When Andon Baltakov announced he was tendering his resignation as director-general of Bulgaria National Radio (BNR), he hoped it would serve as a catalyst for change concerning press independence in the country.
“For a director-general to resign nine months after he took the position… something is wrong,” he said.
He told Euronews he was disgruntled by the “lipservice” he said the government paid to enacting real change in a country that has been labelled “the Black sheep of the European Union” by Reporters Without Borders.
But Baltakov says he has seen little support for his move apart from his colleagues at BNR, nor has he seen any strong views voiced on his stance.
The media boss’ key motivation was the fact that he says a section of text from a draft amendment to the Bulgarian Law on Radio and Television, which he worked on with a group of industry leaders, was removed before it was submitted for public consultations on the Ministry of Culture’s website.
The draft focuses on the funding of public service media and the removed text was on management boards, their mandates, obligations and accountability, according to BNR.
“A politician can’t just change a draft and take sections out, remove the opinions of experts,” he said.
“It was a clear signal to me that there was no political will to actually transform the public service media into true independent organisations … to grow as independent from political and economic interference organisations.”
The Ministry of Culture in Bulgaria told Euronews the working group was formed to give “all the parties an opportunity to conduct freely and broadly the discussion on media without imposing its own position or policy.”
It added the amendment is currently up for public discussion and “the opinion of everyone interested in the process will be taken into account”.
Baltakov has since retracted his resignation due to what he says was an emotional outpouring from staff, he decided to stay and “keep fighting” for his station to be independent, “free from political and economic influence” — but what is he up against?
What’s the press freedom situation in Bulgaria?
Since 2011, when James Dawson first did field research in the country, he says it has been “clear that press freedom in Bulgaria is on a downward slope.”
Indeed, since 2013 Bulgaria’s ranking in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index has slipped 24 places, standing at 111th in 2020.
The organisation cites several incidents as evidence for the low score on its barometer including the suspension of prominent journalists and the ownership of some top media.
The country’s two most popular media groups — NOVA Broadcasting Group and BTV Media Group — — changed ownership and soon after the deal for the former, investigative reporters Miroluba Benatova and Genka Shikerova were forced to leave, RSF said.
Now a lecturer in comparative politics at Coventry University, Dawson said: “Bulgaria is the kind of place where you have to be looking on social media and past the mainstream newspapers if you want to actually find out what’s going on.”
He cites online media that are funded through contributions as the leaders of investigative reporting in the country, but says “journalists who do this kind of stuff, they receive personal harassment.”
The International Press Institute (IPI), a global network for press freedom, in July called on Bulgaria’s chief prosecutor to ensure a transparent investigation into death threats against investigative journalist Nikolay Staykov.
Staykov, a well-known Bulgarian journalist who co-founded the NGO Anti-Corruption Fund, said he received threatening phone calls in June as part of a “coordinated” campaign of harassment that he believes was linked to an ongoing investigative documentary he had produced about alleged state corruption.
But according to Gergana Dimova, a lecturer at the University of Winchester, while “a majority of the media on the surface is controlled by the government and pro-government oligarchs” importantly there are “some ‘pockets’, where independent journalism lives, and sometimes thrives”.
While she says the degree of censorship and self-censorship is hard to measure, she added the situation in Bulgaria is more nuanced beyond the findings of the RSF report.
“Certain online outlets allow a free-ranging and often politically heated discussion in the comments section, which is really where the cross-fertilisation of political segments of the public is taking place,” according to Dimova.
“The bottom line is, if you are disgruntled with the government, and you are coming home after a hard day of work, you will have a choice of news and political analysis to flick on your TV or computer screen.”
How did we get here?
Dawson told Euronews that since the pro-European centre-right GERB party swept to power in 2009 with Boyko Borisov as prime minister, “they have been doing lots of things that essentially made their democracy scores slip.”
“Perhaps the most severe thing they were doing was clearly cracking down on the media,” according to the lecturer.
Dr Maria Spirova, associate professor of comparative Politics and International Relations at the University of Leiden believes the phenomenon started far before this, saying “there has been a general decrease in the press freedom over the last 15 years.”
In the private sector, she attributes this to “a very high concentration of media ownership in the hands of a few people… which then, of course, plays into the ability to impact not just personnel decisions, but also editorial decisions.”
Concerning the national radio and TV, she says the channels have “more or less open political links with the government because they are governed by the boards that are also appointed by the various political actors.”
“If you also have links between the economic sector and government, then things get complicated, which I think is what the situation is now and has been for the last four to five years,” Spirova added.
Is change likely?
Baltakov says he needs the will of the government to make the changes and transform BNR into a public-service media organisation.
“One must put one’s house in order to move forward,” he said, adding many journalists in Bulgaria “need to go back to the basics” inciting them to employ “truth, questioning and fact-checking”.
He says that BNR published the whole law together along with the sections that were allegedly deleted and invites people to comment on it via social media and the media’s website, which he will then submit to the Ministry of Culture — the deadline for filing responses and opinions on the amendment is 18 November.
But is change on the scale he is describing possible?
Spirova thinks this will be difficult as links between the economic and political world in Bulgaria “weren’t built in the last half a year “.
She thinks the economy, government, ownership situation within the media, and practical issues such as the availability of investigative journalists who are willing and not afraid to carry out their work are all barriers to change.
Dawson believes “pressure is building from below”.
“The old, really redundant narrative of being either a pro or anti-communist is kind of receding into the dustbin of history,” he said, “and now it’s more about whether you believe in democracy and openness and fairness or not.”
Whatever the hurdles to an advance in media freedom in Bulgaria, Baltakov is convinced of one thing: “A free press works.”