A bomb attack against one of the country’s leading crime reporters last week caused outcry from media, politicians and ordinary Bulgarians. It will also likely impact the country’s record when it comes to its likelihood of EU accession at the end of this year, coming as it does amidst growing concern over organised crime in Sofia.
The bomb, which exploded in an apartment block in the capital, was likely intended to kill Bulgarian television crime reporter Vassil Ivanov. The half-kilogram device was detonated around 3.00 am on April 6, but did not injure Ivanov, who was away at the time, or his mother and sister who were sleeping inside at the time of the attack.
“This is not a threat, this is an attempt on my life,” Ivanov told the press. “The assassination attempt threatened the life of more than 20 people, who are my neighbours,” he added. “My family was inside and it’s a wonder nobody was injured.”
The bomb, which was placed in front of Ivanov’s door on the seventh floor of his Banishora district apartment building, destroyed much of the residence, blew out the windows of the entire residential block and damaged more than 15 parked cars in the street below.
As an investigative journalist for Bulgaria’s Nova TV, Ivanov has reported on a number of topics linked to organised crime and corruption.
In the past, he has reported on high-profile stories including alleged human rights violations and abuse of inmates at a central Sofia prison. He also recently filed an investigative piece on a corrupt notary who allegedly illegally sold the titles to the cars of the president and the country’s ex-chief prosecutor.
Local and international journalists and politicians were quick to denounce the attack as not just an attempt on Ivanov’s life, but an attempt to intimidate the media into silence.
Interior Minister Rumen Petkov told parliament that the bomb was an attack on the media and journalists, in particular those who shed light on wrongdoings by certain individuals or institutions.
Meanwhile, in an open letter to Petkov and Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev, the Vienna-based South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO) – a network of editors, media executives and leading journalists from south-east Europe affiliated with the International Press Institute (IPI) – urged the ministers to do everything in their power to prevent such cases from happening in the future and to secure safe working conditions for journalists.
SEEMO also strongly condemned the bomb attack, stating in the letter that it was a clear attempt to kill the journalist and his family and urged that “journalists should be able to work freely, without their life being threatened due to their reporting …in an open media environment allowing for the free flow of information, which is a fundamental principle of any democratic society.”
The attack on Ivanov and the Bulgarian media comes at a time when the country’s press corps has been struggling to push through measures to ensure its objectivity and credibility, shore up negative public perceptions of the press and put an end to “yellow” journalism and counterproductive self-censorship. Last year was the first full year in which journalists operated under the newly minted Code of Journalism Ethics, which was created in November 2004.
Yet despite the code, the 2005 Media Sustainability Index (MSI) scored the quality of journalism in Bulgaria lower as a whole than it had been in previous years.
According to the MSI, which rates different categories of media on a scale of 1 to 5, gains were made in free speech (2.02 to 2.46) and supporting institutions (2.90 to 2.99) from 2004 to 2005. But the index declined in the areas of professional journalism (2.56 to 2.09), plurality of news sources (2.50 to 2.47) and business management (2.82 to 2.59).
Scores in the 0-1 range indicate current media conditions are unsustainable and anti-free press, 1-2 indicate an unsustainable mixed system, 2-3 indicate near sustainability, and 3-4 indicate sustainability.
The harshest criticisms of the report were levelled at the professional journalism category for the continuing practice of self-censorship by both reporters and editors. Difficulty in gaining access to certain events by regional media contributed to a lesser extent the to decline in score.
“Journalism is failing,” Vessela Tabakova, a professor at Sofia University and head of the Centre for Independent Journalism, stated in the report. “There are symptoms of censorship. Self-censorship is omnipresent.”
The category with the second largest drop in the report was business management, which on the whole has been generally well-regarded – although the 2005 electoral campaign indicated that some media outlets were susceptible to PR campaigns by well-funded candidates.
The impact the bombing will have on the media has yet to be assessed, although Ivanov has publicly stated that the unsettling event has not shaken his resolve to continue his profession and indicated that he would continue to cover themes linked to corruption and organised crime.