2021 witnessed the end of the 12-year term of Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, raising hopes for greater media independence in Bulgaria. But his legacy persists, and the accelerating economic downturn linked to the war in Ukraine heralds a challenging time for the media.
The first of three elections in 2021 ended the rule of former bodyguard Boyko Borisov’s centre-right party in April while the third, in November, saw centrist Kiril Petkov’s ‘We Continue the Change’ party come to power. His promise of ‘zero corruption’ in a country ranked one of the lowest in Europe in the main indices for press freedom and transparency has fuelled hopes of change. One optimistic sign was when Delian Peevski, the oligarch and former media mogul long considered one of the greatest threats to media freedom in Bulgaria, was sanctioned for corruption by the US Department of Treasury in June 2021.1 But Borisov makes no secret of his desire to return to power, and his legacy seems to hang over the Bulgarian media.
Only 15% of people in our survey thought the Bulgarian media sector is currently free from undue influence from business or politics, in part because behaviours learned in the Borisov era persist. The public broadcaster Bulgarian National Television (BNT), which was for years seen as a mouthpiece for Prime Minister Borisov, responded to the change in government by switching allegiance overnight. It even changed its schedule recently to remove a documentary because of fears it might hamper bilateral talks between Bulgaria and North Macedonia.
Behaviour of that kind by private companies seems more surprising. When Nova (1st in our offline list) and BTV were bought in recent years by media groups outside Bulgaria there were hopes this might aid independence. With Nova this has largely been the case. But many other media still seem to focus more on their own connections with political power than on watchdog journalism holding power to account. The result is that they provide the new government with practically unlimited airtime and seem, on occasions, to act like government communication platforms. BTV set a new record when it did 1:1 interviews with the Prime Minister, the Minister of Finance (twice), and two other ministers in just the first fortnight of March 2022.
The economic fragility of the sector may explain the desire of all media owners to stay close to power. The country has the lowest GDP per capita in the European Union and a small and crowded advertising market. While the economy withstood the two years of COVID relatively well, the latest crisis of inflation, frozen public investments, and disruption from the war in Ukraine has affected the media sector badly. The impact is most visible in the decreased amount of prime-time advertising on the main TV channels compared to autumn 2021. In print some publications are preparing for paper shortages and responding by going online-only and a few introduced redundancies and pay cuts. Two newspapers closed.
Most media companies are strengthening their online offer, including increasing the frequency of news updates, expanding their social media presence and moving into podcasts. Podcasts can reach very large audiences, with some funded by advertising or sponsorship, but many rely on direct payment through the crowdfunding/donation platform Patreon. A new online format can also present an opportunity to start with a clean slate in the battle for credibility with an often-sceptical audience. The daily newspapers (now largely online) Sega and Dnevnik, the Bulgarian Telegraph Agency, and others have all invested in studios, cameramen, and other resources for video broadcasts. People joke in the sector that it is more profitable to launch a video or audio podcast than start a new media company and outlets have struggled to find technicians not already taken by podcasters and social media influencers.
This year’s survey shows 12% paying for news online – down by three percentage points. This may reflect pressure on household budgets but also the unusual position of TV7/8 which was credited with helping drive subscriptions by offering subscriptions to its ad-free web and TV content for under $2 a month. But after its founder – the comedian and talk show host Stanislav Trifonov – took his party into Parliament, growth halted, due to fears it would become another media outlet used to serve political goals or simply be neglected due to his inability to dedicate the time and funds required.
Business journalist and former Reuters Institute Journalist Fellow
Online remains the leading news source and TV and print’s decline continues. The second broadcast brand (BTV) has displaced Nova as the leading source for news online. This may be because BTV offers easier access to video content with less intrusive advertising.
Pay for online news
Trust in news overall
Trust in news I use
Bulgaria continues to have low trust in the media even if this year has seen a slight increase. However, all the top brands (except the 3rd-ranked Darik Radio newly introduced this year) have suffered a loss of trust this year.