“Appreciate your freedom of speech, or millions Bulgarians and Romanians will come and take it” – Dimitar Lichev

Bulgarian journalist and WesternEye’s News Editor Yuliya Kosharevska shares lessons in freedom of the press:

I come from an ex-communist country.

That means that we (at least me and my friends) appreciate all those cool things such as democracy, freedom of speech and media pluralism, because we have seen/heard stories about what it is like not to have them. Arguably, we are still learning what is democratic and what is not, because we have spent so long under communism and censorship, that it is hard to remember how it feels to function without it. Hence, we have been in transition to democracy for over 25 years.

We have some serious problems with media ownership. The Minister of Culture once said that ninety percent of the media in Bulgaria is in the hands of one person. His name is Delyan Peevski. He is only 34, but has so far held enough powerful positions to make any aspiring student leader jealous.

 “I read somewhere that the freedom of speech guarantees all other freedoms” - Petar Bakalov
“I read somewhere that the freedom of speech guarantees all other freedoms” – Petar Bakalov // Credit: Private archive

Peevski doesn’t have a clear passion in anything, yet he gets all those shiny positions thanks to his mother who used to be in charge of the state lottery and it’s money. The media ownership concentration caused Bulgaria to fall down 71 places in ten years in the World Press Freedom Index. It is currently ranked 106th out of 180 countries.

What we learnt: it is not cool when one organisation owns all media.

In the meantime, Peevski was appointed as head of the State Agency for National Security. Thousands protested for more than a year, insisting on the resignation of the government. Although the government eventually resigned, there is still a huge division in the society based largely on what sort of news people consume: which party you support; whether you are pro-Western Europe or pro-Russia; whether you are homophobic or not; whether you see minorities as your biggest enemy – your opinion on all those and thousands more topics is formed on the basis of what you read in the paper or see on TV.

During the protests for the resignation of the government, Bulgarians took giant steps towards real democracy: more people started questioning what they read in the press and showed interest in making politicians accountable. Moderated press gives those in power no incentive to do good.

What we learnt: it is not cool to produce materials or censor material with the goal to manipulate people into thinking what you want them to. They will find out anyway.

I did some work experience at one of the best Bulgarian news websites. “Best” here means that it does its best to produce qualitative journalism and isn’t owned by Peevski. It is part of one of the other main media groups – Economedia. While I was there, the Commission for Financial  Revision fined Economedia with a record 160,000 leva (80,000 euros) because articles in one newspaper were believed to have led to market manipulations. For comparison, during 2013 all fines that the Commision issued were for a total of 155 000 leva.

As part of the inspection that the Commission did, it required journalists from Economedia to disclose their sources – this goes against one of the key principles of journalism; a rule which has enabled the media to successfully moderate corruption in so many instances.

An official statement from Reporters Without Borders followed, pointing out that the Commission had used power that exceeds its authority. It turns out that the Commission has acted upon signals from companies controlled by Delyan Peevski.

What we learnt: it is not cool to use financial tools to control media.

The journalists at the news website where I interned are all under the age of 45. The editors believe that they don’t carry “the weight of the past” and therefore they, and only they, are capable of producing good journalism – the older generation began practicing journalism during communism, so propaganda is what their habit encourages them to create.

What I learnt: The publication where you first start learning how real-life journalism works is extremely important, because it teaches you things that will stay with you forever.

By Yuliya Kosharevska