On October 6th, 2018, Bulgarian journalist Viktoria Marinova was found murdered in a park along the Danube. 30-year old Marinova had been a television journalist on Bulgarian channel TVN whose final broadcast before her death featured an interview with two investigative journalists uncovering high-level corruption. To the dismay of Bulgarian leaders, who claimed the murder was merely a coincidence, the attack was widely seen as part of a growing trend of violence against journalists and restrictions on press freedoms in the Balkan country.
Marinova’s murder, whether it was politically motivated or not, comes at a time when attacks on journalists have been increasing with alarming frequency in Bulgaria. The attack on Marinova was preceded by the assault of investigative journalist Hristo Geshov outside his home in May 2018, and the arrest and brief detention of two journalists in September 2018 who were investigating alleged fraud concerning EU funds. More recently, Silvia Velikova, a journalist for the state-run Bulgarian National Radio (BNR) known for her coverage of corruption in the Bulgarian judicial system was briefly suspended. Velikova was reinstated following public protest and intervention by Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, but in the process BNR shut down one of its news channels, Horizont, for five hours. While BNR claimed the outage was for maintenance purposes, investigators believe it to be rooted in BNR director Svetoslav Kostov’s attempts to fire Velikova.
These attacks did not occur in a vacuum. Bulgaria was ranked 111th in the world in the 2019 World Press Freedom Index, the lowest both in the Balkans and among EU countries, and 75 spots below its position at 36th in 2006. While the media is not entirely state-controlled, state contributions fund several outlets. Furthermore, private control of the media has become significantly concentrated among wealthy Bulgarian businessmen, limiting the scope of coverage. One businessman in particular, Delyan Peevski, has become the centerpiece for corruption in the Bulgarian media. Peevski, a former head of Bulgaria’s main intelligence agency and a member of Bulgarian Parliament, is the owner of the New Bulgarian Media Group. This media group controls around 80% of print media in the country, as well as a TV channel (Kanal 3) and online news sites. Peevski has shown little interest in preserving press freedom, even utilizing his conglomerate in July 2018 to call on a television channel to dismiss a presenter who inquired about Peevski’s business on air.
But why does any of this matter? The monopolization of the press in the hands of a few, together with the growing intimidation of journalists in the country, are signs of something much darker than what gets covered on the evening news. Scholars on the topic believe that the degradation of press freedom is an early sign of a decaying democracy – that is, in states without a free press, where journalists are intimidated into silence, and where only a state-approved narrative is shown in the media, a transition to an authoritarian system is likely to follow. This is due to the fact that abuses of power by decision-makers are more likely to be detected if there is an active and independent press. Attacks on the press can lead to the transformation of a democracy to an authoritarian system because the removal of a free and independent press ensures that public opposition to leadership is sidelined, crippled, or outright eliminated. Those media outlets that are not attacked often begin to self-censor in fear of punitive actions by the government, and soon the authoritarian leader is able to govern with little public opposition. 
In fact, stifling or manipulation of the free press is a clear warning sign of a democracy soon to shift to authoritarianism. Before Hitler came to power, he advocated for the exclusion of non-ethnic Germans from owning newspapers, and that any newspapers violating the “general good” were to be banned. During the 1965-66 military coup in Indonesia, military leaders cut down on press freedoms and manipulated the media in order to provoke and legitimize mass violence, calling for the PKI to be physically annihilated. In Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, the regime stifled independent media,  and in more recent years, Viktor Orban manipulated the media board in Hungary to cement his control of the state. Vladimir Putin famously persecuted journalists and eradicated most news sources that were not state-controlled as he consolidated power in Russia.
But what does this mean for Bulgaria? The attacks against journalists and the control of the press in the hands of a few state-connected people, like Peevsky, indicate that the media may soon be unable to publicly criticize corruption and abuses of power by the Bulgarian government. Should this trend continue, it presents a clear threat to democratic government in Bulgaria – and a worrying slide into authoritarianism for yet another EU country. As evidenced by similar cases across the globe and throughout history, repression of the free press can be utilized by leaders to pull democracies off their course and create an authoritarian system. However, hope is not lost. The success of recent popular protests in Bulgaria indicate that authoritarianism is not a foregone conclusion – and that coordinated resistance movements do have the power to hold off democratic backsliding. Varol, Ozan. 2015. “Stealth Authoritarianism.” Iowa Law Review 100(4).
 Levitsky, Steven and Daniel Ziblatt. 2017. How Democracies Die. New York: Crown.
 Hett, Benjamin Carter. 2018. The Death of Democracy: Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic. New York: Henry Holt and Co.
 Huq, Aziz & Tom Ginsburg. 2017. “How to Lose a Constitutional Democracy.” Working paper.
 Scheppele, Kim Lane. 2013. “Not Your Father’s Authoritarianism: The Creation of the
‘Frankenstate’.” European Politics and Society Newsletter (Winter).
Gessen, Masha. 2012. The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin. New York: Riverhead.
Freedom of press is one of the most important aspects of democracy. Unfortunately, the killings and violence surrounding journalists in Bulgaria show that there is a dangerous threat to the country. You are absolutely right in saying that press and news outlets often first detect and report instances of abuse of power by the government which is vital to democracies. The monopolization and privatization of the press very much limits the access to information for Bulgarians, and as you clearly elaborated has shown to be an indicator of collapsing democracies. The ability of newspapers and journalist to broadcast and publish objective articles and facts is so very important to have informed and engaged citizens. While the situation in Bulgaria looks grim and scary, I agree with you that not all hope is lost and that it is up to citizens to show up and raise their voice to fight against democratic erosion.
This post highlights an extremely important indicator or warning sign of democratic erosion: attempts to eliminate freedom of the press and the independence of the media. The troubling instances of this occurring in Bulgaria, especially with the recent murder of Marinova, should rightfully cause concern regarding the future of democracy in that country. Although it may only be an early warning sign, it should not induce reassurance that a slide to authoritarianism can easily be reversed. The level of control over the media, with one media group controlling around 80 % of print media, is quite staggering.
As this post points out, that also doesn’t mean an inexorable slide away from democracy. What are the opportunities available to counter traditional media outlets through non-traditional media that might be able to present a truthful message to the people of Bulgaria? Here’s to hoping other means can bring a more balanced and nuanced approach to reporting, and with it a return to strong press freedoms in Bulgaria.
There is an interesting contrast between suppression of the free press in places like Bulgaria and Russia compared to that in the United States. In Bulgaria media suppression is overt, with violence against the press relatively normalized. In contrast, in the United States the war on the press is still overt, but carried out through propaganda and verbal assaults rather than physical violence. I think such non-violent assaults can be highly effective just like violent ones; even if they don’t get the media to stop reporting they get the media to stop being believed. When the President uses the bully pulpit to bash the media, he may not be murdering anyone, but he does degrade popular trust in the press. The United States is approaching the “death of credibility;” the President’s attacks on the press have, in part, caused a large number of people to deeply distrust the press, instead turning to FOX News or fringe sources like Breitbart. Inundating society with “alternative facts” and “fake news” may not prevent journalists from reporting accurately, but it makes it difficult to tell real news apart from fake news. If the public is unable to distinguish reality from propaganda, then accurate reporting is meaningless. This degradation of the media can also lead to violence, for example there are many examples online of threats against liberal journalists on right wing forums. Oligarchs and autocrats are waging a global war on the truth, from Bulgaria to the United States.
Attacks on Bulgaria’s Press
This 2018 discussion about the attacks on the media in Bulgaria was a well written and interesting blog. The blog ended on a positive note, citing public protests as a means for retaining democratic processes in Bulgaria. As an update, in 2020, Reporters without Borders wrote that the state of the media in Bulgaria is not good. Media professionals have reached an impasse with the government and newspapers are on the brink of collapse. Bulgaria was ranked 111th out of 180 countries on the 2020 World Press Freedom Index, the lowest position of any EU country. Violence against reporters has been reported, and journalists are said to be subjected to judicial and economic harassment when critical of the government. Since your blog in 2018, things have changed in Bulgaria. The April elections brought weaker than expected results for GERB, the long-standing center right party that has been in power since 2007, suggesting it is doubtful Borissov, the populist leader, will be able to hang onto power much longer. With new anti-corruption parties moving up in the rankings, perhaps democratic back sliding (i.e., repression of the media) is on the way out. We can only hope.