Misinformation and propaganda: British media coverage of the Bulgarian “problem”

On 20 February, 36-year-old artist Plamen Goranov set himself ablaze in the Bulgarian seaside town of Varna in protest against the local government’s links to the mafia, amidst nationwide anti-corruption rallies that have shaken Bulgaria in the last few weeks and led to the government’s resignation. After sustaining 80 per cent burns and spending 11 days in a coma, he died in the evening of 3 March – Bulgaria’s Liberation Day.

Today, 6 March 2013, Bulgaria has announced a national day of mourning for Plamen Goranov who has turned into a heroic figure for protesters – a symbol of what many believe is a long-overdue revolution, with his death kindling revolutionary sentiments even further. Parallels with Jan Palach, the Czech student whose self-immolation in protest against the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia is believed to have led to the fall of Communism, are not uncommon. The dramatic incident happens at a time when hundreds of thousands of Bulgarians take to the streets every day to voice their discontent with the status quo after 23 years of political and economic transition, which has left Bulgaria the poorest country in Europe.

Media filters in action – restriction and slant

The mainstream Bulgarian media’s coverage of Plamen’s act has ‘ranged from deafening silence to attempts at character assassination’, as his friends wrote in a manifesto which was shared in social media days before he died, in a bid to tell the truth about Plamen’s personality and the motives behind his sacrificial protest act.

‘There is no doubt that it was an act of resolute rejection of corruption and injustice that have permeated every aspect of social life in his town and his country,’ states the manifesto, which has so far been largely ignored by the agenda-setting media in his home country and beyond.

The British media have so far not only failed to report the incident; they have taken a seemingly concerted editorial decision not to cover the unabated protests that many have dubbed the “Bulgarian Spring”. Of all the mainstream media outlets I have monitored in the last weeks, there has only been scarce, largely matter-of-fact coverage of the Bulgarian government’s resignation, mainly originating from news agencies AP and Reuters.

Navel-gazing or an anti-Bulgarian agenda?While the Bulgarian people rise up against corruption, the mainstream British media are focussing on the putative Bulgarian (and Romanian) immigration “problem”, spouting out features and editorials about Bulgaria’s “great unwashed”, thus creating a negative image of the country and its people who, if tabloid reports are to be believed, are uncivilised, uneducated and unscrupulous scroungers living in extreme poverty, who simply can’t wait for the labour market gates to open to “flood” “Great Britannia” and take advantage of its “generous” welfare system. Here are some examples:

That the likes of the Daily Mail would choose to cover domestic issues and create scare stories about foreign “invaders”, often to the extent of exaggeration and the creation of a warped picture of reality, is understandable – but there is no excuse for consciously refusing to put matters in context. Failing to report the protests in Bulgaria while writing an article related to the country and its nation is either the result of navel-gazing, uninformed and sloppy journalism or editorial bias.

Fallacious arguments and questionable media ethics

This is media rhetoric of a fundamentally faulty and particularly dangerous kind – making sweeping conclusions about the population’s immigration tendencies solely on the basis of the country’s GDP and average national wage without taking matters such as currency, prices, credit history and home ownership rates into consideration, and consciously refusing to report the scale of an unprecedented civil uprising, will inevitably lead to ungrounded public fears, unprovoked ethnic prejudice and hatred, and political populism.

The British media’s coverage of the Bulgarian “problem” raises serious questions about media ethics. The Spectator’s editorial about UK food regulation, for example, contains a paragraph curiously unrelated to the focus of the piece (i.e. the horse meat “scandal”):

At the end of this year, all Romanians and Bulgarians will be able to move to this country for work. The government is refusing to say how many people it expects to take advantage of this opportunity. But given that per capita GDP in Romania is only 36 per cent of what it is in Britain, and in Bulgaria 39 per cent, one imagines a large number of workers will come in the hope of a more prosperous life.

In a similar fashion, a Sun reporter took a trip to Sofia asking completely random and clueless members of the Bulgarian public to pose with a two-page spread of the newspaper with the prominent title ‘Why work?’ – which Sun editors then used to illustrate his exclusive titled ‘Next stop UK: Bulgarians and Romanians are queuing up for handout Britain.’

Such blatantly deliberate and lopsided tactics of sourcing, analysing and presenting information will either continue to create social tension, or further erode public trust in the mainstream press and journalism as a profession. In the age of social media, where publics share information, access alternative sources and even manage to plan protests that topple governments, such old-school 20th century propaganda methods should be deemed unthinkable by traditional media outlets which should be looking to regain public trust if they wish to save their sinking ships from completely drowning in the digital age. Yet, even in what is considered a Western democratic society we still witness practices of misinformation and/or information blackout, reminiscent of Soviet totalitarian propaganda, now quietly and covertly practised at the other side of the Iron Curtain.

Luckily, social media and newly emerging independent media outlets now make it easy to detect unethical media practices and make an independent and informed decision about what and who to trust. Undoubtedly, and perhaps regrettably, these are the only democratic, propaganda-free channels that the public can rely on to stay informed. Without them, we wouldn’t have learnt about Plamen Goranov – the man who sacrificed his life to make a point about the extent of Bulgarian people’s intolerance to corruption that has held the country in its grip since the fall of the Communist regime. Without social media, the revolutionary events in Bulgaria would have remained under the veil of the Iron Curtain – a concept that the UK media perpetuate, 24 years after it should have been buried in oblivion.

Biserka Anderson

Biserka is a recovering journalist, currently researching digital media ethics, media convergence and journalism in the semantic web era. Her insight into editorial practices stems from her decade-long experience as a newspaper journalist, magazine writer, content marketer and digital content editor. She blogs sporadically at Media Morphology and is disproportionately more active on Twitter as @bisanderson.

This article first appeared in Spinwatch

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