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Bulgarian far-right party’s ‘foreign agent’ bill sparks media freedom…

Bulgarian far-right party’s ‘foreign agent’ bill sparks media freedom concerns

Press freedom groups raise alarm that law appears intended to target critical media.

The undersigned international media freedom and journalists organisations today raise the alarm over a draft law submitted to Bulgarian parliament by the far-right Vazrazhdane (Revival) party which would introduce a Russian-style “foreign agent” law involving potential sanctions for media outlets that receive funding from abroad.

 

The draft legislation has been developed by the pro-Russian Vazrazhdane party, which became the fourth largest faction in parliament in the recent elections and is currently in negotiations to form a coalition government. While the passing of the law in the current political climate remains doubtful, it nonetheless represents a serious threat to media freedom which the European Commission should closely monitor.

 

Although the progress of the bill remains stalled for now, the proposal should set alarm bells ringing given the similarities to Russia’s notorious “Foreign Agents Act”, which has been systematically weaponized over the last decade to block and shut down what remained of the country’s independent media and NGOs. 

 

Any efforts to implement such laws in the EU should be resolutely opposed due to their potential to seriously undermine media freedom. No EU member state has passed such legislation, though in 2017 Hungary passed a law which applied to foreign funded organisations and NGOs but excluded the press, which was later found to violate EU law by the Court of Justice of the European Union. 

 

Our organisations fear the adoption of such legislation in Bulgaria could pave the way open for abuse by any government current or future seeking to discredit, stigmatize or defund critical and independent news media. Such a bill would also be highly discriminatory, create a climate of hostility for media investment, and would directly violate EU law.

 

The draft ‘Law on the Registration of Foreign Agents’ was unveiled by Vazrazhdane on November 2. The law would compel any media outlet which receives over BGN 1,000 (500 euros) a year from a foreign source to register as a “foreign agent” in the Ministry of Justice. Among those to be considered ‘foreign agents’ if designated as such would be a private media outlet’s founders, managers, employees, owners, partners and shareholders.

 

Individual journalists labelled as ‘foreign agents’ by the Ministry that fail to register would face fines of BGN 1,000 to BGN 5,000. Legal entities, such as media organisations, would face fines of BGN 5,000 to BGN 10,000. These media would also not be permitted to receive money from state funds, such as state advertising revenue. The law would apply to mass media outlets, organisations and NGOs.

 

As well as applying to money coming from authoritarian states like Russia or China, it would also include grants from EU Member States and the United States. The only exception to the rule would be for funding and grants from the EU Commission itself. 

 

The timing of this bill also raises major questions about its motive. We note the proposal comes just over a month after Vazrazhdane party chairman Kostadin Kostadinov attempted to expel four private media outlets – Dnevnik, Capital, Club Z and Mediapool – from a press conference and attacked them for being “foreign agents”, drawing condemnation. All four are funded in part by grants from the U.S. but are widely viewed as being professional and independent sources of news in Bulgaria.

 

Our organisations find it hard to avoid the conclusion therefore that Vazrazhdane’s ‘foreign agent’ bill appears to be retaliatory in nature and targeted predominantly at media critical of the party’s policies. Another target which would be affected by the law is Svobodna Evropa, the Bulgarian arm of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which is funded by the U.S Congress.

 

Although the likelihood of this bill ultimately becoming law is questionable, vigilance will be needed. Legitimate concerns have rightly been expressed about the incompatibility of the bill with either EU law or the Bulgarian constitution. Moving forward, it is vital that democratic parties in Bulgaria coalesce in opposition to the bill and ensure it does not progress in parliament.

 

We urge Vazrazhdane to withdraw the draft bill and to refrain from future attacks on independent media. Our organisations will continue to monitor the situation closely, warn about further developments, and plan to organise an international press freedom mission to Bulgaria early next year to assess the wider climate for media freedom.

Signed by:

  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States, Candidate Countries and Ukraine.

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IPI Bulgaria Report Library

IPI report shines light on hidden alliances and vested…

IPI report shines light on hidden alliances and vested interests behind media capture in Bulgaria

Third report as part of IPI’s campaign on media capture. The International Press Institute (IPI) today published a new report on media freedom and independence in Bulgaria. The report explores the capture of media by vested business and political interests and the corrupting relationship between media owners and politicians as they compete for power and profit.

The report finds that the story of media capture in Bulgaria differs from the classic Hungarian model, whose mechanism of operation is only thinly veiled. The Bulgarian picture is murkier, driven by a lack of information over the ownership and business interests of the key individuals involved in a country with  the EU’s highest level of corruption and organized crime, which creates an extra layer of complexity and competing power centres that the media and politicians have found themselves ensnared in.

Veiled networks

Bulgaria is ranked as the most corrupt country in the European Union. Here, competing power struggles among politicians, oligarchs, media moguls, and organized crime, and their efforts to win over control of state institutions such as the courts, prosecutors, and media regulators are hidden behind a web of rumours and political scandals, of banking collapses, public protests and politicized prosecutions.

Within this struggle for power, the media has been debased and weaponized as a tool through which private and political interests are projected while often smearing their rivals. Serious independent media that are able to stand outside this corrupted sector to pursue investigative journalism are targeted by those they expose and hauled before the courts either through vexatious private lawsuits, or by trumped-up charges drawn up by politicized prosecutors.

The corruption of politics and media seem to run hand in hand. Just as media owners use their influence to gain political and business favours, so politicians use their power to bring media outlets to heel. Crucially, it’s all hidden behind a veiled network of oligarchs and their competing alliances and rivalries.

The system is enabled by corrupted political and judicial institutions, the misuse of state resources, compromised public service media and media regulators, weaponized judiciary and a lack of transparency over media ownership, thanks to weak rules and the use of multiple shell companies to conceal the powers behind the media.

Chance for reform

Amid this murky landscape, what is evident is how the powers of the state have been abused to weaken public service media, to pressure private media, to prosecute independent investigative media, and to smear political or critical rivals.

Bulgaria’s new prime minister, Kiril Petkov, has vowed to clean up corruption in the country and already committed to making fully transparent all public funds directed to Bulgarian media. This is an important first step, but the report finds that the government must go much further. It must ensure full transparency of ownership of media, it must end the culture of political interference in the media and in particular ensuring a fully independent public service media.  And it must end the persecution of the independent media sector dedicated to investigating and exposing corruption. The report includes key recommendations to this end.

The report was authored by media expert Boryana Dzhambazova and is published as part of IPI’s campaign on media capture. It is organized as part of  the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries.

Prominent Bulgarian investigative journalist Atanas Tchobanov Library

Bulgaria: Serious threat against investigative journalist Atanas Tchobanov

Bulgaria: Serious threat against investigative journalist Atanas Tchobanov

New government must prioritize journalist safety and media freedom. The IPI global network today expresses serious concern over the warning received by one of Bulgaria’s most prominent investigative journalists, Atanas Tchobanov, about an immediate threat to his life. IPI urges Bulgarian authorities to thoroughly investigate the threat, take all necessary measures to protect his safety and ensure those responsible are swiftly identified.

On 7 January 2021, Tchobanov, co-founder of the Bulgarian investigative website Bivol and director of the Bureau of Investigative Reporting and Data (BIRD), received a phone call from an official at a foreign embassy under a “duty to inform” procedure, who warned him about information the official had received concerning a credible and immediate threat to Tchobanov’s physical safety.

Tchobanov, a well-known journalist who is based in Paris, was told the threat came from within Bulgarian territory but did not receive specific information about the nature of the danger he was in or who was responsible. The tip off came one day after he made phone calls to figures named in a major investigative story he was working on at the time.

The journalist believes the threat was related to a story he published on January 9 – “Lobbyist Tony Podesta serves businesses related to Peevski” – which revealed lobbying deals struck between influential U.S. Democratic Party lobbyist Anthony Podesta and Bulgarian companies whose owners are linked to the interests of Bulgarian oligarch and political Delyan Peevski, who is sanctioned under the U.S. Magnitsky Act.

As part of his investigation with colleague Dimitar Stoyanov, Tchobanov contacted figures working with Podesta in Bulgaria seeking comment. The very next day, he received the information about the threat. Speaking to media, Tchobanov said he believed the threat was directed from certain figures within the National Assembly.

On January 10, the journalist filed a statement with French police. Over the weekend he also reported the threat to Bulgarian authorities. Tchobanov was contacted by the state prosecutor’s office to provide information about his allegations. However, he declined, citing concerns about links of those within the prosecutor’s office to those he suspects were behind the threat.

On Monday, the Bulgarian Ministry of Interior, the General Directorate for Combating Organized Crime, the General Directorate of the National Police, the Sofia Directorate of the Interior, the State Intelligence Agency (SANS), and the Military Intelligence Service were informed about the threat by the prosecutor’s office. However, Bulgarian authorities have not commented publicly on the issue.

“Atanas Tchobanov is one of the finest investigative journalists in Bulgaria and has worked on numerous global investigative projects”, IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen said. “This warning about a threat to life is extremely concerning, as it would not have been made unless there were serious immediate risks to his safety. This underscores both the major risks journalists probing crime and corruption routinely face in Bulgaria and the importance of duty-to-inform directives: vital instruments which should be deployed by more countries to help protect journalists.

Griffen added: “Bulgarian state authorities should make an immediate public statement to confirm an investigation has been opened to verify the threat and identify its source. All necessary measures should also be taken to ensure that the safety of both Atanas Tchobanov and his colleague in Bulgaria is guaranteed and that those behind the threat are identified and brought to justice.

“As the new government assumes power in Bulgaria, IPI also urges the administration to prioritize improvement of media freedoms. A key element will be strengthening investigations into serious threats and attacks on journalists, which remain frequent, with unacceptable levels of impunity. Police accountability for violence against media workers has been virtually non-existent; legal harassment of outlets investigating the activities of powerful institutions is common; and journalists face restrictions on speaking with politicians and accessing information.

“Improvement of this situation will require significant political will from the government, public officials, prosecutors, and law enforcement authorities, as well as a broader recognition by Bulgarian authorities of the fundamental role that independent journalism plays in society. To address these challenges, IPI urges the government to commission an immediate independent review to examine the current state of media freedom in the country and to identify key challenges.”

This statement by IPI is part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries.

Delyan Peevski Bulgaria Library

Bulgaria: Magnitsky sanctions against mogul Delyan Peevski shift media…

Bulgaria: Magnitsky sanctions against mogul Delyan Peevski shift media landscape

By IPI contributor Rossen Bossev

In the past six months, Bulgaria, considered the poorest and most corrupt country in the European Union, has undergone a serious change. After nearly 12 years of almost uninterrupted rule, prime minister Boyko Borissov left power. Following six months of political deadlock a four-party coalition appointed Kiril Petkov as Prime Minister. Parallel to the change of political power, however, there was another, no less significant change – in the media sector.

Last autumn Bulgaria was shaken by a wave of anti-corruption protests demanding the resignation of the center-right government of then Prime Minister Borissov and prosecutor general Ivan Geshev. Back then, the editorial policy of Telegraph and Monitor, two of the most popular daily newspapers in Bulgaria, suddenly changed. For years, the front pages of both publications, owned by then lawmaker and media oligarch Delyan Peevski, had run headlines targeting every independent voice against Peevski, Borissov and Geshev.

Judges, journalists, publishers, protesters, NGO activists, human rights defenders, EU diplomats, and opposition leaders were portrayed as members of a conspiratorial network undermining the country’s national interests. To illustrate this conspiracy, the two media outlets frequently resorted to the rhetoric of Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán and the Kremlin, often packaging anyone who raised their voice against the status quo as “sorosoids”, enemies of the state or anti-Bulgarians.

But one year or so ago, those kinds of stories disappeared from both newspapers. Monitor and Telegraph continued to be supportive of Borissov’s government and the other powerful institution in Bulgaria – the state prosecution – but stopped attacking their opponents. In the following weeks, the archive of Monitor was suddenly purged of dozens of articles – either those praising Peevski or attacking his opponents.

This major shift in editorial policy was a clear indication that the Bulgarian media landscape was changing. In January 2021, United Group, the new owner of Nova TV, one of the three largest national TV channels, announced that it had agreed to buy Peevski’s newspapers – Telegraf, Monitor, Match Telegraf, Politika, Europost, Borba.

However, Peevski’s attempt to shrug off the image of a media mogul by simply selling the media he directly owned did not prove successful. On June 2, the US Department of Treasury announced sanctions against Peevski under the Global Magnitsky Act, which imposes economic sanctions and entry bans for acts of significant corruption or gross violations of human rights. Those targeted by sanctions, and the companies they own, face extreme difficulties in using even the most ordinary banking services.

Suddenly, the country’s media baron, who owned the most popular daily newspapers and claimed to control a huge part of the remaining media landscape, had begun unloading media assets and withdrawing from the newspaper market.

The rise of a media oligarch

For years, Peevski has been the most prominent example of the constantly degrading media freedom in Bulgaria. At 41, Peevski is ironically called the “wunderkind” of Bulgarian politics. Since 2001, he has been an MP, an investigative-magistrate and deputy minister of emergency situations. In 2007, his mother, the former chief of the national lottery, bought the newspapers Telegraph, Monitor, and the weekly Politika. In 2013, his appointment as director of the State Security Service provoked mass protests and he was forced to resign the very next day.

Until 2016, while holding a public office for 15 years, Peevski’s asset disclosure declaration listed just a few real estate properties and an old car. In 2016, though, the same year his mother donated him the media business, and he officially declared that he owned companies, some of them registered in Dubai. As of that moment, Peevski started declaring millions of euros as income from these companies. However, it remains unclear what exactly the business of his companies was and where their income came from during those years.

The Pandora Papers investigation revealed that Peevski controlled offshore companies that he did not disclose in his declarations, raising suspicions that his biggest investments remain secret. However, media investigations have linked Peevski to the ownership of Bulgartabac, a cigarette manufacturer sold in 2017 to British American Tobacco, as well as to construction companies that had won public tenders commissioned by the state. He is also linked to the ownership of “Sofia Print Investment” – a private printing house where approximately 90% of daily newspapers are printed.

Peevski’s name was also associated with the ownership of “Kanal 3”, a marginal private television channel, whose editorial policy often repeated verbatim the articles in Telegraph and Monitor. When another oligarch close to Borissov, Kiril Domuschiev, bought Nova TV in 2019, several key Kanal 3 journalists and managers were hired by Nova. In 2020, Kanal 3, as well as two other small music channels and three radio stations, were sold by Nova just before the deal with United Group.

Coverage and influence buying

It is believed that Peevski’s influence in the media sector goes far beyond direct ownership. Most likely the main reason for this is that for years Peevski has built the image of a power broker with strong connections within the judiciary, law enforcement, state regulators, and the executive.

For years, the editorial policy of his newspapers was replicated by national TV channels, websites, and other print outlets. Mainstream media abstained from even mentioning his name, as did official institutions. When Magnitsky Act sanctions were announced on June 2 this year, the news quickly made front-page headlines. However, in the evening news broadcast of Bulgarian National Television, no information was given on why Peevski had been sanctioned.

According to journalistic investigations, the businesses controlled by Peevski are much more than those he officially owns. This would enable him to channel financial resources to the media in an opaque way. In 2016, for example, court records revealed that Bulgartabac’s advertising agency had paid hundreds of thousands of euros for advertising to a website close to Peevski, without it having published any ads at all.

The close relationship that Peevski developed with the government during Borissov’s rule also gave him a strong role in the executive branch. In July 2020, in an attempt to ease the tension around the looming protests, Borissov dismissed three ministers over accusations of being linked to Peevski.

Controlling the executive means more control of the media. EU funds and advertising contracts with the national government or local authorities are an important source of revenue for Bulgarian media which could also be used as leverage to control editorial policy. For the past four years, €5 million was distributed by the government to the media to promote programs, funded by the EU. Appointments to the media regulator, which selects the management of the public Bulgarian National Radio and Bulgarian National Television, is also a way to control these outlets’ editorial policies.

Similar to the influence in the media, the influence that Peevski has in the judiciary, the executive, and the security services is hidden and much greater than the role of an MP who almost never set foot in Parliament till this year. In 2019, a judge revealed publicly what the informal procedure was to be appointed as head of a court at the lowest level of the hierarchy: he had to personally meet in a restaurant in the capital and be approved by Peevski. The meeting was brokered by the president of the Supreme Administrative Court.

According to the press release of the Treasury Department, the sanctions were imposed because he “negotiated with politicians to provide them with political support and positive media coverage in return for receiving protection from criminal investigations.” Such quid pro quo, of course, would not have been possible if Peevski did not control certain publications (much broader than the newspapers he officially owned), the security services, and the prosecution.

After the announcement of the sanctions under the Magnitsky Act, the Bulgarian prosecutor’s office announced it was launching a probe, reminding that Peevski had been investigated by the authorities many times before without finding any wrongdoings. The caretaker government adopted a list that expanded the circle of individuals linked to Peevski and the others sanctioned and effectively banned the state from having relations with them.

Media freedom continuing to deteriorate

There are two persistent but sadly true clichés about Bulgaria, namely that it is the poorest and most corrupt country in the European Union. Bulgaria also has the worst media freedom in the European Union, according to the World Press Freedom Index.

It does not take a rocket scientist to see that these three rankings are directly related. The lack of media freedom allows abuse of power and corruption to thrive. A dysfunctional judiciary makes even the few independent publications an easy target for politicians with consistent disregard for press freedom.

Paradoxically, the sale of Peevski’s newspapers to the United group, the only direct effect of the sanctions on the media landscape in Bulgaria, came before they were even imposed: the newspapers ceased the smear campaigns against Peevski’s opponents. However, this will hardly be enough to eradicate the problems of the media environment in the country.

While the sanctions imposed on the media mogul by the US authorities exposed his use of media ownership to yield political influence, they have done little to fix the toxic media environment in Bulgaria. They will not make the government distribute EU funds in a fair and balanced way. They will not guarantee the security of regional and investigative journalists. Nor will they stop the police from beating up reporters.

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States, Candidate Countries and Ukraine.

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Delyan Peevski, a Bulgarian politician, oligarch, entrepreneur and media mogul. Sofia, Bulgaria. 2019.Credit: Shutterstock Library

Bulgaria: Magnitsky sanctions against mogul Delyan Peevski shift media…

Bulgaria: Magnitsky sanctions against mogul Delyan Peevski shift media landscape

Ray of hope for change after oligarch offloads media assets following U.S sanctions

By IPI contributor Rossen Bossev

In the past six months, Bulgaria, considered the poorest and most corrupt country in the European Union, has undergone a serious change. After nearly 12 years of almost uninterrupted rule, prime minister Boyko Borissov left power. Following six months of political deadlock a four-party coalition appointed Kiril Petkov as Prime Minister. Parallel to the change of political power, however, there was another, no less significant change – in the media sector.

Last autumn Bulgaria was shaken by a wave of anti-corruption protests demanding the resignation of the center-right government of then Prime Minister Borissov and prosecutor general Ivan Geshev. Back then, the editorial policy of Telegraph and Monitor, two of the most popular daily newspapers in Bulgaria, suddenly changed. For years, the front pages of both publications, owned by then lawmaker and media oligarch Delyan Peevski, had run headlines targeting every independent voice against Peevski, Borissov and Geshev.

Judges, journalists, publishers, protesters, NGO activists, human rights defenders, EU diplomats, and opposition leaders were portrayed as members of a conspiratorial network undermining the country’s national interests. To illustrate this conspiracy, the two media outlets frequently resorted to the rhetoric of Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán and the Kremlin, often packaging anyone who raised their voice against the status quo as “sorosoids”, enemies of the state or anti-Bulgarians.

But one year or so ago, those kinds of stories disappeared from both newspapers. Monitor and Telegraph continued to be supportive of Borissov’s government and the other powerful institution in Bulgaria – the state prosecution – but stopped attacking their opponents. In the following weeks, the archive of Monitor was suddenly purged of dozens of articles – either those praising Peevski or attacking his opponents.

This major shift in editorial policy was a clear indication that the Bulgarian media landscape was changing. In January 2021, United Group, the new owner of Nova TV, one of the three largest national TV channels, announced that it had agreed to buy Peevski’s newspapers – Telegraf, Monitor, Match Telegraf, Politika, Europost, Borba.

However, Peevski’s attempt to shrug off the image of a media mogul by simply selling the media he directly owned did not prove successful. On June 2, the US Department of  Treasury announced sanctions against Peevski under the Global Magnitsky Act, which imposes economic sanctions and entry bans for acts of significant corruption or gross violations of human rights. Those targeted by sanctions, and the companies they own, face extreme difficulties in using even the most ordinary banking services.

Suddenly, the country’s media baron, who owned the most popular daily newspapers and claimed to control a huge part of the remaining media landscape, had begun unloading media assets and withdrawing from the newspaper market.

The rise of a media oligarch

For years, Peevski has been the most prominent example of the constantly degrading media freedom in Bulgaria. At 41, Peevski is ironically called the “wunderkind” of Bulgarian politics. Since 2001, he has been an MP, an investigative-magistrate and deputy minister of emergency situations. In 2007, his mother, the former chief of the national lottery, bought the newspapers Telegraph, Monitor, and the weekly Politika. In 2013, his appointment as director of the State Security Service provoked mass protests and he was forced to resign the very next day.

Until 2016, while holding a public office for 15 years, Peevski’s asset disclosure declaration listed just a few real estate properties and an old car.  In 2016, though, the same year his mother donated him the media business, and he officially declared that he owned companies, some of them registered in Dubai. As of that moment, Peevski started declaring millions of euros as income from these companies. However, it remains unclear what exactly the business of his companies was and where their income came from during those years.

The Pandora Papers investigation revealed that Peevski controlled offshore companies that he did not disclose in his declarations, raising suspicions that his biggest investments remain secret. However, media investigations have linked Peevski to the ownership of Bulgartabac, a cigarette manufacturer sold in 2017 to British American Tobacco, as well as to construction companies that had won public tenders commissioned by the state. He is also linked to the ownership of “Sofia Print Investment” – a private printing house where approximately 90% of daily newspapers are printed.

Peevski’s name was also associated with the ownership of “Kanal 3”, a marginal private television channel, whose editorial policy often repeated verbatim the articles in Telegraph and Monitor. When another oligarch close to Borissov, Kiril Domuschiev, bought Nova TV in 2019, several key Kanal 3 journalists and managers were hired by Nova. In 2020, Kanal 3, as well as two other small music channels and three radio stations, were sold by Nova just before the deal with United Group.

Coverage and influence buying

It is believed that Peevski’s influence in the media sector goes far beyond direct ownership. Most likely the main reason for this is that for years Peevski has built the image of a power broker with strong connections within the judiciary, law enforcement, state regulators, and the executive.

For years, the editorial policy of his newspapers was replicated by national TV channels, websites, and other print outlets. Mainstream media abstained from even mentioning his name, as did official institutions. When Magnitsky Act sanctions were announced on June 2 this year, the news quickly made front-page headlines. However, in the evening news broadcast of Bulgarian National Television, no information was given on why Peevski had been sanctioned.

According to journalistic investigations, the businesses controlled by Peevski are much more than those he officially owns. This would enable him to channel financial resources to the media in an opaque way.  In 2016, for example, court records revealed that Bulgartabac’s advertising agency had paid hundreds of thousands of euros for advertising to a website close to Peevski, without it having published any ads at all.

The close relationship that Peevski developed with the government during Borissov’s rule also gave him a strong role in the executive branch. In July 2020, in an attempt to ease the tension around the looming protests, Borissov dismissed three ministers over accusations of being linked to Peevski.

Controlling the executive means more control of the media. EU funds and advertising contracts with the national government or local authorities are an important source of revenue for Bulgarian media which could also be used as leverage to control editorial policy. For the past four years, €5 million was distributed by the government to the media to promote programs, funded by the EU. Appointments to the media regulator, which selects the management of the public Bulgarian National Radio and Bulgarian National Television, is also a way to control these outlets’ editorial policies.

Similar to the influence in the media, the influence that Peevski has in the judiciary, the executive, and the security services is hidden and much greater than the role of an MP who almost never set foot in Parliament till this year. In 2019, a judge revealed publicly what the informal procedure was to be appointed as head of a court at the lowest level of the hierarchy: he had to personally meet in a restaurant in the capital and be approved by Peevski. The meeting was brokered by the president of the Supreme Administrative Court.

According to the press release of the Treasury Department, the sanctions were imposed because he “negotiated with politicians to provide them with political support and positive media coverage in return for receiving protection from criminal investigations.” Such quid pro quo, of course, would not have been possible if Peevski did not control certain publications (much broader than the newspapers he officially owned), the security services, and the prosecution.

After the announcement of the sanctions under the Magnitsky Act, the Bulgarian prosecutor’s office announced it was launching a probe, reminding that Peevski had been investigated by the authorities many times before without finding any wrongdoings. The caretaker government adopted a list that expanded the circle of individuals linked to Peevski and the others sanctioned and effectively banned the state from having relations with them.

Media freedom continuing to deteriorate

There are two persistent but sadly true clichés about Bulgaria, namely that it is the poorest and most corrupt country in the European Union. Bulgaria also has the worst media freedom in the European Union, according to the World Press Freedom Index.

It does not take a rocket scientist to see that these three rankings are directly related. The lack of media freedom allows abuse of power and corruption to thrive. A dysfunctional judiciary makes even the few independent publications an easy target for politicians with consistent disregard for press freedom.

Paradoxically, the sale of Peevski’s newspapers to the United group, the only direct effect of the sanctions on the media landscape in Bulgaria, came before they were even imposed: the newspapers ceased the smear campaigns against Peevski’s opponents. However, this will hardly be enough to eradicate the problems of the media environment in the country.

While the sanctions imposed on the media mogul by the US authorities exposed his use of media ownership to yield political influence, they have done little to fix the toxic media environment in Bulgaria. They will not make the government distribute EU funds in a fair and balanced way. They will not guarantee the security of regional and investigative journalists. Nor will they stop the police from beating up reporters.

This article is part of IPI’s reporting series “Media freedom in Europe in the shadow of Covid”, which comprises news and analysis from IPI’s network of correspondents throughout the EU. Articles do not necessarily reflect the views of IPI or MFRR. This reporting series is supported by funding from the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom and by the European Commission (DG Connect) as part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response, a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries.

IPI as part of MFRR