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Are Bulgarian Media Up-to-Date? The Students’ “March for Justice” on the 10th of November, 2013 and its Representation in the Bulgarian Press and Television.

martin marinosOn the 10th of November of 2013, the movement of the Early Rising Students embarked on a “March for Justice” in the capital of Bulgaria, Sofia. Since the 24th of October the students of Sofia University occupied first the main auditorium and gradually the entire school. A few days before November 10th, they decided that on that date they will take the occupation beyond the university’s gates. The choice of this date coincided with the 24th anniversary of the fall of the communist regime in Bulgaria. For the most part the Bulgarian media found the student’s march important and even presented it as top news. However, in this piece I argue that Bulgarian media completely failed to understand the event. I believe that the “March for Justice” and the occupation shows signs of potential articulation of demands and a utopia unseen in the previous 24 years. But instead the media locked the event into two already existing rigid frames. The first one is the liberal, anticommunist discourse of the 1990s and the second, even shallower discourse, sought to represent the students simply as vandals, drunks and pot smokers. In this way, both of these views failed to see the significant difference between the student occupation and the march on one hand and the summer protests that began five months ago on the other hand.

IMG_1143It is true that both the protests and the occupation share the call for resignation of the government, but at the same time the occupation (at this point) follows a much more supple line of arguments that differs from the rigid anticommunist language of the summer protests. Nevertheless the media connected this event completely with the date 10th of November 1989 and represented it as some kind of celebration of the fall of communism, while reducing the social demands of the students solely to the call for resignation. Additionally, both of these takes on the student strike engaged in an extremely gerontocratic attitude towards the students that reflected the patriarchal nature of Bulgarian society.

IMG_1188First of all, it is important to note that what happens in the university itself and during the march for justice is very complex. The processes inside the occupation develop very fast and the students themselves have very diverse political and social experiences. This factors resist rigid summaries of the identity of the students as “leftists,” “right-wingers,” “nationalists,” “liberals,” or “anticommunists.” In fact every attempt to reduce them to a single category is bound to ignore many of the ongoing discourses. But that’s exactly what the Bulgarian media did both in the coverage of the march during the evening news on the 10th and in the press coverage on the next day. The nuances of this multilayered event completely escaped the media.

“Student march for justice. 10th of November, 24 years later…Of course the date 10th of November is not chosen randomly.” This is how the central news broadcast of the Bulgarian National Television (BNT) began. The journalists announced that the students want resignation and in this they are supported by some of their professors. The second news was about a “rally/concert” under the slogan “Raise your Eyes,” which “gathered several generations of artists and musicians in front of the Alxander Nevski Cathedral in Sofia. They supported the students and everybody who wants to stop the pseudo-transition, the guilty to go where they deserve to be, to hold new elections and to have morality in politics.” While this narrative flowed, the BNT showed the image of a sixty-year old man holding a poster of a prisoner behind bars, who besides a shirt in stripes had a red star on his forehead. Naturally this image framed who “the guilty” really are. The people from this “several generations” who according to BNT supported the Bulgarian students were artists and singers in their fifties who were deeply nostalgic for the 1990s. Following the coverage of the concert was announcement that “today is the anniversary of the historic date of 10th of November 1989, the date on which 24 years ago Todor Zhivkov was relieved from his position as a General Secretary of the Bulgarian Communist Party.” It is hard not to notice the chronological arrangement of the news and their collapsing into one single story. First, the students are protesting this day (the 10th), a date not randomly chosen. Second, they are supported by the aging liberals, nostalgic for the 1990s. And third, let’s not forget the beginning of this single and of course unfinished story—the fall of Zhivkov from power.

BTV, Bulgaria’s major private channel, also began its news broadcast with the news about the march and also framed the protest in the past. “Thousands protesting on the day on which 24 years ago the transition began.” Once again, their demands were reduced to the call for resignation. After its coverage from the studio, BTV not only followed the news with the nostalgic concert, but completely merged it with the march. A reporter spoke directly from the concert about the events of the day while one could hear songs from the early 1990s in the background. The private channel also did not fail to mention that at the march were “their teachers and many other people who remember the beginning of the transition, and today they demand change again.”

The other major private television channel, Nova Television, also framed the march in the narrative of November 10, 1989 and declared that the student’s march “marked the 24th anniversary of the beginning of the transition.” The television station also argued that the sole purpose of the march is the call for resignation and also reported about the events from the 1990s concert. But without intention, Nova Television’s coverage was the most authentic one because the reporter declared that during the concert, “the most emotions were stirred by the artists who were at the frontline of the movement for change in the 1990s, and were trying to bring back precisely the spirit from the years of democratic changes.” She listed a number of songs from the early 1990s that most of the students have never heard of. Similarly to the other television stations, Nova Television, noted the presence of professors with whom the students “celebrated the end of the communist regime and the beginning of the transition.” “We started a revolution on the 10th of November 1989, which stopped half the way. Now it is time for us to finish it,” said in front of the camera one of the professors. After this, the news broadcast returned to the nostalgic concert where it included an interview with one of the emblems of the opposition from the 1990s, the rock singer Vasko Krypkata, who proudly exclaimed “whoever does not participate collaborates. I will say that I believe that if one has not participated during their lifetime in the toppling of at least one communist government, their life was a waste.”

One of the national television channels that presented the rally in a different light than the other three was the private channel TV7. It claimed that the rally was full of violence: “Blocked intersections, burnt placards with the face of prime minister Plamen Oresharski and an attempt to remove the fences around the Parliament. This is the outcome of today’s protest.”

In the press, the event was also framed within old discourses without any attempt to understand the nuances of this movement. Similarly to TV7, Telegraf, the most read newspaper in Bulgaria, (mis)represented the march and declared on its front page, “Vandals stormed the parliament with water bombs. They paralyzed Sofia in its entirety, broke billboards and smoked joints.” On page two it continued its negative reports and on page three it featured the naked girl of the day who “loves the autumn, because its colors bring to her some warmth.” The “righteous newspaper” Pressa, made even stranger analysis than Telegraf, when it exclaimed that the burning of placards of Plamen Oresharski reminded of the times, “when democrats burnt The Fascism the book of their leader, Zheliyu Zhelev and even of earlier times when the autodafe was a favorite activity of the crowd.”

24 Chasa, another popular Bulgarian newspaper, covered the march only on page five and similarly connected the event solely to the events of 1989, while only mentioning the call for resignation. The newspaper even included a small and entertaining, but perfectly fitting the anticommunist discourse detail. An older man pasted a note on the Italian embassy, located near the parliament, that said, “Italy your mafia can learn a lot from our red mafia.” The other major newspaper, Trud, also commented on the protest (dryly), describing it as “dedicated to the 10th of November 1989,” and chose “Resign!” “Red garbage,” and “Freedom” as representative anecdotes of the rally. The most unscrupulous newspaper was Capital which declared that “The demands are the same as those of the protestors from the last 150 days—resignation of the government and immediate elections.”

What becomes clear in this short analysis of the coverage of the march in some of the major traditional media is its framing into already existing discourses. One of the dominant discourses represents the strike as a continuation of the deed which began in 1989, that is the complete riddance of the communist regime against which the 1990s liberals fought and the students today simply continue the struggle. In this narrative the summer protests and the student’s occupation have one single demand: riddance of the “communists.” In the other dominant discourse the students are represented as a part of the summer protests as well, but in negative light—as “vandals,” “drunks,” and “addicts.” Both discourses show not only absence of a will to investigate the event in depth rather than automatically situating it in already existing forms, but it also brings forth the failure of journalists and commentators to imagine that in Bulgaria there are people who believe that another world is possible.

But after all, is the choice of 10th of November, 1989 randomly chosen? Isn’t resignation of the government a major demand? And aren’t there some students prone to more radical acts? The choice of the 10th of November is not random, and in fact the date marks the beginning of a period that a few people would describe as “successful.” The call for resignation of the government and its head Plamen Oresharski, the former deputy finance minister of the “dark-blue,” anticommunist government of Ivan Kostov and current prime minister with the mandate of the Bulgarian Socialist Party and the Movement of Rights and Freedom as well as Ataka, is a major demand. It is also true that some students support more radical action—for instance the burning of billboards of Ataka’s television network Alfa. But this action of the students pales in comparison with Ataka’s decision to attack a mosque, beat worshipers and burn prayer mats in the heart of Sofia two years ago. But these positions of the media are highly insufficient to describe a very complex and dynamic political movement.

There are many facts that are easy to access and check that demonstrate the insufficient portrayal of the events in the media. For instance a brief look at the widely circulated call for the march on the 10th of November 2013 does not contain even one word about the 10th of November, 1989 or about “communism.” Absent are any words from the liberal discourse such as “decommunization,” “democratization” or any of the common calls for Bulgarians to become “civilized,” “white people” or to finally follow the path to “Euro-Atlantic values”.

It becomes clear that behind this text there was a serious intellectual labor that does not reproduce the postsocialist clichés. Behind it was a subject, which does not expect the coming of yet another messiah or that does not expect external support (notable is the absence of any EU flags or slogans in English that appeal to “Europe” or the US to save us poor folks from our politicians). On the contrary, the students very well understand what expects them and what they are fighting against. “We come out now, before the hunger arrives and the electricity is out.” Their demands are smart and deeply connected to what takes place today. “We come out to resist unemployment and poverty…we come out so we don’t have to emigrate…we come out so we overthrow this educational system which makes us slaves, but not free…we come out before we turn into highly qualified beggars…we come out because it is unjust for the salaries and pensions to be smaller than what the political and economic top layer spends for one lunch.” And in a direct text the students respond to the constant attempts to be interpollated by the (neo)liberal status quo. “In defiance of the popular opinion, we are not finishing a deed that has already been started. On the contrary we are starting something new. We not only have memory, we have a vision”. It is unlikely that one can put it more clearly, but the Bulgarian media simply did not refer to this central text.

And it is true that the students have built a radically democratic space which does not exist anywhere else in Bulgaria. In the words of one of the orators from the protest, Ivaylo Dinev, the movement has built, “an independent territory in the university, with its own rules, checkpoint, guards, headquarters and workshop units”.

Discussion, debates, self-discipline reaching puritan proportions moves the movement ahead. Maybe precisely this experimentation helps them write a remarkable declaration for their vision of an educational system. At this point, there is hardly anybody in Bulgaria that has not heard the term “morality in politics”. But their use of the expression is explained in a very concrete way. “But what is morality in politics? For us the new moral does not mean the replacement of one ruler with a better one. It means empowerment of the citizens themselves through enlightenment. There cannot be new politics without politically educated and independent citizens.” In addition to “morality in politics” they define very well another phrase that is used and abused very much in the last twenty-four years—civil society. “However, the demand for a real, adequate, awake and critical civil society, requires a fundamentally different educational system which does not educate subjects, conformists, or ruthless careerists…education should be emancipating and should help us develop analytical apparatus, who makes us independent and critical and does not just supply us with skills adapted for the short-term needs of the labor market.”

In this text one witnesses a clear attempt at critical thinking (it is not a coincidence that “criticism” is encountered eight times in the short declaration for education), which goes beyond the borders of what Bulgarians are used to in the last quarter of a century. Additionally, during the “march for justice” there were slogans that certainly made many anticommunists uncomfortable and perhaps that’s why they were ignored in the media. This is why not even one television news broadcast or newspaper showed a large sign that was situated immediately to the right of the speakers and later was carried in the front of the march, with the slogan “We do not recognize your transition. We do not recognize your authority. We do not recognize your property.” Similarly the coverage of an “enlightenment shield” of signboards with the names of Bulgarian leftist authors, such as Hristo Smirnenski, Nikola Vapzarov and Geo Milev was also sparse.

All this should not prompt us to conclude that this is a fundamentally leftist protest, but simply that this was not a “nostalgic for the 1990s” rally that “continues” what was started in 1989. After all, a girl who carries a signboard with the name of Geo Milev and the title of his poem “September” (for which he was arrested in 1924 and later “disappeared”) is impossible to be seen at a gathering of the Reformers Bloc (the remnants of the anticommunist movement from the 1990s). Some of the chants also showed a very complex picture. One of the most remarkable ones was a call for the “lustration of the transition”. This represented a disruption of the 1990s priority for exposure and denunciation of the former state security agents and its transformation into something more akin to a revision of the transition and the accumulation that took place after the restoration of capitalism. Another chant directly and consciously sabotaged one of the most popular street chants from the 1990s “Whoever does not jump is red” to “Whoever jumps is a student.” In addition among the speakers who were invited (and invited themselves) in Sofia University was a woman who participated in Occupy Miami as well as Yasuo Kobayashi a Japanese leftist intellectual. Hence, it should not surprise us that Daniel Kon-Bendit, one of the leaders of the French student occupations from 1968, known under his nickname Danny “The Red,” sent a congratulatory note to the “Early Rising Students” which was placed on their facebook page immediately. This and many other examples demonstrate that the picture has many more nuances than the one presented in the Bulgarian media. Thus it should not be a shock that a journalist from the British The Independent, entitled his article about the Sofia University occupation as “Students invoke the spirit of ’68 in their struggle against corruption.” Unfortunately in the Bulgarian media this type of comparisons is still unthinkable. For this reason the media linked the rally to the concert of those nostalgic for the 1990s. However, nobody mentioned this concert during the day. Information about it was absent either before or after the day and none of the 130 pictures from the day published on the page of the “Early Rising Students” included a picture from the concert. But for the traditional, most watched and most read media the connection to the two events was fundamental for their narrative of the day.

The discourse of the students as “vandals” does not deserve much discussion. However, one thing is important to mention. Students did their best to avoid violence.  In front of the headquarters of Ataka they created a cordon between the rally and the police in order to prevent escalation and they did the same in front of the parliament. There the situation deteriorated after Yolo Denev, also known as the “one man protest,” who screamed “Let’s topple this Turkish government” and broke the police cordon and then ran to the front door of the parliament. Denev is a man in his seventies, with clear psychological problems, who carried a slogan “stop the red mafia and prevent an ottoman slavery II.” After the police removed him, the situation deteriorated since many saw his fierce resistance against the cops as a sign of violence, but in the end nobody else crossed the fences. However, there was not even one media that decided not to cover the usual spectacle created by Denev.

But the analysis of the media coverage of the rally demonstrates not only the ideological discursive framing of the event but also it discovered a highly patriarchal attitude towards the students. Aaa media noted that their “professors” were also there. However, no media mentioned that a large number of the lecturers were quite unhappy with the occupation and the fact that they have to show their ID in order to enter. Is it hard to imagine that many of the professors are furious at this reversal of power relations? But what the focus on the professors demonstrated was the media and societal incapacity to realize that young people can act autonomously and collectively as one rational political subject. This is one example that shows the fact that Bulgarian media and society are very gerontocratically predisposed. All the media analyzed in this report treated the students as immature children who are held by the hand and led ahead either by their professors, or by the old liberals, or by Yolo Denev, etc., but never by their own convictions of today’s reality so clearly explained in their call for the “March for Justice.”

The most obvious example of this gerontocratic attitude was the evening news by BTV. The channel decided to finish its news broadcast with a report about a woman (or as they described her a “girl”) who is 24 years old from a remote provincial and impoverished town in Bulgaria. In this report, entitled “Peer of the Transition,” with a donkey grazing in the background the journalist declares: “with three earrings on one of her ears and a profile in the social media, Dinka has no idea what is a “Leninist Saturday”, “sanitary half-a-day” or a “brigade,” without a memory of the changes then, the girl cannot understand the protests today”. Dinka is skeptical about the protests and so are most people outside of Sofia. But the journalist finds the reason for this skepticism in her date of birth. To confirm this, the journalist asks “do you know who is Lenin,” but the girl cannot answer and this only confirms the journalist’s thesis. The argument of “you are too little (or to young) to know” is a fundamental part of this gerontocratic discourse. This attitude was present at the “rally for justice” as well. After the tensions in front of the parliament rose, two men around 50 years-old started to shake fiercely the fences around the parliament. Two students approached them and tried to prevent them from causing trouble, but the two reacted very aggressively and replied that “this thing works only with violence.” They also told the students that since they are “too young” they should not interfere in their business since the two of them know better because they have been fighting the communists since 1989. The students are constantly encountering this type of attitude. Older people (usually men) of all walks of life come to the main gate of the university to teach them what to do. For instance, on the day after the rally a man was telling passionately the two guards of the occupation that they don’t do things right and that what they should do is go at Bulgaria’s border with Turkey and block it so the Syrians stop entering. To this idiotic suggestion the student simply answered calmly “why don’t you go and shut it down yourself?”

In many similar situations we can see who is mature and who isn’t.

Few can predict how the occupation will continue. Will the students manage to withstand the attempts to be interpollated from all sides? But what one could see during the “march for justice” and during the days prior to it is the fact that students have an emancipating and utopian view. Their demands might be achieved one day or they might not. But what is certain is that their utopia has a better chance to be realized than the one of the older generation which believes that they can get on the time machine and go back to the 1990s. But the times have changed. After all what does Vasko Krupkata’s comment that “one’s life was a waste if he/she has not toppled at least one communist government” mean to a student in her early twenties who upon being asked where does the rally go from here responds: “somebody told me to the party headquarters but I have no idea what is this or where is it.” We can only wonder what happens from here, but the important thing is that this student occupation seems to have introduced new discourse into the public space, that breeds new ideas and sabotages old slogans. May be it is about time for the Bulgaria media to get in touch with the time.

By Martin Marinos

Martin Marinos is from Pernik, Bulgaria and a PhD student in the Department of Communication and Rhetoric at the University of Pittsburgh. He is active with the New Left Perspectives collective in Sofia.