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Free to Hate: How Media Liberalization Enabled Right-Wing Populism in Post-1989 Bulgaria (a book extract)

Free to Hate examines Bulgaria’s highly mediated populist right in light of the political and economic transformations of media institutions after 1989. The book highlights the negative effects of the abandonment of the cultural and educational features of socialist media and the complete shift toward entertainment and advertising in the 1990s. It also traces how the subjugation of state media to the new elites and the overhaul of the journalistic labor market secured the hegemony of anti-communism, which is the ideology that the populist right feeds on. A significant portion of Free to Hate examines the monopolization of the Bulgarian media market by the Western media giants WAZ and News Corporation, as it discusses the open colonization of Bulgarian media by individual capitalists who use it to denigrate one another. In sum, Free to Hate explains how these structural transformations of media institutions benefited the populist right and offers an inside view and in-depth analysis of the populist right’s own media outlets.

LeftEast is delighted to present the following excerpt of Martin Marinos’ crucial new book on the political economy of Bulgarian media. The whole book could be found in your library or on the University of Illinois Press site.

PREFACE

The study of contemporary populism emerged fifty years ago. Prior to that time the term designated two concrete movements of the late 19th century: the U.S. People’s Party, also known as the Populist Party, and the Russian anti-tsarist Narodniks. In contrast, populism today is a label applied to a much wider array of disparate phenomena. There seem to be as many definitions of populism as there are books on the subject; and no consensus on the common features populists share and who precisely fits the label. Is populism good for democracy or is it authoritarian? Is populism left-wing or right-wing, or something in between? 

Free to Hate offers a media-centered analysis that situates the rise of right-wing populism in the broader historical transformations of media institutions. Specifically, through a focus on Bulgaria, this book explores populism in light of the radical post-socialist transformation of media ownership and practices. I argue that right-wing populism adapts easily to and benefits greatly from the structural turn in media industries toward commercialization, corporatization, monopolization, and tabloidization. Thus, Free to Hate’s main contribution is its interrogation of the strong affinity between contemporary mass media and populism, which surprisingly is an understudied area. Even though most scholars recognize the importance of this relationship, theoretical and empirical research on the subject is sorely lacking. Furthermore, in contrast to the oftentimes ahistorical and birds-eye view analyses of populism, I argue that an understanding of the relationship between media and populism must derive from a rigorous primary source research that accounts for the structural transformations of media industries over decades. Free to Hate is the fruition of precisely this type of robust research, as my multi-method approach engages archival sources, ethnographic observations and over eighty oral interviews with local journalists, politicians, and media experts.

Each chapter offers a comparative lens through which I look at similar developments beyond Bulgaria and the region. For example, the monopolization of the Bulgarian press by the German newspaper company WAZ and the domination of the television market by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. Nevertheless, the bulk of the research, including the archival work, ethnographic observations, and in-depth oral interviews, was conducted in Bulgaria. I argue that Bulgaria is an ideal, yet vastly underestimated place to study populism and media. Among the most frequently discussed factors behind the rise of right-wing populists are poverty and inequality, the growth of Islamophobia in a post 9/11 world, and demographic change. All of these issues are especially visible in Bulgaria, making it fertile ground for the study of right-wing populism.

The main focus of Free to Hate is the far-right movement Ataka (“Attack” in English). In 2005 it became the first post-socialist neo-fascist political party to enter the Bulgarian parliament. Ataka emerged as a low cost, reactionary cable television show of the same name in 2003 and metamorphosed into a political party in 2005. Quite literally, the journalists migrated from the TV screen into parliament.  The show’s anchor, Volen Siderov, became the leader of the party and stunned everybody by placing second in the presidential election in 2006, while still serving as anchor. In 2011 Ataka became the first Bulgarian political party to launch its own television channel. There is a revolving door between Ataka’s parliamentary group and its journalists. Several of its MPs, including its leader, are active television anchors and Siderov is also the editor of Ataka’s official newspaper. Since 2014 its media success has been emulated by two other extreme right formations that have entered parliament. One of them is the National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria (NFSB), whose slogan is “The Party of SKAT!” SKAT is a twenty-year-old cable television channel with a far-right agenda and its director is the leader of the party who until recently served as a Vice Prime Minister. The other right-wing populist party is Bulgaria without Censorship (BWC), another media project led by a famous Bulgarian television host who anchored the News Corporation-owned bTV morning show for years.

Free to Hate examines Bulgaria’s highly mediated populist right in light of the political and economic transformations of media institutions after 1989. The book highlights the negative effects of the abandonment of the cultural and educational features of socialist media and the complete shift toward entertainment and advertising in the 1990s. It also traces how the subjugation of state media to the new elites and the overhaul of the journalistic labor market secured the hegemony of anti-communism, which is the ideology that the populist right feeds on. A significant portion of Free to Hate examines the monopolization of the Bulgarian media market by the Western media giants WAZ and News Corporation, as it discusses the open colonization of Bulgarian media by individual capitalists who use it to denigrate one another. In sum, Free to Hate explains how these structural transformations of media institutions benefited the populist right and offers an inside view and in-depth analysis of the populist right’s own media outlets.

Fig. 0.2 “A billboard advertising Ataka’s television station, Alfa, featuring the slogan of the channel: “the television of truth” (Sofia, June 2014)

LABOR, MONEY, AND THE „POPULIST“ IN RIGHT-WING POPULIST MEDIA

There is a striking lack of research that explores the experiences of media professionals who work for populist right-wing media, because few academics seek direct access to these institutions and their workers. What motivates one to join such media, and are these journalists in any way unique? My first meeting with a media representative of a Far Right political party challenged my preconceptions about this segment of the profession and confirmed for me the importance of incorporating their voices into studies on populism. 

Initially, I struggled to find a contact in a populist right-wing media. Eventually, one of my interviewees, a reporter in a commercial newspaper, gave me the phone number of an acquaintance of hers who worked for Ataka’s newspaper. While I was happy that my persistence had finally paid off, I dreaded making this call. My apprehension only intensified when I realized that this was not just a junior reporter but an editor in Ataka’s mouthpiece. Why would a senior figure in the media organization of the most anti-American party in Bulgaria talk to an academic who lives and works in the United States? In 2011 Ataka’s leader had brazenly confronted in public the U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria. Moreover, Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 further intensified Ataka’s anti-American rhetoric, as the party wholeheartedly embraced Putin’s action. The fact that I had to call the editor only a few weeks after this international crisis added to my doubts that she would meet me, despite the assurances of the reporter who gave me her number. I also recognized that even if she agreed, I was not truly prepared to conduct an interview with a Far Right personality. I pictured myself in an exchange with a zealous propagandist and questioned my initial urge to reach out to this segment of Bulgaria’s journalists. Would an interview with Ataka’s editor offer more than the already familiar nationalist sloganeering garnished with hostility toward me—a U.S.-based academic? 

After two days of hesitation, I shut my eyes and dialed the number. To my surprise, the editor listened through my entire introduction and without wavering agreed to meet me. But my feeling of relief was ephemeral. “How about we meet on Friday at 2:00 p.m. in the McDonald’s on Salveikov Square?” she asked. Certain that she was poking fun at me, I was at a loss on how to respond, but she misinterpreted my silence as a sign that I did not know where the American restaurant was. While she proceeded with detailed directions to its location, I wondered why would the editor of the newspaper most critical of the United States and its corporations patronize the very symbol of American capitalism when she could choose from hundreds of other venues in downtown Sofia? I got off the phone doubtful that she would show up for the meeting. But when I arrived there, the editor was already waiting for me with a McDonald’s espresso in her hand. Our tape-recorded conversation, which lasted three hours and twenty-one minutes, undermined my preconceptions of journalists in Far Right media because she was one of the most pleasant, polite, and intelligent interviewees I met during my fieldwork. Even though she described herself as a “patriot,” at the end of our interview she warned me that “the dumbest thing” I could do was leave the United States and return to live in Bulgaria. I left the restaurant startled by the mismatch between the interview and my expectations prior to it, while I also noted the irony that I had entered a McDonald’s restaurant for the first time in my life on account of the editor who represented Bulgaria’s most anti-American political party. 

I soon realized in the course of the interview that ideology and geopolitics were not the important factors that motivated her to join a Far Right media outlet. Instead, she went to Ataka “purely for commercial reasons” and asked me to “highlight in bold” that she was “merely selling her labor and was not a member of any party.” She shared with me that Ataka paid her 1,600 leva (€800), or twice the salary she had received in her previous job. In a follow-up interview conducted five years later, she told me that she had left Ataka’s mouthpiece a few months after our first meeting, because the working conditions had deteriorated after its poor performance in the 2014 elections. In other words, financial considerations dictated not only her decision to join the party but also to leave it. 

Clearly, Ataka’s ideology was relatively unimportant for this journalist. As I established more contacts with journalists in Far Right media, I realized that she was not an exception. Many journalists joined these types of media simply because of the better working conditions, which calls for a greater understanding of the challenging labor conditions for Bulgarian media professionals. Therefore, the first part of this chapter analyzes the deterioration of the Bulgarian media market after the 2008 Great Recession and situates the experiences of journalists in Far Right media within this difficult context. The second part  explores the financial resources that enable these parties to operate their own expensive media enterprises that attract both seasoned as well as promising, young journalists. The third, and final, section interrogates the label “populist” when applied to these media by means of an analysis that goes beyond the materialist approach I pursue in this book. Building on recent scholarship that emphasizes the performative and stylistic dimensions of populism, this part examines how, unlike mainstream media, right-wing populist outlets appeal to rural and working-class people, engage with their audiences, and embrace partisan commentary. 

Through interviews with professionals who worked for such media and a textual analysis of some of their unique programs, I offer a portrait of populist media’s economic underpinnings and performative appeal. 

In one of the foundational works of the political economy of communication tradition, Nicholas Garnham calls for more attention to the “economic control” exerted over media professionals. According to him, at the time of writing of his seminal article in the late 1970s, there was much discussion about the ideological role of media with an emphasis on concepts such as “discourse,” “hegemony,” and “subordinate codes.” But this, he argued, only masked a “reality which is ever present to those actually working in the media, namely the possibility of losing one’s job.” His call for more attention to the economic conditions of media professionals is apt for the Bulgarian context. For many journalists, a job opening in Far Right media outlets is, first and foremost, an employment opportunity in a tight and volatile Bulgarian media market. They join this type of media because of the promise of career advancement or better pay, and these economic and professional benefits outweigh the political baggage. 

The consensus among the journalists I interviewed was that in terms of work conditions, the 2008 Great Recession was a watershed moment. Compounded by the decreasing advertising revenues due to Google’s and Facebook’s expansion into this realm, this crisis precipitated salary cuts and layoffs across media industries. In fact, in the late 2010s the average monthly salary of Bulgarian journalists hovered below the overall average salary for the capital, Sofia. In 2017 the average income of a journalist in Sofia-based media was approximately 1,000 leva (€500) per month, while the average salary of all Sofia workers was just under 1,400 leva (€700). But data shows that the situation outside of the capital is worse, since regional journalists receive less than 1,000 leva (€500), and in most cases their salary is approximately 500 leva (€250). While these numbers speak for themselves, the interviews I conducted provided a more visceral picture of the challenging work conditions of Bulgarian journalists. 

The first journalist I spoke to was a newspaper and magazine reporter in his early thirties. Like most of my interviewees, he had changed jobs several times, the last two of which were with the Bulgarian franchises of Rolling Stone and the Italian Max magazine. Rolling Stone laid him off along with three other editors without giving even a day’s notice. However, in order to collect the back pay the magazine owed them, they had agreed to sign a letter that stated that they had received a month’s notice. Similarly, Max withheld from him approximately 5,000 leva (€2,500) in back pay, and after an excruciating wait, he gave up and quit. “These are people [the owners] who drive Bentleys and throw luxurious parties,” he lamented and admitted that his passion for the profession has evaporated. “Two years ago, I was certain that I would always work here [Bulgaria]. I have deep roots here. But I have decided to emigrate. I am disappointed, or, rather, I’ve sobered up. I don’t see hope for the future.” Indeed, less than a month after our conversation, he left for Germany, and at the time of this writing he remains there. As it turned out, this initial conversation highlighted problems that reappeared in almost all of the interviews I conducted afterward: low salaries, back pay, and job insecurity. 

In 2014 a journalist for Economedia shared with me that since the 2008 crisis, the company had cut his salary three times. Reporters who worked for tabloids shared similar experiences, as did those employed by reputable national television channels. Stories about media owners who owed journalists back pay were also common in my interviews. For example, a former radio journalist claimed that “systematically,” her salary arrived after the twentieth day of the month instead of on the first. “Nobody cared that my rent was due on the first,” she lamented. Equally prominent were the stories about layoffs and firings. In fact, the more journalists I met, the more redundant my question seemed of whether they had ever lost their job. Some cited being fired three, four, and even five times. A relatively well-known professional in his forties, whom I interviewed in 2014, recounted two firings, both for political reasons. The first one occurred in 1997 when he openly criticized the credit millionaires who exploited the bank bankruptcies and hyperinflation of that year. The owner of the radio station, a well-known beneficiary from this crisis, fired him immediately after his fiery broadcast. The second time took place in 2003, when the socialist newspaper Duma fired him and several of his colleagues for their critical writings against the war in Iraq and Bulgaria’s participation in the “Coalition of the Willing.” At the time, the owner of Duma, Petar Mandzhukov, an arms dealer who benefited from conflicts such as the one in Iraq, dismissed the antiwar staff. But when I spoke with that journalist in 2014, he had held the same job for a decade—enviable longevity for a Bulgarian journalist. However, when I interviewed him again five years later, his fortunes had changed. The publication he had worked for for a long period of time went bankrupt shortly after our interview. And the pattern would repeat itself. At the time of our meeting in 2019, he had just learnt that this current media outlet was also closing. “In three of the last five summers, I became unemployed. And it always happens in the beginning of the summer,” he complained. 

Job insecurity is even more prevalent among media’s nonjournalist staff. What is more, even those who work in large mainstream media paint a precarious situation. My visits to bTV, where I conducted interviews with four technical workers, were especially illustrative of this condition. In fact, the atmosphere there exposed the contradiction between the channel’s self-representation as a socially engaged television committed to ordinary people and its treatment of its low- and midlevel workers. All of my interviewees spoke of the constant fear of layoffs, inadequate salaries, and low morale. “Every single person in this television channel works somewhere else as well. The salary is just very small, and by ‘very small’ I mean ‘very small,’” one of them explained and shared that with all of his qualifications he received 950 leva (€475) a month, which he complained was lower than the salary of a cashier in supermarket. Another technical worker explained that he and his colleagues “survived four or five layoffs just in the last four years [2009–13]. I am talking about mass layoffs. During each of them, at least fifty or sixty people lost their jobs. I survived all sorts of things here, including that I was also laid off. The strange thing is that when I was on the job market, they [bTV] asked me to work as a freelancer. We are a team here. We work well with each other, so they could not just find somebody to replace me.” 

Layoffs and staff reductions are among the most insidious developments in the media market since the late 2000s. A study conducted by the Foundation for Media Democracy found that in some cases, media crews shrank from twenty-five to five journalists over a period of ten years. The authors of the project also noted situations in which only two or even one journalist would run an entire media outlet. “In parallel with the layoffs, one also observes the merger of positions,” where “the owner of the media outlet might also be its writing editor, while the editor in chief could also be the manager, the delivery person, and the advertising agent.”11 Indeed, I encountered such cases, one of which was especially illustrative of the dramatic reduction of media crews and the stress it causes to journalists. 

In 2015 I met a veteran newspaper reporter, who like most of my interviewees had found herself unemployed several times and changed jobs more than a dozen times. At the twilight of her career, she now worked in a weekly tabloid with a circulation of fifty thousand copies. In the middle of the interview, I asked how many people work for the newspaper. I thought that this was an innocuous question, so her emotional response took me by surprise: 

SR: Don’t ask me this question! Five years ago, it was five of us and the editor in chief. But a new owner came in and fired the editor. Unfortunately, two of my colleagues died, both of them from cancer. Then the newly appointed editor fired one person—a very decent colleague—and they neither hired a replacement for him nor for the deceased ones. 

MARTIN MARINOS: Did they explain why? 

SR: Why? Nobody owes you an explanation here. . . . Eventually, they hired two new people, but shortly afterward they kicked them out too. So now I and a colleague are the only remaining journalists. However, she already announced that she is quitting, and this is her last week here. 

MARTIN MARINOS: Wait!? Are you telling me that starting next week you will be the only journalist in this newspaper apart from the editor? 

SR: Yes! I have a headache right now. I am so tired and so sleepy. I have two interviews to conduct . . . and so much else. When you are in a situation like this, swamped with work, you just freeze, and you do nothing. You are in a state of shock. 

The consequences of the massive reduction of staff across media industries produces significant work overload for the remaining personnel. Throughout my interviews, journalists complained not just about the low salaries, back pay, and job insecurity, but also about overwork, exhaustion, and a lack of free time. Thus, my findings echo the conclusions of a study conducted by the Association of European Journalists that found that 75 percent of the two hundred journalists it surveyed stated that their workweek exceeded forty hours. However, it is important to note that while the labor conditions of those who work in Sofia-based traditional media are quite challenging, the situation of their colleagues in online outlets and those who practice the profession outside of the capital are even more difficult. 

Today, as we witness how the internet functions as an incubator of extremist ideologies and outlandish conspiracy theories, the early cyberutopian enthusiasm about the democratic potential of online media appears naive. But digital media also disappoint when it comes to the working conditions of its employees. Indeed, my fieldwork in Bulgaria affirmed that internet-based outlets are the sites of the most severe exploitation of journalistic labor, as tight deadlines and high output quotas create an extremely fast-paced and hectic work environment. My interviews with journalists who worked for the online news agency Focus, the first private news agency in the country, were especially revealing in this regard. One of them described her work there as “super stressful” because she had to produce a minimum of ten news items per day and conduct at least one interview. Those who failed these goals faced monetary penalties. In addition, the journalists had to swipe a time card when they entered and exited the building, and those who came late to work or left early were also fined. The other journalist I spoke to portrayed Focus as a “sweatshop” where he frequently put in twelve- or thirteen-hour shifts, while in his final year there, he worked twenty-hour night shifts, five nights a week. What made the situation worse was that the journalists worked from a windowless damp basement. “I did not see the sun for an entire winter,” this journalist lamented and added that he left Focus for health reasons. Above the basement was a much more welcoming, sun-drenched floor that housed the office of the owner, Krassimir Uzunov, along with Focus’s advertising department. Besides this architectural arrangement, the class division between owner and journalists was further reinforced by Uzunov’s occasional appearance in the basement accompanied by an expensive parrot or a monkey on his arm. Indeed, my interviewee argued that Uzunov, who was an exotic-animals aficionado, respected his pets more than the journalists he employed. 

The situation of journalists outside the capital, where advertising revenues are meager, is also very challenging. This became clear to me during several visits at a regional cable television channel that operated from the top floor of a decrepit, socialist-era building. Even though an earthquake had left large cracks in its edifice, the journalists did not foresee repairs of the building coming anytime soon. The staff agreed to let me observe their work, but in exchange they asked me to be a guest on one of their shows. After the program, in the dressing room I chatted with the makeup artist while she wiped the makeup from my face. But at some point, she interrupted me hastily and explained, “I am reading the news in three minutes. I have to go now.” The merger of positions, exemplified in this case by the makeup artist who also served as a newscaster, is omnipresent in regional media. Coupled with low salaries and job insecurity, this makes the work environment outside of the capital quite difficult. 

Finally, it is important to note that besides the low salaries, back pay, and job insecurity, Bulgarian journalists are also shortchanged in terms of their retirement benefits, due to the widespread practice of contributing to journalists’ retirement accounts based on the minimum wage. Both my fieldwork and the available studies on the media labor market show that most journalists sign two employment contracts. Under a labor contract, they receive a minimum wage salary, and, therefore, their owners contribute to the journalists’ retirement fund the lowest amount allowed under current labor legislation. Under a civil contract, they receive additional honorariums, but this contract frees the employer from contributing to the journalists’ retirement account. This practice is widespread in online media and the press. In electronic media, most employers offer only civil contracts, while labor contracts are considered a rare reward given to a chosen few. As a result, journalists face a bleak uncertainty once they retire because their pensions are among the lowest. 

In sum, the working conditions of journalists in Bulgaria are dire. Yet it seems that the situation there is not unique. In her research on journalistic labor in Romania, Ioana Avadani describes the deterioration of the media market after the 2008 Global Recession and highlights processes remarkably similar to the ones experienced by Bulgarian journalists. She also observes the dramatic reduction of the number of journalists, the media owners’ minimal contributions to their employees’ retirement funds, and the low salaries of media professionals. Avadani underscores several other features evident in Bulgaria as well, including the strenuous workload and the institution of quotas that require an output of ten news items per day. The parallels between my findings and Avadani’s emerge even on the level of individual stories. For instance, she describes the case of a group of journalists who juggled “selling pastries with independent journalism,” while I spoke to a professional who juggled selling pizza with journalism. In short, Avadani’s conclusion that the difficult post-2008 situation “reduces journalists to basic Maslowian needs” applies to the Bulgarian context as well. 

Martin Marinos is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Film Production and Media Studies at Penn State University. His research and teaching areas of specialization include global and comparative media studies, political economy of media, transnational television history, and socialist and post-socialist mass communication. His book Free to Hate: Media Liberalization and Right-Wing Populism after 1989 (University of Illinois Press, December 2023) traces how the commercialization of East European media set the stage for the rise of right-wing populism in the region.