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.
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