Attempt to Shutter Bulgaria's TV7 Exposes Darker Side of State and Society

Novinite Insider |Author: Angel Petrov | April 29, 2015, Wednesday // 23:23|  views

What just happened in a nutshell:

A bailiff entered on Wednesday the private national channel TV7 to seize equipment, including the station’s server. It later turned out that she had been instructed to take away the server, to make sure the TV channels (News7 and TV7) were switched off. Interfering in broadcasts, disrupting anything that was on air at the moment, more than a hundred police officers were dispatched to make sure that the bailiff would be able to carry out her duties.

Those who made their way into TV7's headquarters explained their own activities with "a case of litigation": assignees of collapsed Corporate Commercial Bank (Corpbank or KTB), appointed by the Bulgarian Deposits Insurance Fund (DIF) after a court declared Corpbank insolvent, later said the aim had been "to encash KTB's assets". Even Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, who ordered the multitude of police officers to leave TV7, warned journalists and institutions against meddling in a "trade dispute".

But TV7 journalists say their media outlet, which is by no means the biggest debtor of Corpbank, actually wanted to pay back, and KTB did not allow that.

"I don't think it is about trade relations. A media outlet is not simply an enterprise" Georgi Lozanov, who chairs the Council for Electronic Media (CEM), a national regulator of broadcast media, opined.

A number of politicians, not just from the opposition but also to government allies of the main ruling conservative GERB party of PM Borisov, followed suit, condemning the development as an infringement on freedom of speech committed (as an MEP put it) by a handful of men "in tracksuits". Many (including authors on Novinite's Bulgarian-language version) voiced their indignation at the developments, rightly stating that breaking into an independent media outlet guarded by hundreds of police officers is outrageous in the 21st century, in a country that purports to be a democracy or at least to be doing its best to become one.

An infringement on freedom of speech or pointless grumble over the not-so-unexpected result of a litigation - which description works better for the shocking events at TV7?

Maybe a bit of both.

It can’t be about money. With just BGN 4 M owed to KTB, TV7 is even not among the big debtors, since there are companies whose loans surpass BGN 40 M - ten times as much. So why hasn't such a raid been carried out yet on them as well? Those speaking of "double standards" applied on behalf of the bailiff certainly have a point.

Speaking of the police presence: what is the explanation of sending there dozens of police cars carrying officers enough to bolster security measures ahead of a EU summit? For a simple "case of litigation", the number looks suspicious. TV7 employs some 350 people, which means there was roughly one police officer "against" two people.

And last but not least, orders: on whose instructions were those forces acting? Local police departments in the capital, if you ask the Interior Ministry – and their resignations followed hours after the events. Judging by the words of the respective minister, Rumyana Bachvarova, who arrived at TV7 to wind down tensions, she was not involved in the decision. But judging by the way the Interior Minister is working under GERB, such a large-scale operation (the kind which was used under Borisov's first term in 2009-2013 to crack down on organized criminal gangs) no police department chief would embark on a similar step without (at least) the knowledge of the minister - and the Prime Minister if possible. However, if neither knew - which might be the case - someone must have made a special request at the respective police department.

So even without exploring relations within the state and among political and business elites, what happened on Wednesday certainly constitutes a gross violation and will taint the not-so-well-reputed government's image – and, unfortunately, it will harm Bulgaria as well.

But this dark episode also brings other questions onto the surface.

These are going beyond the infringement on the media (possibly assisted, at least in a tacit manner, by the cabinet) and on freedom of speech, something alarming across media outlets and journalist associations, but also of concern for most of us at Novinite (most, because everyone has the right to their own opinion after all).

TV7's record is not impeccable. Professionalism has been far more visible there in the past year, after a long stretch of time when it was dominated by now-MEP Nikolay Barekov and therefore offered highly politicized content. But since the controversial "Kostinbrod affair", when TV7 was at the forefront of allegations that Borisov's party might have printed hundreds of thousands of fake ballots just a day before early elections, had left its image tarnished for many viewers seeking credibility. It still raises one's eyebrows to see a chief prosecutor appearing live on TV7's air to submit a de-facto indictment in the reflections day. At that time, it might have been TV7 that had problems with freedom of speech. One shouldn't take for granted that struggling media outlets are necessarily "guardians of truth" - or that they have always been.

Though there is no sign of such dubious practices presently, others have appeared, namely occasional exaggeration in news bulletins. Now, a myriad of journalists, politicians and "experts", many of which have been critical of TV7's coverage on various issues before (and even ones who feel openly insulted by the way it reports some stories) are working to turn employees of the station into martyrs and to portray Wednesday’s events as “a burial of freedom of speech”. TV7 aired the developments for hours, and undoubtedly showed a professional, cold-blooded attitude to what was taking place in its offices; but one cannot help the feeling of watching reality TV. Except for the disturbing presence of police forces all across the headquarters, nothing happened for most of the time.

All those opponents-turned-defenders might be forgetting (or turning a blind eye on the fact) that Wednesday’s huge blunder (and shame) is not just the outcome of an epic battle between a private TV channel and the state.

It is a result of other problems, such as the KTB debacle, which now provides an excuse for authorities to commit (or just allow) almost any kind of gross violation, after already having acted inadequately for almost a year. Whether it has to do with recent rumors of a forthcoming, and controversial, ownership changes at the channel, we are yet to see in the next week which the bank’s assignees granted to TV7 on Wednesday evening to foot the bill. If the media outlet indeed has the money as it claims, the bank will have to accept it. If not, other options will have to be put on the table.

In short, what happened at TV7 on Wednesday was quite appalling, but not quite unexpected.

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Tags: TV7, Boyko Borisov, Rumyana Bachvarova, KTB, assignees

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