Bulgaria has retained its 11th place in the annual Press Freedom Index, published on Thursday by Reporters Without Borders. The country’s position has not change as of 2018, in the EU and the region.

The analysis of Reporters Without Borders, which mentions to the case of two investigative journalists – Dimitar Stoyanov from Bivol and Attila Biro from the Romanian Rise Project – who were briefly detained during an investigation into alleged misuse of EU funds, states that: ”Bulgaria is constantly criticized for its endemic corruption and the ineffectiveness of its judicial system. Its journalists are targeted by both organised crime and the authorities, who heap abuse on them instead of defending them. In September 2018, the police arrested two journalists from independent media outlets who were investigating the misuse of EU funds”

The Report of Reporters Without Borders also mentions the murder of journalist Victoria Marinova from Ruse.

“The murders of three journalists in Malta, Slovakia and Bulgaria in the space of a few months has made the world realise that Europe is no longer a sanctuary for journalists” The report also states that this is especially true for those who take an interest in corruption, tax evasion and misuse of European Union funds, often involving the mafia, which alone poses the greatest threat to investigative journalism.

The decline in freedom of expression in Europe, as indicated by Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index over the past few years, goes hand in hand with the erosion of institutions in a region, increasingly dominated by authoritarian governments. When it comes to murders, attempted murders or physical and verbal attacks, European journalists are subjected to many forms of pressure and intimidation and increasingly to judicial harassment. While Europe does continue to be the continent that best guarantees freedom of expression, the work of investigative journalists, is increasingly hindered, the organization states.

Norway is ranked first in the 2019 World Press Freedom Index for the third year running while Finland (up two places) has taken second place. An increase in cyber-harassment caused Sweden (third) to drop one place down. The Netherlands ranks fourth, where two reporters who cover organized crime, have had to live under permanent police protection.

Press freedom has improved significantly in two African countries. Ethiopia has gone up by 40 places and has reached the 110th place, right before Bulgaria, and Gambia, up 30 places, has ranked 92nd.

Many authoritarian regimes have fallen in the Press Freedom Index Index. They include Venezuela (down five at 148th), where journalists have been the victims of arrests and violence by security forces, and Russia (down one at 149th), where the Kremlin has used arrests, arbitrary searches and draconian laws to step up the pressure on independent media and the Internet. At the bottom of the Index, both Vietnam (176th) and China (177th) have fallen one place, Eritrea (up 1 at 178th) is third from last, despite making peace with its neighbor Ethiopia, and Turkmenistan (down two at 180th) is now last, replacing North Korea (up one at 179th).

Only 24 percent of the 180 countries and territories are classified as “good” (colored white on the Press Freedom Map) or “fairly good” (yellow), as opposed to 26 percent last year. As a result of an increasingly hostile climate that goes beyond Donald Trump’s comments, theUnited States (48th) has fallen three places in this year’s Index and the media climate is now classified as “problematic” (orange). Never before have US journalists been subjected to so many death threats or turned so often to private security firms for protection. Hatred of the media is now such that a man walked into the Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis, Maryland, in June 2018 and opened fire, killing four journalists and one other member of the newspaper’s staff. The gunman had repeatedly expressed his hatred for the paper on social networks before ultimately acting on his words.

In Romania (down 3 at 47th), the current holder of the EU’s rotating presidency, journalists with the RISE Project, an investigative platform, have been investigating the alleged misuse of EU funds for the past several months. They have been harassed by the authorities, who used the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) as grounds for making them reveal their sources. Serbia has also dropped significantly in the ranking (down 14 places at 90th). Investigative journalists there have been subjected to numerous physical attacks.

Malta continues to tumble down the index – 12 places at 77th. There a handful of journalists who have been trying to continue the work of the anti-corruption reporter Daphne Caruana Galizia. They are shedding light on the island’s rampant corruption and money-laundering schemes, despite an oppressive and intimidating climate still marked by Caruana Galizia’s murder in October 2017. As well as having to live in fear, they are subjected to intense judicial harassment.


Commentary: No Good News in Sight

While for the first time in recent years Bulgaria has not dropped down in the ranking but has rather managed to keep its position, this should not be viewed as a positive sign especially since the country continues to have the worst media freedom in the EU and even lags behind the Western Balkan countries.

It is important to bear in mind that the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index can not measure freedom of expression in absolute terms, so it measures the perception of journalists and media professionals. Media freedom decline in Bulgaria continues to cause concern.Bulgarian journalists are convinced that the media environment in the country is not as free and independent as one in a truly democratic, EU country should be, and rightly so.

The difficult economic situation, in which the media operates, exposes media professionals to vulnerabilities and to all forms of pressure. Low payment and fin insecurity in the sector have forced many talented reporters to change careers. Attempts by the central and local governments to ensure for themselves friendly media coverage, allocating state or EU funding, is further distorting the media landscape. The oligarchic model of media ownership is becoming more and more dominant, and it has a chilling effect on journalists, with smear campaigns trying to discredit reporters, becoming the norm. Critical journalists are frequently threatened with losing their jobs, when the media, which employees them, is acquired by an oligarch.

It is impossible not to take these threats seriously, especially when taking into consideration the condition of the Bulgarian media market.

Last year the anti-trust regulator refused to approve the deal for Nova TV, one of the leading private television stations. Furthermore, the Anti-Corruption Commission, involved in alleged abuse of power itself, have launched investigations into a Bulgarian media publisher.

The Reporters Without Borders report also mentions the brutal murder of journalist Victoria Marinova. The position of AEJ-Bulgaria has always been that, without solid evidence, this gruesome crime should not be linked to her work. Undoubtedly, however, such an appalling crime has had a chilling effect on reporters in the country.

Despite this grim picture, investigative reporting could have a meaningful impact, even in a country with deteriorating media freedom. In recent weeks, the so-called Apartment-gate scandal, a series of journalistic investigations revealing that a number of government officials have acquired their luxury homes for below-market prices, has reminded us of the power of journalism to shed light on high-ranking graft and keep the government accountable.

It is worth noting that, unlike previous times, several big media outlets have picked up the story and continued reporting on new cases, giving the scandal legs, a testament to the fact that free press plays a vital role in democratic society.