Trump and Bulgaria: Attacks on free media damage democracy
Boyko Borisov, prime minister of Bulgaria, a nation deeply plagued by widespread corruption, is scheduled to visit President Donald Trump at the White House on Monday. The lack of press freedom in Bulgaria is not likely to be on the agenda for their talks.
The Bulgarian political system is dominated by Borisov and his party. Borisov has been in power almost continuously in Bulgaria for ten years and has no serious political opposition. Meanwhile, Russia, which continues to see the Balkans as a region of strategic competition with the West, is alleged to indirectly fund political parties throughout Europe.
The lack of a free and independent media in Bulgaria today is another condition that undermines democracy in this member of NATO and the European Union.
Trump, Borisov’s American host, often rants against the legitimate American press. When he does so, the president is following the pattern used by several current and former foreign leaders — like Borisov — to stifle truth and government accountability in their nations.
The most aggressive approach is that of Vladimir Putin in Russia, who allegedly uses assassination, intimidation and legal punishment to smother political opposition and the press.
Some government leaders in Europe — Bulgaria and Hungary come to mind — use or enable a more subtle combination of measures to manipulate and intimidate the press. I am most familiar with the situation in Bulgaria, where I served in as U.S. ambassador. Bulgaria today provides examples of how governments and special interests use a range of actions to bring the media into submission.
The consolidation of media ownership into a virtual monopoly controlled by a small group of Bulgarian oligarchs is one technique. In 2002, the national press in Bulgaria, owned largely by international media companies, was relatively independent and somewhat aggressive in covering government misdeeds. Today, independent international media groups are gone, replaced in most news sectors by local oligarchs and “businessmen,” who use the media to influence the government and the judicial system.
One man — Delyan Peevski, a member of the Bulgarian Parliament — is the kingpin of the private Bulgarian media today. He reportedly has owed as much as 80 percent of the market, including a large share of the print news distribution in the country. Financing for local control of the media in Bulgaria is murky at best, but Peevski and a handful of other oligarchs may own or control virtually every major “private” daily newspaper and television outlet in Bulgaria.
Peevski and his associates use their publications to support the existing political power structure that protects them. Their media outlets discredit independent journalists, political opponents, business competitors, and attack non-governmental organizations and activists who demand rule of law, freedom of the press and defend human rights.
Since the news media in Bulgaria often struggles financially, the Bulgarian government, including that of current Prime Minister Borisov, uses EU and other funding as leverage to create public media dependency on financing from the government.
The intimidation of Bulgarian journalists is common. Generally, individual journalists self-censor because they know that investigative journalism leading to exposure of crime and corruption can cause them to be fired from their jobs, face legal charges in a biased court, or suffer physical violence.
Some remarkably brave individual Bulgarian journalists have taken the risk of reporting the truth about government corruption and major crime, but several of these honest national and local journalists have been threatened and attacked.
The result of the suppression of the independent press in Bulgaria has distorted the media sector, eroded public trust in the press, and produced a national political environment with little government or criminal accountability and no serious opposition to challenge the current government.
The decline in press freedom in Bulgaria is well documented by Reporters Without Borders, the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom and other media watchdogs. But serious international or domestic political pressure on the Bulgarian government to improve freedom of the press has failed to improve the situation.
When Donald Trump uses the power of his presidential platform to attack and demean the professional, independent press for questioning government decisions and exposing the truth about the corruption and the failures of his erratic government, he is essentially engaging in press intimidation tactics similar to some of those employed in Bulgaria and Russia. Likewise, when the U.S. attorney general becomes a political operative protecting the president from legal jeopardy, the rule of law in the U.S. is in jeopardy. When senior members of Congress and national broadcast networks become unquestioning defenders of the president and foster conspiracy theories over the search for facts, the public interest in truth is not being served.
Bulgaria, along with several other nations that aspire to full democracy, are examples of what can happen when programs to compromise an independent and intrusive press are successful. Press freedom in the U.S. is yet to decline to this level, but no thanks to Donald J. Trump, who would seem to prefer a more Bulgarian model.
James W. Pardew is a former U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria and career Army intelligence officer. He has served as deputy assistant secretary-general of NATO and is the author of “Peacemakers: American Leadership and the End of Genocide in the Balkans.”