University of Memphis

Threats against the Media in Bulgaria: The Beginning of the End of Democracy? by Victoria Potts @ University of Memphis

The journalists of Bulgaria regularly experience pressure from politicians to censor their questions and their stories.  High-ranking officials openly threaten journalists’ jobs to ensure their cooperation.  Despite these troublesome occurrences, the state of democracy in Bulgaria may not be in as great of trouble as even the Freedom House scores reflect.

On October 11th, members of the Bulgarian media protested in front of the Cabinet building against infringements on their freedom of speech.

The protest occurred after member of Parliament Anton Todorov made an implicit threat against television journalist Viktor Nikolaev.  Todorvo referenced Nikolaev’s former co-host and her exit from the show, implying the same could happen to Nikolaev. “You are using very strong words and they might cost you your bread [livelihood]. They already cost the bread of your colleague – she had taken a certain direction, and as far as I can see, her chair is missing now.”  Todorov warned Nikolaev. (Bulgarian Politicians Alleged Threats 2017)

On the same day, deputy prime minister Valeri Simeonov also appeared as a guest on Nikolaev’s show. After being asked about alleged corruption scandals and conflicts of interest in Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s government, Simeonov threatened to organize a “Victorgate” – а reference to the Nikolaev’s first name and of course Watergate, which ended Richard Nixon’s career.

The branch of Association of European Journalists in Bulgaria, who organized the protest, stated that the purpose of the protest was to defend their right to work freely and to ask questions without fear of losing their jobs.

A few days later, the Association of European Journalists released the findings of a poll taken by over 200 journalists in Bulgaria.  “Politicians are the ‘primary censors’ of the Bulgarian language media, demanding to edit interviews with them before publication and to determine questions in television interviews in advance.” (Politicians are Primary Censors 2017)  According to the survey, politicians interfered by remarking on how a topic is covered, contacting media owners, and re-editing finished stories.  Two thirds of interviewed journalists cited political pressure as more common than both economic pressure and pressure from advertisers.

“The European Broadcasting union (EBU) reminds Bulgarian politicians, that Public Service Media in Europe are guarantors for freedom of expression and media pluralism and each attempt to attack their independence is an attack against democracy.”(EBU Supports Bulgarian Journalists 2017)

An attack against democracy. Are these findings and these threats as dire as they seem? In recent years, Bulgaria’s decline in Freedom House score has primarily been caused by a decline in media rights and protection. Are these threats against the media a sign of the beginning of the end for democracy in Bulgaria?

Not so fast.  Democratic backsliding is significant changes in the qualities of democracy.  These changes occur in the areas of competitive elections, liberties, and accountability.  Lust warns that we should be cautious when applying the term democratic backsliding to a country.  Tighter restrictions on press freedoms, including persecution of independent journalists, are certainly disturbing and may be precursors to democratic backsliding.  However, when such restrictions are limited in scope, it is unlikely that a country could be said to be backsliding.  These changes are part of the normal push and pull of democracy.

Mueller makes the same warning when comparing populism and illiberal democracies.  While populist practices can certainly escalate into the creation of more authoritarian regime, a populist country should be differentiated from an illiberal democracy.  A populist may threaten certain media outlets, but an illiberal democracy will attack the very right of freedom of speech itself.

Hope for these regimes can be found in the responses to threats.  The presence of protests, supported by large non-governmental groups, prove the presence of a strong civil society in Bulgaria.  While politicians did threaten journalists, the government did not stop the protest, allowing for the expression of freedom of speech.

Furthermore, Todorvo resigned his position a few days after his interview.  Todorvo’s party pulled away from him, leaving him without support or backup.  Although Simeonov refuses to admit to his threats, the protest has won half the battle in this case.

Perhaps we can learn from the case of Bulgaria.  Maybe we should hesitate to cry the fall of democracy due to the actions of a single individual.  Lust and Mueller certainly encourage us to be vigilant, but also be less liberal with the use of the term democratic backsliding.  If civil society is fighting back, perhaps democracy is not eroding.

1 Comment

  1. Artur Avkhadiev

    November 25, 2017 at 12:00 am

    I agree. The disturbing incidents of infringement on liberal rights alone cannot indicate democratic backsliding; an accurate assessment must consider the institutional response to those incidents. In your post, you demonstrated response mechanisms whereby a functional democratic society self-equilibrates, fending off the “attack against democracy”.

    At the core of this equilibration is the civil society’s pressure on the government and — crucially — the government’s ductility to that influence. Of course, we do not with certainty know what would have happened if the protests had not occurred, but Deputy Prime Minister Valeri Simeonov’s same-day response indicates that the government would not be able to course-correct in the absence of the pointed reaction from the Association of European Journalists. As you say, the lack of protest repression, GERB’s distancing from its member, and Todorov’s subsequent resignation comprise the government’s equilibrating response to the incident. Had the protests been repressed and the party’s position consolidated around Todorov, we would have been justifiably more alarmed. That the cost of neglecting civil society interests is higher than the cost of estranging a Parliament member bespeaks a yet functional democracy.

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