GAME OF EMPTY CHAIRS

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In Bulgaria, government threatens mainstream media

So I see, your colleague's chair is empty, a confident MP for the ruling GERB, Anton Todorov, told a morning show TV host of one of the mainstream TV stations. She must have strayed. She must have been asking the wrong questions.

Todorov, a political scientist who had made his living as a plumber, is the author of a book on GERB, Gang, which brought out allegations of corruption and a plethora of personal assaults against GERB's top functionaries, including current Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, former President Rosen Plevneliev, who had been put forward to the post by Borisov himself, and GERB's deputy chairman, Tsvetan Tsvetanov. The book, a favourite piece of reading for both GERB's supporters and its foes, was published a few years ago. It has been on the bestselling list ever since, surpassing even its publisher's other production including Size Does Matter (a book teaching you how to slim down) and Oliver Stone's interviews with Putin.

The empty chair Todorov referred to belonged to a co-host of that morning show who had mysteriously disappeared from the screen, with no adequate explanation given either by her or by by her employers, prompting the characteristic mix of conspiracy theories and counter-theories that has become a way of public life here.

Following Todorov, the hearts and minds of the TV public in this country were gripped by the appearance of Valeri Simeonov, the leader of the ultranationalist NFSB, or National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria. On camera, Simeonov was apparently angry at a few questions related to corruption in GERB and accused the anchor of "rocking the state." "Who is rocking the state, I or you?", responded the anchor. "Don't you have relatives? Don't they have jobs?", the Bulgarian deputy prime minister went on, adding that if he were "mean" he could easily forge a kompromat on the TV journalist who was talking with him.

The NFSB is one of the three extremist parties, the other two being Ataka and the VMRO, or Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation, that are now associated in an alliance calling itself United Patriots – a junior partner of Boyko Borisov's ruling coalition. Valeri Simeonov is deputy prime minister.

Simeonov was the founder of SKAT TV, a Burgas-based, but now a national coverage TV station that has gained notoriety for bringing out programmes that propagate the political views of Ataka and the NFSB. The TV station says it gives an outlet to ordinary folk to speak out, but some audiences see its programming as a mixture of xenophobia, nationalism and populism.

The deputy prime minister was even more outspoken than Todorov. He gave an "ultimatum" to a number of electronic and print media to apologise to him "within 24 hours." The Press Service of the Bulgarian Council of Ministers, whose job is to propagate official government views, put out a news release, on the government site, to disseminate what the deputy prime minister had said. Simeonov threatened to sue, and to... seek to terminate the significant sums of cash the large TV stations in this country get through the various EU programmes. That money is being administered and handed out by the various agencies of the state.

There was a flurry of criticism after the televised appearances of Todorov and Simeonov. Todorov was forced to resign as MP. On his departure from the Bulgarian National Assembly he said he would continue to exercise his original profession, that of a tipster "journalist," and was already in the process of starting a TV show of his own – about which he was conferring with... Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, implying the Bulgarian prime minister had a say in this country's TV stations's programming policies.

According to Kapital newspaper, the justice system is also being used in what it calls the "battle for TV." The prosecution service can always order an investigation against a media, which in effect will halt its operations, destroy its reputation and possibly bankrupt it. The "scheme" being used was described by Charlie Chaplin in The Kid: a boy breaks windows in order to enable his master to provide a "solution."

Another method to muzzle reporters in Bulgaria, noted in the Freedom House 2016 report on the media, is to blackmail them into submission. It is usually being done through a mudslinging, ad hominem campaigns directed against individuals who would not comply with the rulers' ideas about free press and democracy.

Asen Yordanov, an investigative journalist based in Burgas and one of the owners of a whistleblowing Internet site, said in an interview that the media situation in Bulgaria had become so bad that it could directly be compared to the sunset days of Communism pre-1989, with the notable difference being that all of the methods now used to suppress free speech were disguised as "democracy."

Some intellectuals in Bulgaria were genuinely infuriated by the recent outrage, but the cases of Anton Todorov and Valeri Simeonov are just the latest in a long series of "interventions" by Bulgaria's rulers to impose an almost total control over the media. In fact, they are just the tip of an iceberg that already derails Bulgaria's declared commitment, as an EU member, to free speech and the rule of law.

Ever since Boyko Borisov ascended to power, in 2009 (just a couple of years after Bulgaria's accession to the EU), the media have been under increasing pressure. Borisov, a born publicist for himself, is known for his excellent, unfaltering ability to capitalise on two things: his own uncouth nativism (which the majority of the public in this country see as down-to-earth man-in-the-street resoluteness with a touch of Balkan machoism) and his unabashed name-dropping (Borisov regularly tells the media he is on first-name terms with Angela (Merkel), David (Cameron), and in the more distant past Silvio (Berlusconi). This continues to impress Bulgarians especially as 27 years after the fall of Communism Borisov, a former member of the Bulgarian Communist Party, regularly declares himself to be anti-Communist. His continuing popularity is not owing to any real accomplishment (Bulgaria is either rock-bottom or near rock-bottom of most international indices ranging from freedom of the media, to life expectancy, air pollution and median wages in the EU) but to his media popularity. Notwithstanding the obvious pressures being exercised on the media by his GERB, the media have in fact been complicit in the creation of Borisov's public image.

Borisov proclivity for sending text messages to select journalists informing them of his successes, for making phone-ins on live TV shows to counter hosts and/or participants, and for being televised at ribbon-cutting ceremonies for anything from sports halls to kindergartens, has been so well-documented that Anton Todorov and Valeri Simeonov pale in comparison.

The general public is yet to understand that both Todorov and Simeonov are just figureheads in a much larger system created by their superiors, a system that has functioned – and continues to function – with only minor hiccups in a country that has failed to implement even relatively simple reforms – one example being to verify who the real owners of most of the mainstream media are. Until that happens – and it has been on the to-do list even before Boyko Borisov came to power – Bulgaria's game of musical chairs will continue to be just a game of... empty chairs.

However, there is an even more pessimistic hypothesis. For generations under Communism Bulgarians used to get along by going along. With a few brief spells in the 1990s and the 2000s, none of the governments post-1989 did anything to dismantle that system. In the years after 1990 Bulgaria was relatively quick to go head-over-heels into the free market, but did almost nothing to change the Communist-era mentality. Bulgarians by and large continue to get along by going along. They have no interest in changing the status quo because they are scared of changes. And why are they scared of changes? Because they know that whoever comes next is usually worse than whatever is on the table at present.

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