A Study in Media Sensationalism

By Rossen Bosev 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 in 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 levels 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.

But there is a big question mark over whether the media itself was prepared for the task their journalists faced. Firstly, it quickly became apparent that there is insufficient knowledge and experience of covering migrant and refugees issues. In addition, newsrooms were hamstrung by a lack of well-trained and informed personnel able to provide high-quality reporting and analysis.


The media environment and political pressures on journalism didn’t help. The deteriorating conditions for press freedom have been well recorded with Bulgaria ranking 106th in the Reporters without Borders Press Freedom index. The country’s media operate in a small and heavily-concentrated advertising market with non-transparent media ownership and undue influence from political and economic interests on editorial policies. The systems for self-regulation of media content and performance are dysfunctional. All of this has directly affected the quality of coverage.

The country’s press and online media are governed by two separate ethical committees, each adopting a different code. The first, which might be considered authentic and independent, is only recognised by a small part of the media and covers refugee issues in its standards. The other, which includes 80 percent of publications, is practically inactive. In addition, there is the Council of Electronic Media, a state organisation responsible for radio and television, but it has a passive attitude and its lack of impact has, if anything, made the situation even worse.

The migration story becomes headlines news

By the end of 2012, the issue of migration of third-country nationals (both legal and undocumented migrants) in Bulgaria was a marginal topic for the local media. In fact, between 2009-2012, only 812 articles on the issue made their way into the press, electronic and online media in the country according to a survey by Proway Communications agency.

The topics they covered were diverse: state and EU policies, access to the social system and labour market, discrimination, and crime. Of the analysed stories some 82 percent are neutral and purely informative, with only 5 percent openly negative in tone.

The most common problem noticed by the researchers is that journalists generally failed to make a distinction between the different legal terms: immigrant, refugee, asylum seeker, undocumented migrant, etc.

One year later, the picture changed completely. With thousands of people crossing the Bulgarian-Turkish border to seek asylum in Europe, there was a dramatic peak in coverage. In one month alone, from mid-September to mid-October 2013, a total of 8,439 news pieces were registered in the online media. (Sensika, 17 October, 2013)

A brief content analysis shows a major shift in the discourse, with key topics identified as: national security, terrorism, disease and refugee camps.

The asylum seekers were largely framed as a homogeneous mass of people, who constitute a “problem”, a “threat” for the integrity for Bulgarian and European societies.

How sensation became the norm

A series of headlines in mainstream Bulgarian media reflected the change of mood and direction in media coverage:

  • “The Prime Minister: 2 million refugees are waiting on the Bulgarian-Turkish border”
  • “Expert: The newly arrived refugees are future ISIS fighters”
  • “Islamic State floods Europe with refugees”

These headlines (all containing fact-based claims) were proven to be wrong or unverified. They did not come from unruly tabloids, but were from leading Bulgarian media: Focus News Agency and the two biggest private TV channels: Nova TV and BTV. The source for the last headline, quoted in the main news section of BTV, a market and opinion leader, is the British tabloid The Daily Mail.

Unfortunately, the reliability of sources, the level of knowledge and experience of the experts and analysts invited to comment on migration and the relevance of political statements such as the one by Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov have been rarely questioned by journalists.

Instead, unverified information easily finds a way into the headlines in the mainstream media, and is copied and replicated via news websites and social media.

A clear example of this phenomenon is the statement of the (ex) Vice-Minister of the Interior Vassil Marinov, who claimed that the monthly allowance for one refugee in the country is 1100 leva (approximately Ä550) – higher than the average monthly salary. This information was immediately disseminated through all media channels, with no attempts to verify its authenticity.

It provoked outrage among Bulgarians, 40 per cent of whom, according to the World Bank, live under the poverty line or are at risk of poverty. More than a month later, an investigation by Sega Daily newspaper proved that Marinov’s clam was speculation and that a refugee in Bulgaria received only 65 leva per month (Ä33 approximately).

Currently, even those allowances are frozen, but the “Divide and Conquer” impact of this political provocation is still observed. Many Bulgarians feel undervalued and foreigners get more favourable treatment.

And there is, of course, a commercial interest in favour of sensational headlines that generate more hits in online media, which gains more and more influence both in terms of audience and advertisers. As a result, some editors are less inclined to strive for authenticity and objectivity.

“Although major international news organisations such as AP and the BBC banned the term “illegal migrant” from their internal ethical codes, it is still broadly used in Bulgaria.”

Refugees or illegal migrants?

Although major international news organisations such as AP and the BBC banned the term “illegal migrant” from their internal ethical codes, it is still broadly used in Bulgaria.

A monitoring of press clippings, done by the Bulgarian Telegraph Agency BTA between 1 February and 1 March, 2014, shows that the term has been used in 49 out of 405 news pieces on migration, or more than 10 percent. In most cases the media have quoted statements by the responsible public authority, a former Minister of the Interior Tsvetlin Yovchev, which leads to the conclusion that the politicians themselves are contributing to the negatively biased media content.

Still, no attempts have been made to clarify to readers that the phrase is inappropriate and why. But this reflects a widespread malaise in journalism where the different terms related to migration and seeking asylum are not used in their correct context.

Instead terms that have distinct meanings in international law and in common understanding are used out of context and often as synonyms. Headlines and reporting will refer to “the fugitives”, “immigrants” and “refugees” without any clarity or distinction creating both confusion and ignorance for unwary and uninformed readers, viewers and listeners.

Hate speech on the march

Even more alarming is the rise in hate-speech expressed by politicians and some journalists and channeled through the media without criticism or context. And it has broadly penetrated the public discourse. Some 45.6 percent of the participants in an Open Society survey from November 2013 claim to have witnessed aggressive statements against minorities – ethnic, religious and sexual – in the previous 12 months.

The main medium for spreading hate-speech, according to the respondents, is television, referred to by 75 percent. The second most important is the internet, where the forums have turned into a nest of openly xenophobic comments. Despite the recent decision of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Delfi vs Estonia, which stipulated that the operators of internet sites are responsible for content in their user forums, the field remains largely unregulated and few newsrooms bother to moderate online comments and discussions.

Two of Bulgaria’s far-right parties represented in the national parliaments have private TV channels, SKAT and Alpha, which predominantly base their content on racist and xenophobic rhetoric, naming asylum seekers “Taliban’s”, “jihadists”, “terrorists” and so on.

Recently, the Council for Electronic Media issued 11 adjudications on violations of the Law on Radio and Television against Alpha TV, including hate-speech, but all of them went without any legal consequences.

Unfortunately, not only the politically related channels give a platform to hate-speech. Extremist politicians, journalists and popular figures are often invited to television and radio studios to comment, while the voices of the refugees themselves are rarely heard.

Typical of the hateful political speech given media exposure is that from Magdalena Tasheva, a far-right MP who on BTV accused refugees of being cannibals: “The society doesn’t care if the refugees are eating human flesh or just chewing it, there are international conventions that they have breached,” she said, “We cannot love murderers. No one loves mass murderers.”

Although Bulgaria criminalised hate-speech with the introduction of Article 162 (amended in 2011), its implementation is rare and insufficient. In its latest report, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), has expressed concern that between 2008 and 2013 only 55 pre-trial proceedings were initiated under Article 162, including both paragraph 1 on incitement and paragraph 2 on the use of violence or damage to property. Of these cases 11 went to trial and 10 accused were convicted (none of them on the grounds of hate-speech).

This creates a feeling of impunity among politicians and public figures, who tend to express their extremist views in order to benefit from greater popularity. This places a great responsibility on journalists and editors who have to make their own judgments on what is hateful and potentially illegal.

But that is only part of the media challenge. Journalists and editors sometimes appear to forget that behind the plentiful numbers and statistics surrounding the migrant and refugee story are thousands of human-interest stories charting experiences that are profoundly important to creating a fuller understanding of the crisis within Bulgarian society.

This understanding is also vital to finding solutions at civil and state levels. And although there have been many distortions and deficiencies in coverage, some stories have served as a call to action and to bring positive change in attitudes. A report by Irina Nedeva on the suffering of the Syrian family Hawash, broadcast by Bulgarian National Radio, for instance, was one of the first to shed light on non-existent state support for refugees fleeing Syria.

It led to the creation of the Facebook group “Friends of the refugees”, a civil initiative for humanitarian and integration support for migrants and asylum seekers, unprecedented in scale and activity for Bulgaria.

The group gained substantial media popularity, which helped attract more supporters and accelerated state reaction to the humanitarian challenge of providing shelter and care for the thousands entering the country in search of protection.

Positive examples of high-quality and compassionate reporting include Slavi’s Show, the most popular evening show in Bulgaria, which made a documentary series dedicated to the Syrian refugees with a focus on their perspective and Nobody’s kids, a documentary by a Nova TV reporter, dedicated to unaccompanied minors in Bulgaria. Some positive items in Capital Weekly included the features “Germany, end of the trail” and “Wall of punches.”

There is little doubt that coverage of reporting migrant and refugee issues would improve if serious attempts were made to strengthen the media landscape in Bulgaria. The dismantling of current media concentrations and the increased transparency of financing mechanisms would ensure fair competition and a dynamic market, which will improve quality and adherence to ethical standards, including those related to the refugee crisis.

On a broader level it is within the European Union’s mandate to advocate fairer criteria and increased transparency and the government’s programme has included steps in this direction, by proposing it will only do business with media that adhere to the industry’s ethical code.

But urgent steps need to be taken towards media education in asylum law, in order to increase understanding of the subject and media would be helped with more effective action from police and prosecutors to uphold laws countering hate-speech. More also needs to be done to counter online hate.

But in all of this journalists are wary. They want to be able to tell their stories ethically and professionally, however they are cautious about the use of law to restrict free speech.

There is no doubt that fresh initiatives to support critical and ethical journalism are urgently needed. Bulgarian media, like their counterparts across the Balkans, are in the frontline of the European migrant and refugee crisis, and if it is to be resolved without social conflict it will require a renewal of professional commitment to reporting that tells the story accurately but with lashings of compassion and fact-based analysis.

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