda machine.
Mr Peevski has a large influence on the state of Bulgarian media right now, it is true. He is by far not the only one. We need to look at the report by RWB as a wake up call, and realise that we did so poorly not because we have no press freedom but because we barely have a press.
We cannot have Mr Peevski and other politicians dictating our media to this extent.
The situation right now can be broadly summarised by paraphrasing the popular saying:
“Every country has its own mafia, but in Bulgaria, the mafia has its own country”.
The death of a crusading journalist rocks Malta, The Economist
Всички знаят за Пеевски. Е, и?, Deutsche Welle