Protesters clash with riot police during a protest in Sofia in July. (AP/Georgi Kozhuharov)
Protesters clash with riot police during a protest in Sofia in July. (AP/Georgi Kozhuharov)

Bulgarian journalists are under attack

This summer, for good reason, the world’s attention was focused on Turkey. Anti-government protests over plans to destroy a park in downtown Istanbul attracted global attention. Ankara’s strategic importance in Syria and the Middle East, as well as being a member of NATO, makes what happens in Turkey important.

But if you look north of Turkey, to neighboring Bulgaria, global attention fizzles, even though, much like the Turks, Bulgarians also took to the streets in the thousands this summer, demanding change and real democracy.

For over two decades, my native Bulgaria, a small Balkan country that is now both a member of NATO and the European Union, has been undergoing a painful transition, a former Soviet satellite aspiring to become a market-driven democracy.

The country has remained largely quiet despite multiple political and social changes, including the odd election of exiled king Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha as prime minister in 2001. Difficult economic reforms have rendered the country the poorest member of the European bloc. This has cost Bulgaria dearly–the population has shrunk by two million since 1989 (a staggering number, given that the population was at 9 million back then) because of large-scale emigration, a low birth rate, and a high death rate.

The transition has made life hard. Membership in the EU did not bring the prosperity the average citizen imagined. Development funds have largely gone into a few individual pockets rather than advancing the broader economy. Endemic corruption plagues all levels of society and government. The synergy between business, crime, and politics is as alive today as it was in the early 1990s. The very institutions tasked with maintaining the rule of law, building democracy, and boosting the standard of living, are corrupt and self-serving. It is no surprise that Bulgarians have lost all trust in them.

With so much going wrong, why hasn’t the world paid more attention?

For one thing, because the media in Bulgaria have been bludgeoned into silence, protecting their business interests rather than uncovering unsettling truths. Individual journalists brave enough to push the envelope have suffered consequences, violent ones, and the institutions tasked with protecting them have failed to do so.

Physical attacks against opposition and independent journalists have become frequent in recent years and have been committed with impunity.

In the most recent case, on September 16, unknown assailants set fire to the parked car of bTV’s morning talk show co-host Genka Shikerova outside her Sofia apartment building. She began co-anchoring the television program “Tazi sutrin” (This morning) in early September, and has not shied away from asking guest politicians probing questions. The attack, which police labeled arson, has yet to be solved.

The record is not encouraging. Bulgarian authorities have yet to solve the 2011 bomb attack on another television host–Sasho Dikov, Kanal 3’s program director and anchor of a popular political broadcast. That October, Dikov heard a blast outside his apartment in Sofia’s Gotse Deltchev residential complex. He discovered that about two pounds (one kilogram) of explosives had been set off around the front wheel of his car. As in Shikerova’s case, the vehicle was destroyed. Dikov had repeatedly criticized the then government of Prime Minister Boiko Borisov for failing to rein in corruption and organized crime.

The current Bulgarian cabinet, headed by former finance minister Plamen Oresharski, has been besieged by protests demanding all its members resign because the hastily formed government has focused on making political appointments rather than addressing critical economic problems. The cabinet has not condemned the attack against Shikerova.

As discouraging as that is, what Borisov, the former prime minister, did when asked about the attack on Dikov was flabbergasting. Instead of denouncing the assault, Borisov seemed to play down its seriousness. “No, no, [the attack] is not against a journalist–it is against the car of a journalist. He had gone home at 6 o’clock already,” he told the national television channel BNT at the time. It is no surprise, then, that the attack on Dikov remains unsolved.

It’s the same story with the bombing of the critical weekly Galeriya in February 2011, when unknown assailants placed explosives underneath its office windows. The weekly had recently published excerpts of controversial recorded telephone conversations allegedly held between the head of Bulgaria’s customs authority and Borisov. The incident remains unsolved.

The chronicle of unchecked violence against Bulgarian journalists is long. Three months before Shikerova’s car was set on fire, an unidentified man beat up prominent Nova Television journalist Lyuba Kulezich, who hosts a popular television show on social and political subjects. The man attacked her in the street, in broad daylight. The assailant said nothing, stole nothing, but knocked Kulezich to the ground and kicked her repeatedly, mostly in the face. Kulezich was hospitalized with multiple bruises. Her attacker remains at large.

Not one of the following crimes against Bulgarian journalists committed in recent years has been solved:

  • The January 2010 contract-style murder in Sofia of Bobi Tsankov, author of a book and a series of newspaper articles detailing the activities of a reputed crime figure. At least two gunmen opened fire on 30-year-old Tsankov on a busy downtown boulevard. He died at the scene.
  • The September 2008 brutal attack on Ognian Stefanov, editor of the investigative news website Frognews. Four men dressed in black approached Stefanov, 54, as he was leaving a Sofia restaurant, confirmed his identity, and beat him with hammers. He lost consciousness after the incident. He had previously received anonymous phone threats warning him to stop his investigations of state security services. Disturbingly, after the attack, police said witnesses could not confirm the incident and denied a report that Stefanov’s assailants had introduced themselves as police officers. The unconscious editor was hospitalized in critical condition, with broken arms and legs, a brain concussion, and severe blood loss. He later recovered.
  • The April 2008 contract-style murder of popular writer Georgi Stoev, the author of a series of books on the origins and rise of Bulgaria’s criminal underworld since the fall of communism in 1989. Thirty-five-year-old Stoev was in a busy street in the capital when two unidentified men stopped him and fired at him at a close range. He died in a hospital.
  • The April 2006 bombing attack on Vasil Ivanov, an investigative reporter with Nova Television. Ivanov, 33, had recently uncovered abuse of inmates in Sofia Central Prison. A two-pound (one kilogram) bomb detonated outside Ivanov’s apartment door in Bulgaria’s capital. He was not at home and his mother and sister, who were sleeping inside, were not injured. The blast, however, caused extensive damage to the building. Ivanov is known for covering sensitive subjects such as high-level corruption and abuse of office.

These cases are deeply disturbing and unbecoming a member of the European Union. They must be thoroughly investigated and their perpetrators punished. Bulgarian journalists ought to be able to report the truth about what goes on in their country, and to tell that truth to the world. Then, and only then, will the media be able to exercise their proper watchdog role. Then, and only then, will Bulgaria graduate from being just a mention to being a headline.