Bulgaria’s media concentration in the hands of oligarchs with close ties to the government, captured state institutions and, more recently, smear campaigns against critical media form a trifecta of pressure on independent journalism in the country, which joined the European Union in 2007.

It is difficult to understand the environment in which Bulgarian journalists operate without first understanding the impact of oligarch and MP Delyan Peevski on the country’s media landscape.

Media concentration

According to a 2018 report by the Union of Publishers in Bulgaria, Peevski’s New Bulgarian Media Group (NBMG) controls close to 80 percent of the newspaper distribution market, including over 1,000 distribution pavillions in 130 towns. It also reportedly owns 40 percent of all national and regional newspapers as well as a number of online news site, the TV channel TV7 and important television and radio broadcast infrastructure.

Reports suggest that Peevski’s media empire is serving the oligarch’s economic interests. A former employee told international media that NBMG-owned news outlets are often used not only to praise Peevski and the ruling populist party GERB, including Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, but also to smear and discredit perceived foes and critical media outlets that have extensively covered corruption scandals in connection with Peevski’s other businesses.

“In Bulgaria many media have deserted their obligation to inform accurately and impartially”, Nelly Ognyanova, a media law professor at Sofia University, said in an interview with the International Press Institute (IPI). “Disinformation is spread through websites and print media, most of which are owned or controlled by Delyan Peevski, and on social networks, mainly Facebook.”

Smear campaigns targeting journalists

The Bulgarian investigative news platform Bivol can attest to this phenomenon first-hand. The site’s founders have been the target of smear campaigns by media outlets owned by NBMG in an attempt to discredit their investigations into alleged abuse of EU funds and other corruption schemes implicating Peevski and other officials.

Other independent journalists report a similar level of pressure. Rossen Bossev, a journalist for the business weekly Capital, has reported extensively about last year’s controversial appointment of Ivan Geshev as Bulgaria’s general prosecutor, one of the country’s most powerful posts with a key say in the opening and closing of criminal investigations. Geshev’s independence has been repeatedly questioned and critics fear that his decisions might be steered by the country’s oligarch circles, which Geshev has categorically denied.

Bossev reported that some prosecutors were under intense pressure to sign letters supporting Geshev’s nomination to the position, for which he was the only candidate.

“There was a smear campaign against me and my family on pro-government news sites when I reported the story”, Bossev told IPI.

“Most of the articles label me as an enemy of Bulgarian traditional values and are often copy-pasted from one propaganda site to another every time I write an article on the general prosecutor and his failure to investigate corrupt officials.”

Pressure on the media

Meanwhile, legal harassment of independent media has also increased. Bulgaria’s anti-fraud commission launched an investigation in late 2017 against Capital and Dnevnik daily publisher Ivo Prokopiev’s businesses in relation to the purchase of a mining company almost 20 years ago. A judge had previously cleared Prokopiev of any wrongdoing in the case.

The investigation temporarily froze the news outlets’ assets and put their operation at risk. Journalists suspected the investigation was linked to Capital and Dnevnik’s reporting on several corruption cases involving Bulgarian high-level officials.

“We are under so-called soft-pressure”, Bossev said. “Our weekly is regularly subjected to random tax inspections and other sort of economic pressure.”

Likewise, Bivol has been regularly targeted with tax audits and probes in what the news outlet described a “mafia-style” campaign of pressure from government authorities since the website last March revealed a housing corruption scandal that allegedly implicated senior officials in the government, including former Prosecutor-General Sotir Tzatsarov.

Bulgaria’s public broadcaster has not been immune to alleged government attempts to interfere in its reporting. Last September, protests broke out after Bulgarian National Radio suspended Silvia Velikova, a highly respected radio anchor. Following the public outcry, the broadcaster reversed its decision and reinstated Velikova. The head of BNR’s news division was forced to resign.

A ‘captured’ state

The overlap between private economic interests and the government, as well as captured state institutions, has raised serious concerns from the European Commission as well as international organizations. Transparency International recently ranked Bulgaria as the most corrupt country in the European Union.

“Bulgaria is a country where the rule of law is at stake, it’s an example of a captured state”, Ognyanova explained. “It is very difficult to uphold the standards of independent and quality journalism in a captured state.

This article has been updated on Feb. 25, 2020.