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Journalists need not be murdered to muzzle free speech in the Balkans | View

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Journalists need not be murdered to muzzle free speech in the Balkans | View

Photo of killed Bulgarian journalist Viktoria Marinova before her funeral
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There’s no evidence Viktoria Marinova’s tragic death was tied to her journalistic work, but her case should not be lightly dismissed and forgotten. It is a chance to lift the curtain on some of the direst problems in her country and the region. The way media and politics interact in Bulgaria is so corrupt that at first everyone thought the inevitable had happened - a journalist was killed because of investigations. Why was this reaction so prevalent in the first days?

By Dimitar Iv. Ganev

Her death was most probably not related to her work. The brutal rape and murder of Viktoria Marinova in the small Danube city of Ruse shook the Balkan country and Europe, and started a search for the truth. For a brief moment the lights of international media were pointed toward the problems Bulgaria has accumulated in the area of freedom of expression. But when authorities revealed that Marinova appeared to be the victim of an entirely random homicide, the lights started to gradually go off. And they shouldn't. At least not so soon.

Because her case reveals, albeit indirectly, so much about Bulgaria and the democracies in Eastern Europe - from the lack of trust in institutions to the marriage of convenience between politics and media. Unlike the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia, who died in a car explosion in Malta a year ago, and the death of Slovak journalist Ján Kuciak last February, Marinova's case bears more resemblance to the tragic death of Kim Wall. There’s no evidence that the Swedish journalist and the Bulgarian TV presenter were killed because their journalistic work threatened big interests.

Marinova did give air time to other journalists exposing a large EU funds abuse scheme. Bivol.bg’s investigation revealed how a company with political links allegedly misuses EU funds. The first and last issue of Marinova's program “Detector” featured an interview with one of Bivol.bg's journalists and his Romanian writing partner.

The soft media underbelly of Europe

Unfortunately, even the largest journalistic revelation may bear no consequences in Bulgaria and in other Balkan countries. To put it bluntly, media workers need not be murdered, as they rarely pose a threat. With a few heroic exceptions, of course. The ones who can kill any story are the media owners and editors, and that is where the political and economic pressure is being applied. The war between power and truth has ended with the crushing defeat of the latter in the region. This is why the story behind the story of Viktoria Marinova’s murder is important.

The agony of Bulgarian journalism is the typical case of the shoemaker who walks barefoot. There is little desire to tell the story of the storyteller going out of business. Since Bulgaria's EU accession, media freedom in the country has rapidly deteriorated. In 2007, the country was ranked 51st for freedom of the media, and now, it holds the 111th place. This is, of course, partly linked to common global problems such as dwindling revenues and the lack of a sustainable business model for traditional media. But this is just part of the truth.

The traditions of censorship and self-censorship coming from Communism also weigh heavily on the press. However, it is the local political factors that played the decisive role for the distortion of the media scene. Delyan Peevski, a 38 year-old media mogul, and a member of the National Assembly has been holding a firm grip on much of the country's press. And as a key political player, who likes to stay behind the scenes, he and the interests he represents, have influence over the editorial policies of many other outlets. Companies that media reports have connected to him, arguably control a domineering share of the print press distribution in the country. But Peevski is not an autonomous player. Behind his moves lurk the largest political parties in Bulgaria – both in power and in opposition. He is so powerful that many Bulgarian politicians are afraid to say his name in public.

In 2016, the prime minister of the country Boiko Borissov announced that Peevski was about to leave the country. That turned out to be fake news. Now, in the wake of the international attention around Marinova’s case, Peevski announced that his print media ownership will be restructured and the outlets will be run by a foundation. The Bulgarian prime minister gladly takes advantage of the services Peevski's media can offer him. They are a convenient shield against legitimate criticisms, attacks of political opponents, and alternative economic interests, some of which, in turn, have also invested in other media outlets and "independent" journalists.

A very telling story about the intertwining dimensions of media and politics in Bulgaria is that of Tsvetan Vassilev. This former banker, and current defendant in a high-profile judicial case, had his career and reputation irrevocably destroyed after a conflict with his former friend and business associate Peevski. For many years, the two men had their say about which media was to exist and which journalists were to be hired and keep their jobs. Ironically, the media outlets Vassilev financed directly or indirectly with loans from his now non-existent bank, were the first ones to stab him in the back with a smear campaign after his break-up with Peevski.

Vassilev was stripped of the value of his ownership in the Corporate Commercial Bank, after it was declared bankrupt in 2015. This punitive operation was conducted at the expense of ordinary deposit holders and public funds with the courteous assistance of the Bulgarian central bank BNB and the Prosecutor’s Office. But what is most disturbing is not the personal fate of Vassilev, who lost the protection of his friends in high places that he had taken for granted. It is that the institutional attack on him was reminiscent of the Kremlin-style expropriation of ownership of political enemies. This all happened in an EU country.

The elephant in the room

The shady coalition between media and politics in Bulgaria was the elephant in the room and couldn't be kept a secret. It also fit perfectly into the larger narrative about the diminishing freedoms and crippling authoritarianism in Eastern Europe. So, when Viktoria Marinova was murdered, the wave was simply too big to handle. Her death seemed to confirm all the Western stereotypes about Bulgaria and the region. Facts about her work and the murder were ignored in the days that followed her death. Even reputable publications suggested there could be a political motive behind what happened.

The situation gave Prime Minister Borisov the opportunity to scold Bulgarian journalists for tainting their country’s image. This happened at the press conference in which the authorities announced the name and the motives of the suspect for Marinova’s death. Borisov likes to mock reporters in public. He knows perfectly well the Bulgarian media is under control. But the murder, albeit appearing to lack a political motive, was a disturbing moment for him. It put the media situation in the spotlight of international attention,and this is something beyond his reach.

Marinova's case also has an interesting geopolitical angle. The murder demonstrated how low confidence in institutions can produce a paranoia and division in society at a time when Moscow has launched a hybrid war in Bulgaria. Just like in numerous other East European and Balkan countries, multiple websites with anti-EU and pro-Russian tilt spread disinformation. This does not go unnoticed abroad. The US Congress-funded Radio Free Europe that shut down its broadcast in the country in 2004 is currently in the process of resuming its Bulgarian service.

No energy for political protests

Ruse, where Marinova was murdered, is not just the average Bulgarian city of 150,000 inhabitants. Due to the proximity to Romania and the Danube river, it enjoyed a relatively rich cultural and commercial life during the Ottoman times. Later, it successfully rivaled the current Bulgarian capital Sofia in terms of European architecture and style. During the eighties, the city became the political center of protests against the communist government over air pollution. But analogies with the current times are misleading.

There is very little energy for protests in Bulgaria nowadays. People are severely disappointed in the results of the last protests that swept the country in 2013 and 2014. Back then, Bulgarians rose against the corrupt political system and personally against Delyan Peevski, who was made chief of the Bulgarian secret service by the socialists in power. His appointment lasted just days, and the then-socialist government resigned after about a year in office. Borissov’s party GERB has been in government during most of the time since then, but the interests that people link to Peevski still hold a firm grip on the fate of the country.

In view of the facts, the murder of the Viktoria Marinova may not have been the perfect occasion to show the world how things work in Bulgaria. But that story needs to be told, regardless of the occasion. It demonstrates to the international audience, who often has limited knowledge of the region, how fragile democracies in Europe can be.

Dimitar Iv. Ganev is a media expert, analyst, and journalist.

Opinions expressed in View articles are solely those of the author.