By Rossen Bossev and Maria Cheresehva
In April 2014 a group of 17 Syrian refugees, including six children, were forced to leave the house they rented in the village of Rozovo after continuous protests by local people.
The villagers were determined not to accept the Syrians because, they said, their safety was under threat.
Asked by a reporter why refugees were feared so much, a Rozovo resident answered: “We know they are danger. We have read the press, we have seen the news on TV.”
This answer pretty well summarises both the media reaction to the refugee crisis in Bulgaria and the fearful social attitudes it provoked among the majority of Bulgarians. Even though other major factors may explain the widespread lack of solidarity with the asylum seekers in this part of Europe – such as the country’s weak economic and social system, the inadequate administrative response and poor political leadership – the media largely failed to play a responsible role.
Instead of mediating the conflicting opinions and providing balanced and reliable information, the mass media plunged into sensationalism, and often in breach of basic ethical and professional principles of journalism in the process.
Bulgaria, like other Balkan countries, is experiencing the biggest refugee influx in its modern history. In the last quarter of 2013, it received more than 7,000 asylum applications – around 10 times the annual average for the past 10 years.
There was a steady increase in 2014 and 2015, too, from 11,081 to 11,630. The arrival of so many people, whether fleeing war, persecution or poverty, caught the country unprepared on every front – political, administrative, humanitarian and logistical. This resulted in a refugee crisis, which could have been less intense if the necessary steps at state and municipal level had been taken in advance.
Even though there were some grassroots initiatives and volunteers working through NGOs stepped in to provide essential support for the refugees, their arrival provoked a largely negative reaction within the public at large, warmed up by a loud far-right and xenophobic public discourse. This opened space for a surge in hate-speech, hate-crimes and discrimination. It was by any standards a massive challenge for media to moderate this intemperate and hostile reaction.
This article is taken from the Ethical Journalism Network's report 'Moving Stories - International Review of How Media Cover Migration'
About the authors
Rossen Bossev is journalist at Capital Weekly in Sofia, Bulgaria. He writes on judiciary, law enforcement and human rights issues. He was twice awarded at the International Right to Know Day for his use of the freedom of information act in his investigations.
Maria Cheresehva is a communications expert and freelance journalist. She works voluntarily for providing humanitarian and integration support to refugees and migrants, she is a campaigner for human rights. She has been an editor in ENTERPRISE, Infostock and Evropa.
Read the other sections of the report here