Free speech in Bulgaria held captive by Prokopiev and RSF

The country’s ranking is dictated by the oligarch and his people

Free speech in Bulgaria is held captive by an indicted oligarch and publisher. This might sound as an exaggeration, but it is decidedly not one. It is the harsh reality, unmasked by the history of the country’s ranking in the so-called World Press Freedom Index annually compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF)

The index section dedicated to Bulgaria is based on a survey of about ten people, who are part of the indicted oligarch Ivo Prokopiev’s mainstream media machine. As a result, every time the crime boss is incriminated in some scheme or other, his business is struggling or some public institution makes an effort to punish him for his crimes, the RSF pushes Bulgaria further down its rankings.

The epitome of this symbiotic relationship between the France-based NGO, on the one hand, and the Capital circle and its mainstream media machine, on the other, was exposed on Friday when the organisation sent out a veritable avalanche of tweets in service of the crime boss’s interests. This burst of activity was sparked by a Thursday statement by the Anti-Corruption Commission for Illegal Assets Forfeiture (ACCIAF) that it had filed another forfeiture claim against Ivo Prokopiev and his wife, Galya, this one concerning cash and shares to the tune of nearly half a million levs.

The RSF responded with a flurry of tweets, spreading not one but two pieces of fake news formulated by the behind-the-scenes clique in Bulgaria. In one of its tweets, the NGO wrote that it “denounces the increasing political pressure against the main independent media group @economediabg, publisher of @CapitalBg and @dnevnik”, presenting Galya Prokopieva as chief executive officer of Economedia while Ivo Prokopiev as the group’s founder.

In a subsequent tweet, the organisation perpetuated the obvious and swiftly disproven lie that the European Commission has decided to leave the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism for Bulgaria in place: “RSF welcomes the news that @EU_Commission will continue the monitoring mechanism of Bulgaria.”

The entire episode serves as the latest proof that the NGO is an instrument in the hands of Prokopiev and that, despite its stated mission to protect free speech, the RSF does not value the truth, but instead serves the personals interests of indicted individuals who are fighting tooth and nail to avoid retribution for their crimes in the court of law. In its original statement, the ACCIAF explicitly writes that “no claims or other legal actions concerning the publishing business of Ivo Prokopiev and Galya Prokopieva or property owned by Economedia have been taken in either of the legal procedures against the couple”, referring also to the first assets forfeiture claim, which was to the tune of almost BGN 200m.

The RSF is clearly less interested in reading official statements than in listening to and parroting what Prokopiev and his shadowy cronies have to say. This fact was also made evident by the monitoring mechanism tweet, which perpetuated an assertion immediately rejected by the European Commission itself through Valdis Dombrovskis, commissioner for An Economy that Works for People.

But when did this symbiotic relationship, so well encapsulated by the RSF tweets, actually start? Back at the beginning of the century, when in 2002 Reporters Without Borders launched the annual World Press Freedom Index (the ranking keeps its original name to this day, even though in its section on Bulgaria it exclusively reflects the interests and opinions of publishers who primarily own online outlets – editor’s note).

Technically, the official website of the organisation outlines the methodology used in making the index, but one of the biggest, well-kept secrets of the RSF is the number of people it surveys and whether the index is even representative. These are questions being asked not only by the publications part of Telegraph Media, but by representatives of the rest of the Bulgarian media outlets that follow the principles of quality journalism and have been combating fake news for years and whom the RSF avoids like the plague.

The reason behind this game of hide-and-seek was exposed during a conversation that Telegraph Media recently had with RSF President Pierre Haski. With the qualification that he is not involved in the day-to-day running of the RSF, Haski admitted that the questionnaires are filled in by about ten people in the respective country, with only some of them journalists – the rest being media experts.

The surveys are also not meant to be representative of the media industry. Considering that according to the National Statistical Institute’s data there are over 230 print media outlets in Bulgaria and more than 10,000 people employed in the media industry, the RSF method would mean that the country’s ranking and annual defaming can be directly traced to people who represent roughly 0.1% of the industry. It is not hard to figure out who they are, given that, according to Haski, the people filling in the questionnaires about Bulgaria are selected by Pauline Ades-Mevel, head of the RSF’s Eastern Europe and Balkans desk. Ades-Mevel has attended every single event organised by the indicted oligarch and publisher Ivo Prokopiev.

The impact that this symbiosis between the NGO and the oligarchic publishers in Bulgaria, and more specifically Prokopiev, has had over the years can be easily observed. For example, the country’s first big slide down the rankings was in the 2010-2011 period. From 70th in one year the country plummeted to 80th in the next. The organisation did not provide a sensible explanation for the drop. But the timing coincided with the fact that in 2011 Ivo Prokopiev was forced to flee to Singapore because of tens of millions of levs in debt.

He tried to make himself out to be the victim by claiming he fled the country because both his life and business were in danger. Sounds familiar to you? Of course it does, it is the same mantra he would use over the ensuing years, even after his return to Bulgaria, and it would be diligently repeated not only by his own publications, but by his mouthpieces and all the cogs in the mainstream media machine built by the Capital circle to manipulate society and exert pressure on public institutions.

From that point on, the country would continue to fall in the rankings, with the next big drop coming in 2016 – to 113th from 106th the previous year. That ranking came out mere months after Hristo Ivanov, one of the main pawns of Prokopiev and the oligarchy in the executive branch of government, was forced to resign as minister of justice after in December 2015 the parliament foiled his attempt to put a muzzle on the Prosecutor’s Office by drastically reducing the number of its representatives on the Supreme Judicial Council, something the oligarchs dearly wanted.

The general sense that the RSF index and Bulgaria’s plummeting rating are nothing but punitive actions was only strengthened in the following years. In 2017, the country crept up a bit to the 109th spot on the index – presumably because Prokopiev felt hope that he would avoid retribution in the aftermath of snap general elections (the rankings came out in the middle of the election campaign and the structuring of the next parliament and government).

His hopes were dashed by the Bulgarian voters, who kept Yes, Bulgaria – the politically engineered party of the oligarchy – led by Hristo Ivanov, well below the percentage threshold for entering parliament. And so in 2018 Bulgaria slid back down to the 111th spot, which it has been occupying for the past three years. If you are wondering about the reason, the explanation is simple – the move neatly follows charges brought against Prokopiev at the end of 2017.

Similarly, the reasons why the RSF started spewing lies about Delyan Peevski can be easily traced. The name of lawmaker and Telegraph Media publisher first appeared in the documents of the French-based NGO in 2014. That is the year that the CorpBank scandal erupted and the outlets part of Telegraph Media started what would become a series of investigations exposing the ways in which another indicted oligarch, Tsvetan Vassilev, syphoned off billions of levs from the lender whose failure he engineered. In the ensuing months, Peevski introduced a number of legislative initiatives – some aimed at stopping the secondary plundering of CorpBank, while others at shining light on the real owners and financing sources of all media outlets in the country, including online. This is hardly a coincidence. Just as it is no coincidence that all the lies about Peevski that are being parroted by the RSF without a hint of evidence or facts are actually talking points formulated by Prokopiev, the Capital circle and the rest of the indicted and charged oligarchs trying to escape retribution for their schemes and crimes.

 

The boss has caught in his cobweb the national public radio as well

The mainstream of the indicted oligarch Ivo Prokopiev has spread its tentacles across the public Bulgarian National Radio which took the liberty of making a blatant manipulation to its own benefit. On Saturday, one of the programmes of the Network allotted half an hour for interviewing Bulgarian journalists and teachers working abroad on the following theme: “Who needs the Reporters without Borders?” The absurd answer has transpired from almost all of the interviews – neither in the US nor in the UK, Italy and Germany no one shows interest in the World Press Freedom Index. In Romania they consider it absolutely non-representative because it ranks the country on the 48th position despite the fact that almost all of the journalists there were employed on fixed-time contracts which made them heavily dependent and insecure. This problem does not exist in Bulgaria although our country is 60 points below. The purpose of the programme actually transpires at the end of it when the host releases an interview with Pauline Ades-Mevel, the RSF person in charge of Bulgaria, in which she for yet another time reiterates the lies of Prokopiev who claims that Delyan Peevski holds a share in the media distribution in Bulgaria as well as that it was not clear how many media outlets he owns. This is fake news, all of it, disproved dozens of times with facts which clearly show that Peevski has never had anything in common with the distribution and the media outlets he owns are exactly six newspapers. In this case the absurdity lies in the fact that the interview was recorded in 2019 which the host of the programme mentions but it is not mentioned on the page of the Bulgarian National Radio where the libelous statements of Ms Ades-Mevel are reproduced word-for-word. There is one more fact omitted on the site which betrays the real purpose of the programme – the host makes use of the public radio’s air to parrot the tweets released by the Reporters without Borders to the advantage of Economedia and its publisher Ivo Prokopiev making a blatant manipulation to the benefit of the oligarch.

 

 

Ms Ades-Mevel was an indifferent witness of censorship on the part of the oligarchic publishers

Pauline Ades-Mevel won fame in Bulgaria in the beginning of 2018 when she was a VIP guest at a roundtable organised by oligarchic publishers in Bulgaria – indicted Ivo Prokopiev and Ognyan Donev and their henchman Sasho Donchev dedicated to the so-called Media Freedom White Paper. However, to the discussion advertised as “a meeting in the name of freedom of speech” were allowed only representatives of the media outlets which are part of the mainstream sustained by Prokopiev & Co. The representatives of the media which are not part of the behind-the-scenes clique were brutally rushed out from the hall - an outrageous example of censorship to which Ms Ades-Mevel was a witness. She, however, did not interfere and, despite an avalanche of protesting letters following the incident the RSF did not take a stand either. This example shows whose interests this NGO represents and apparently these are not the interests of high-quality journalism and the media upholding the principles of fair journalism and freedom of speech in Bulgaria. During the following months and years Ms Ades-Mevel was a frequent guest at every event organised by the oligarchic publishers in Bulgaria and abroad while at the same time she avoided meetings with the other media in Bulgaria. She turned down the invitations of Telegraph Media for broad discussion of the ways they use for compiling their rankings and refused to answer our questions. Nevertheless, we will not tire asking them:

- Why the Reporters without Borders put Bulgaria on the 111th position, the lowest among the EU and Balkan countries given the fact that another media freedom watchdog– Freedom House – in its rankings places our country above a number of other EU Member States?

- Isn’t this difference explained by the fact that the polls of the Reporters without Borders are filled in by barely ten people selected absolutely un-transparently?

- Why the organisation is spreading open lies not grounded in any facts generated by the indicted oligarch?

- Why the organisation shuts its eyes to the blatant examples of censorship and violation of freedom of speech? Such as, for instance, the fact that journalists were rushed out from the roundtable discussion or the decision of Sofia Regional Prosecutor’s Office to revoke the trademark of Telegraph, the highest-circulation newspaper in Bulgaria?

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