Despite 30 years of post-socialist transformation, many CSOs in the country are unable to counter the denigrating rhetoric that some media outlets use against them. Challenging the presumption of Russia’s widespread influence in this area, there are many differences in key aspects of the Russian and Bulgarian media’s treatment of civil society. So even if the editors of some of our media wanted to copy their Russian counterparts, their efforts would fail with a bang. Crucially, this opens a way forward for other civil society organisations to improve their media representation
A Red Meat Topic: Russian Influence on Bulgarian Media
The extent to which the Russian authorities influence information flows in the rest of Europe and beyond has been a most debated topics over the past few years. Last May, The Centre for the Study of Democracy, one of the most respected think tanks in Bulgaria, even published a report entitled: “Countering the Kremlin’s Media Influence in Europe”. The Western outlets most interested in Bulgarian affairs, Deutsche Welle and Radio Free Europe, havealso discussed “Russian media influence in Bulgaria” and “Russian propaganda” in the Bulgarian media at length. Most of these analyses, however, are rather general in their focus and too sharp in their claims.
For example, the usual topic of discussion is how the revival of nationalist sentiments and practices in the West is encouraged by the Russian media. Another frequently mentioned aspect is the way Russian-owned media and other biased media overemphasise the importance of building business and economic ties with Russia. Finally, analysts stress that Russian propaganda emphasizes sovereignty as the ultimate guarantee of national security, especially against a migratory phenomenon perceived as the major threat to security, culture and the economy.
Each of these arguments can be countered by an equally compelling counterargument. For example, the return of nationalism in Western Europe predates Russian revanchism under Putin. In fact, the nationalist right began to achieve important victories in Western Europe already in the mid-to-late 1990s. Moreover, it is not only “Russian puppets” who are heralding the benefits of trade with Russia, but also French President Emmanuel Macron, (soon-to-be former) German Chancellor Angela Merkel, former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and many pundits. As for the sovereignty discourse, it is shared by leaders with a firmly anti-Russian stance, such as Boris Johnson in the UK or Kaczynski in Poland. At the same time, migration has been a red topic in the West since the 1970s and 1980s — when Russians were still Soviet citizens.
Data overview: BlueLink’s study
However, there is a striking similarity between the approach Russian media have developed to some of these topics and that of many non-Russian news agencies. In particular, the likelihood that Western and Eastern European media outlets have willingly adopted some of the rhetorical and discursive techniques of their Russian counterparts in order to advance a hidden agenda seems high.
Given the lack of research focusing on data on the ways in which Russian influence on Bulgarian media can be reflected in an adverse environment for civil society organizations (CSOs), BlueLink Foundation supported a study on the “Russification” of Bulgarian media’s attitude towards civil society. The research was carried out by Fabio Ashtar Telarico, MA in Southeast European Studies at the Universities of Graz (Austria) and (Belgrade), a research intern at BlueLink. His results were presented on the occasion of the th10th anniversary of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum, of which BluLink is a member.
Based on the works of the Swiss sociologist Robert Michels, the philosopher Antonio Gramsci and the American political scientist Mary Kaldor, the text offers a detailed theoretical conception of civil society as more than a collection of NGOs supported by Western European, European and American funds. It then delves into the multifaceted relationships that exist between political elites (ruling and opposition), media owners and civil society organisations that form an iron triangle between them to ‘steer’ or ‘manipulate’ public opinion.
The study analyses the transfer of the clichés and rhetoric of the Russian mainstream media regarding civil society organisations defending human rights and the environment to Bulgaria, using a database including more than 6,700 articles from the newspapers “24 hours” and “Trud”, as well as from the well-known websites Glasove and Epitsentăr.
Such a large database was analysed using the advanced qualitative discourse analysis software Atlas.ti and other software developed by Telarico himself. Based on the available research on the representation of CSOs in Russian media, the author formulated five sets of hypotheses that, if confirmed, would suggest a direct transfer of the rhetoric and discourse of Russian media onto CSOs:
- The outreach of civil society charities focused on social work is mostly favourable.
- The coverage of the neoliberal CSO model is mostly unfavourable.
- The overview of foreign CSOs is mostly unfavorable.
- Scope of cooperation between the State and the DPA
- Cooperation between the state and CSOs is not viewed negatively.
- The cooperation between the state and CSOs is appreciated.
- CSOs that oppose the state are perceived unfavourably.
- Soros and his foundations
- The Soros foundations are examined in detail.
- Reviews of Soros’ foundations are mostly unfavorable.
- Using this method, the report finds that coverage of charities and other civil society organisations whose activities are related to the ‘social sphere’ is overwhelmingly positive, particularly for foundations. In addition, the ‘not-for-profit’ label plays a key role in more positive coverage of charities.
- On the other hand, references to LGBT rights, human rights and environmentalism are mostly found in articles with a noticeably negative tone. The difference in topic alone explains more than 50% of the variation in valence between these and the previous group of articles.
- Similarly, foreign CSOs are not mentioned as often. In general, only some global CSOs that publish reports highlighting the critical state of liberal democracy in Bulgaria are mentioned, such as Reporters Without Borders and Transparency International.
- Despite the size of the database created for this study, the number of articles linking state institutions and civil society is quite small (less than 100). Given that a clear understanding of the relationship between the state and (civil) society is a key feature of Russian media discourse on CSOs, this lack may suggest that there is no deliberate transplant between the two sides.
- About eight-tenths of the remaining articles mentioning foreign civil society organisations are somehow related to George Soros. In total, the man is mentioned in 943 sentences, 86% of which have a negative connotation.
Conclusions of the study
In conclusion, Telarico argues that in this case there is an undeniable link between political and media practices that aim to steer public opinion in such a way as to disempower civil society. Therefore, even those editors interested in emulating their Russian counterpart should refrain from copy-pasting.
That is why it is a mistake to claim that the blame for the weakening of liberal institutions is due to proximity with Moscow and its interference. Amid the presumption of Russia’s wide influence in the country, the Bulgarian media does not seem to have voluntarily borrowed from their Russian counterparts. Of course, there are more than a few points of intersection when it comes to media coverage of civil society organizations. However, there are too many differences in key aspects of the Russian and Bulgarian media’s treatment of civil society. No one should be surprised by this result. Even if the editors of some of our media wanted to copy their Russian counterparts, their efforts would have failed with a bang.
Actually, despite the ongoing monopolization of the media space, Bulgaria is not Russia, that is undeniable. First of all, Bulgarian state institutions are still endemically weak. Thus, Bulgarians are adverse to relying on a state that in the 1990s ceased to be authoritarian only to become “weak” today. At the same time, the average Russian takes the omnipresence and omnipotence of the state for granted.
The way forward
Despite 30 years of post-socialist transformation, religious values and traditions are still of great importance in Bulgaria. Because of this, many civil society organisations in the country are unable to counter the denigrating rhetoric that some media use against them, even though they represent values that many Bulgarians sincerely believe in.
Crucially, this enables other CSOs to improve their media presence by:
- We are beginning a new season of dialogue with other segments of society. Eventually they may succeed in educating large sections of the masses in a version of these values that better matches the current beliefs of the population.
- Increase fundraising efforts and launch smart marketing campaigns
- Using direct relationships with media owners who make direct efforts to promote CSO activities
However, much more needs to be done in terms of future research. Especially in terms of focusing attention on environmental organisations, a specific subgroup of CSOs with distinctive characteristics that may play a key role in the future.