Is a European government censoring independent media?

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When a Bulgarian anti-fraud commission announced the results of its investigation into Ivo Prokopiev’s business dealings late last year, journalists that Prokopiev employs were still hard at work. Early in 2017, they had broken stories of widespread corruption in public infrastructure projects and on the ruling party’s potential misuse of European funds. They also had, for years, reported on corruption and other financial crimes in Bulgaria’s banking sector. But now, Prokopiev himself is in the crosshairs.

Prokopiev, 47, is a Bulgarian businessman and the owner of Capital, a business-oriented weekly newspaper, and Dnevnik, a large news website. Both are considered to be among the few independent voices left in Bulgarian media. The operation of both outlets was jeopardized when, in December 2017, anti-fraud investigators froze Prokopiev’s private assets as well as the assets of companies he owns, worth a total of $125 million.

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Prokopiev insists the investigation is an effort to bankrupt and discredit his publications. Their reporting, he says, has long been a thorn in the side of the Bulgarian government. The investigators, on the other hand, allege this is a standard fraud inquiry, and that Prokopiev was involved in a sketchy business deal nearly 20 years ago that earned him millions. Outside observers say it’s all part of a “media war” between well-heeled and politically connected Bulgarian publishers.

While it’s not easy to untangle who’s right—and in fact, all three versions of the story might be true—the case has come to embody the country’s struggle to maintain an independent press. The concentration of media ownership in the country has made Bulgaria, the EU’s poorest country, one of Europe’s least open-media environments.

Still, until about a decade ago, Prokopiev says the media business was profitable. Post-communist Bulgaria transitioned to a market economy throughout the ’90s, and from 2000 to 2007, the country’s economy was booming, and Bulgaria had many healthy print publications. Then came the financial crisis.

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Foreign companies like News Corp that, years earlier, had invested in Bulgarian media started leaving the country, and so began, Prokopiev says, a concentration in media ownership among Bulgaria’s oligarchs. Now, he argues, a large part of Bulgarian media is owned by just a few people, and many just parrot the government line.

As this process has continued, Alex Lazarov, managing editor of Capital, says he watched the Bulgarian government become less tolerant of critical voices among the country’s press. Capital has dug deep into Bulgaria’s courts, criticizing what Lazarov describes as close relationships between prosecutors and government, and a lack of reform by the prosecutor general and his lack of action against corrupt officials. Now, Lazarov notes, government offices often do not answer Capital’s reporters, and when they do, routine requests are often put through lengthy administrative procedures.

“The government began to expect the media to not be critical at all,” he says. “When you’re being objective, like I believe Capital is, sometimes there are critical things you have to say. It just makes some people in the government really pissed off.”

Pauline Adès-Mével, a Bulgaria observer for Reporters without Borders, agreed with the assessment that Bulgarian media is being stifled by consolidation. “One of the main problems we are seeing in Bulgaria is the corruption and collusion of politicians and the media, which led to situations like that we’ve seen today,” says Adès-Mével. “The pressure against Prokopiev is part of a pressure against all independent media in Bulgaria.”

“It’s clear that Prokopiev is very powerful, because he owns some very important media, but he is definitely targeted,” she adds.

Prokopiev’s publications aren’t the only ones to face government ire for their reporting. Teodora Peeva is editor in chief of Sega, a daily newspaper whose name means “now” in Bulgarian. Peeva’s newspaper has also taken flak for its coverage of corruption and fraud in government contracts. “It’s our policy to be critical of the government,” Peeva says.

“Media freedom in Bulgaria has declined in the past years, after we entered the EU [in 2007],” Peeva says. “We expected it to be the other way around. Unfortunately, it hasn’t happened like that.” Before joining the European Union, candidate countries are under heavy scrutiny from Brussels. Peeva and other Bulgarian journalists note that, once the country joined the EU, outside scrutiny on Bulgaria’s media issues relaxed. Funds coming from the EU are often used in Bulgaria to support private media and, she argues, “the government gives out this money to media that doesn’t criticize it.” Three other Bulgarian journalists and media observers echoed this criticism.

“Another way to control media, as in our case, is to freeze the money and to destroy the business of the publisher,” Peeva says, likening the situation of Prokopiev to that of Sega’s own publisher, Sasho Dontchev, a Bulgarian natural gas magnate. Peeva rattles off a list of what she sees as pressure instruments used against Sega and its publisher: treason charges, pressure from tax authorities, business audits, and verbal attacks from the government and prosecution. “There is a constant pressure on our newspaper every day,” Peeva says. “Our politicians, our prime minister, don’t hide their displeasure with the media.”

“I’m afraid that if this attack on Ivo Prokopiev is successful it will be repeated,” Peeva adds. “This is just a test to see how far they can go without any consequences.”

 

Plamen Georgiev heads Bulgaria’s Commission for Illegal Asset Forfeiture, the group that has, since early 2017, investigated Prokopiev. Giorgev bristles when asked whether his work is political.

“[In Bulgaria] we have many rich people who cannot explain where their money came from,” explains Giorgiev, a former prosecutor. His office consists of five people, all appointed by Bulgaria’s prime minister, president, and parliament. While Giorgiev concedes that his office only investigates cases that come from Bulgaria’s prosecutors, he says his group works independently of the police, the prosecution, and the courts.

As Bulgaria transitioned to a market economy, Giorgiev explains, Bulgaria’s oligarchs began buying up public companies at a fraction of their market value. The investigator accuses Prokopiev of illegally buying a mining company for one-tenth the market value, then flipping it for a hefty profit years later. Giorgiev and his asset forfeiture office see the case against Prokopiev as the first of many cases investigating these deals.

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(Prokopiev maintains that his purchase of the mining company was completely legal, and argues that the transaction has already been investigated and cleared by Bulgarian courts. When asked about the court cases, Giorgiev concedes that the transaction was indeed authorized by the Bulgarian government. “The state authority closed their eyes,” Giorgiev says, “that is the problem.”)

Giorgiev maintains that the investigation of Prokopiev has nothing to do with his ownership of Capital and Dnevnik. Tihomir Bezlov, an analyst for a Bulgarian think tank called the Center for the Study of Democracy, sees a connection between Prokopiev and a rival publisher, Deylan Peevski, who also is a minister of parliament for one of Bulgaria’s smaller political parties and has been responsible for much of the consolidation in Bulgarian media.

“Why does Peevski invest in media? Because through media, he can influence politicians and the state. And the state rewards him for good writing,” says Bezlov. “This is the typical model—Peevski is nothing new in Eastern Europe.”

(Peevski did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The editor in chief of Monitor, one of the newspapers he owns, also declined multiple requests for comment.)

 

Nelly Ognyanova, professor of media law at Sofia University, doesn’t buy the “media war” narrative. “People in power try to suggest that there are two media groups fighting for influence—those of Peevski and Prokopiev—while ignoring the differences between them,” she says. “If we’re talking about journalism, not about publishers, Capital and Dnevnik are quality media.”

“Deylan Peevski is a member of parliament, but managed to build a huge media empire and, moreover, to monopolize the distribution of the press,” Ognyanova adds. “His political influence is obvious.”

The conflict, Ognyanova argues, is over media independence, quality of journalism, and the ability to criticize government. She also worries that investigations like the one into Prokopiev’s business dealings could come to represent a new way for Bulgaria’s super-rich and politically connected publishers to attack their competition.

“The worry is that such a questioning could become [a] style of dealing with opponents,” says Ognyanova, “especially when it comes to media and freedom of information.”

Bulgarian media is a small world. Every journalist interviewed for this story has plenty to say about the free press and their ability to criticize the government, about the ins and outs of working for media owned by publishers with extensive business interests, and about the investigation into Prokopiev. But none are willing to do so on the record.

“Of course they follow their own interests,” says one Bulgarian journalist, based in Sofia, the country’s capital. “I mean, Sega is a very decent newspaper, as well as Capital, though clearly Prokopiev is using it for his own interests.”

The journalist contrasts Sega, Capital, and Dnevnik with other media in Bulgaria, where the details over who owns what media company are foggy. “The thing with Prokopiev is that it’s quite open. He’s open about what business he has. He’s open about what his interests are,” the journalist explains. “This is something that can be expected. The problem with the other media is that it’s not clear who their owners are, what their interests are, and what agenda they are pushing for.”

“The whole thing between Prokopiev and Peevski has become like, ‘I defend my boss, you defend your boss,’ and after all of that, the journalists are the victims,” the source adds. “The media wars in Bulgaria are wars of publishers.”

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Zach Campbell is a reporter based in Barcelona. Follow him on Twitter @notzachcampbell