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When is OK to shut down a newspaper? “Economic” vs. “Political” Pressure on the Public Sphere

Note from the LeftEast editors: The Bulgarian media market is extremely concentrated and under immense pressure to contract still further. Several analytical outlets have recently shut down due to financial constraints. The lack of media pluralism and the severe ownership concentration have been reflected in the recent decision of Reporters Without Borders to downgrade the country’s media freedom ranking from 35th to 111th place. In this short piece, Jana Tsoneva zooms in on the latest chapter of media closures and attacks on press freedom. The article is published in collaboration with the web portal Bilten.Org, where it first appeared in BHS

It is a tired cliché that independent and watchful media are a central pillar of any liberal democracy worthy of this name. But in Bulgaria the “consolidation” of democracy has gone hand in hand with a deepening monopolization of the media market which has shed off a score of quality publications. Most recently, two worrying news items emanated from the media world in Bulgaria: the recent closure of the Kultura newspaper, and the seizing of the assets of Ivo Prokopiev, owner of Economedia, which is one of the largest news and business publishers. Credible and reliable papers are in short supply in the country, so understandably the news provoked some disquiet among the “chattering classes”. However, while Prokopiev’s woes triggered a wave of discontent (even the main human rights organization – the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee – classified the case as an affront to the “right to property”), Kultura‘s demise has been quiet and uneventful. What explains the selective anger over the decline of diversity of print and online publications?

Kultura was founded in 1957. Until the fall of socialism its full name was Narodna Kultura (“people’s culture”). Unsurprisingly, the newspaper was rechristened after 1989 and donned off its popular trappings. Its editorial board is chaired by Koprinka Chervenkova, a theater critic, ex-Communist Party member and a member of the nascent dissident intelligentsia. She had worked for the newspaper from 1975 until 1989 when she was kicked out both from the paper and from the Party for co-founding the Club for the Support of Glasnost and Perestroika in 1989. As its name suggests, this was one of the first “civil society” associations of the so-called “dissidents” working fully within the frame of the then dominant ideology of glasnost and perestroika. (Such “informal” grassroots organizations and discussion clubs are celebrated today as the first anti-communist dissident movements even though their stated objectives were not anti-communist but to further the Gorbachevian perestroika reforms, over and against a recalcitrant local Communist bureaucracy.) She was also one of the few invitees, overwhelmingly sourced from the field of the artistic and cultural intelligentsia, to a famous breakfast with the French President Francois Mitterand in January 1989. (Another one of the attendees became the first democratically elected president of the country.)

In 1990, capitalizing on her sudden dissident fame, the ex-Party member Chervenkova returned triumphantly to Narodna Kultura and became its editor-in-chief. In 1994 the Ministry of Culture, which had owned the paper, transferred the ownership to Chervenkova’s foundation. With the advancement of the market reforms, and the concomitant retreat of the state support for culture, the paper had hard time staying afloat. By 2005 it faced closure. Intellectuals issued appeals (including the world-renowned Bulgarian historian Maria Todorova) for help and organized fundraiser campaigns for the embattled paper. These defenses ranged from elitist ranting against “mass taste/culture” to apologetic assertions that the paper is independent both from state and capital but it has to raise its price to defend its independence.

In 2007, on the brink of bankruptcy, Kultura forfeited its independence from capital and was bought by the charitable foundation Communitas set up by the Bulgarian financier and bank owner Svetoslav Bozhilov. The foundation’s stated aims include the “development of civil society” but its idea of “civic activity” is tied to an overt Christian and Conservative agenda. Along with acquiring Kultura, the foundation set up another publication by the same name – [web]Portal Kultura – which is openly Christian fundamentalist and right-wing. It traffics in acerbic anti-communism, which it spices up with the odd anti-Semitic piece.

Despite belonging to the same owner, Kultura maintained its distance from its ultra-conservative namesake and conformed more or less to the liberal ideal of an open public sphere. (Of course, even they have published anti-communist articles, but not only, unlike the portal.)

On December, 22 2017 Kultura announced that it shuts down in June 2018, when a new magazine by the same name will take over and its editor-in-chief will be that of Portal Kultura. In short, Kultura‘s parasitic, Conservative namesake is taking over the name and reputation in a coup d’etat facilitated by the owner. Meanwhile, Bozhilov had just received an accolade by the Bulgarian Donors’ Forum, a philanthropic organization, because his Communitas foundation has donated around 30 million BGN over the years for education and culture. Аmusingly, the Forum invoked Communitas’ support for Kultura as one of the chief reasons for the prestigious commendation.

Unlike the previous threat of closure, which rallied intellectuals behind the paper and even found a sugar daddy for it in the face of Bozhilov, the 2017 announcement of the closure did not trigger a comparable outburst of support. The silence of the same intellectuals who led the campaign in 2005 is deafening. Why?

My contention is that the demise of Kultura marks the decline of the 1990s generation of liberal intellectuals, and their democratic aspirations, and the seeming ascendance of a new era dominated by the Conservative and the far Right. (Also visible in the composition of the current government.) The widespread right-ward displacement has dragged many a liberal along which is one reason why the substitution of the Conservative portal for the liberal paper does not touch many people. The other reason lies in the reputation of the owner Bozhilov. He is a representative of the good, philanthropic, cultured and Christian capital and perhaps this is why nobody considers problematic his decision to discontinue his support for a 60 years old financially precarious paper. Private property is sacred.

Precisely for the same reason, the public reaction around the political attacks against Economedia‘s owner – another exemplary “good” capitalist – was so virulent. Ivo Prokopiev is the founder of the paragons of the liberal and business press in Bulgaria: Kapital and Dnevnik. Kapital took off in the early 1990s (the peak of post-socialist primitive accumulation) in ways its founders romantically describe as “we started with one broken old computer, you know…”

Earlier this year, the Commission for the recovery of crime-related assets (KONPI) froze Prokopiev’s assets (upwards of 100m EUR) in a sudden investigation into a privatization deal Prokopiev struck in 2000 with which he acquired a kaolinite factory. Prokopiev’s papers and lawyers interpret the decision as another chapter of the war with a rival media oligarch-cum-politician Delyan Peevski. Kapital has been critical of Peevski due to his meteoric rise in political prominence at the tender age of 21 during the rule of the ex-csar’s party NDSV whose protege Peevski is. But the conflict between the two rival media groups intensified with the 2013 anti-Peevski protests which the Economedia papers endorsed and secured Prokopiev’s reputation as a “good”, pro-European oligarch.

Prokopiev suggested that Peevski controls even the PM Borissov because of the latter’s unwillingness to broker a resolution or reverse the freezing of the assets. Prokopiev’s defense main argument is that KONPI is barred by law from opening inquiries into privatization deals ten years after they were struck and in this case almost twice as much time has elapsed. Also, the deal has been cleared of suspicion by a court of law, which KONPI ignores. This leads to widespread suspicions that the attack is “politically motivated” and Peevski/Borissov use KONPI to intimidate the “free press”.

Widespread condemnations of the latest move by the alleged Borissov-Peevski power bloc cannot belie the history of Prokopiev’s crucial role in Borissov’s political ascendance. For example, in 2002 Prokopiev, together with Bozhilov, Borrisov’s ex-girlfriend (who co-owns Bozhilov’s bank), liberal think-tank leaders and several prominent (but now disgraced) businessmen founded a civil society organization called “Global Bulgaria”. Its purported aim was to produce/educate a new elite capable of transparent EU-funds management. Global Bulgaria found this new elite in the face of Borissov’s party GERB, which came to consolidate the Right after the implosion of the 1990s main anti-communist party in 2001. Prokopiev and Bozhilov even f(o)unded a liberal TV channel in order to popularize the new party, which was shut down when Borissov first won in 2009. Since then GERB has been the unchallenged right-wing hegemon in Bulgaria. Today Prokopiev’s Kapital vilifies Borissov but it spared no commendations for him during his first term.

These two different cases demonstrate that the counter-revolution also eats its children, albeit for different reasons and in different manner. Perhaps Chervenkova thought she were only pursuing a more authentic perestroika than the socialist bureaucracy sought to secure, and did not expect that the processes she was part of would come to unleash the unbridled market competition that destroyed her paper and her generation of “decent” liberals. Perhaps Prokopiev believed in the historic mission to help consolidate the Right after the decline of the first anti-communist opposition and save the country from corruption, and did not anticipate that the leader he helped create would eventually try to destroy his media-industrial empire.

Also, through the cases surfaces a resilient liberal assumption about what constitutes real violence: if a private investor decides to put an end to a 60-years-old cultural institution, his sovereign decision cannot be questioned, no matter how grave a blow it deals on the ever-shrinking Bulgarian offentlichkeit. Especially if the businessman in question passes as “moral,” as testified by his philanthropy and avowed Christianity. (It is by now forgotten that he made money in the early 1990s by founding a Bulgarian-Russian bank together with a notorious banking gangster who was publicly assassinated in 2005.) In contrast, if the source of violence against a media company is state/public, this is perceived as wholly illegitimate state meddling in the market (even as return of Communism) that calls forth resistance.

The author extends her gratitude to Martin Marinos and Ognian Kassabov for their comments and suggestions.

Jana Tsoneva is a PhD student in Sociology at CEU, Budapest. Her research interests focus on the history of ideas, political economy and theory of ideology. Jana is a member of the New Left Perspectives collective in Sofia.


By Jana Tsoneva

Jana Tsoneva is a PhD student in Sociology at CEU, Budapest. Her research interests focus on the history of ideas, political economy and theory of ideology. Jana is a member of Social Center Xaspel, Sofia and of the New Left Perspectives collective. She also co-authors Hysterical Parrhesia (a Lacanian-Marxist blog).