By the Blouin News World staff

FEATURE: Can Bulgaria crowdfund free media?

by in Europe.

Bulgarian voters outside of a polling place during the last election. (AFP/Getty)

Bulgarian voters outside of a polling place during the last election. (AFP/Getty)

A group of journalists in Bulgaria have launched a crowdfunding project to fund independent investigative journalism their country. Called KlinKlin, the site will allow users to both donate money and help select which public interest assignments the journalists pursue. According to the promotional video, “It’s time to change the status quo. Bulgaria urgently needs a new type of journalism.”

KlinKlin’s goal is certainly timely. In 2015, Bulgaria was ranked 100th out of 180 countries in press freedom by Reporters without Borders, tumbling down from the 36th slot in merely a decade. The organization places it as the most restricted country in the European Union.

A number of recent high-profile incidents cited by Reporters without Borders illustrate the extent of reporter intimidation, including exorbitant fines levied against journalists who criticize officials and well-connected individuals, rampant threats, and even an amateur bombing of one news agency in 2011. In one particularly unusual incident, reporter Spas Spassov received a copy of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War in the mail after reporting critically on a Bulgarian investment group. The parcel came with a note quoting the book, saying “If you cannot make friends or win them, it is better to leave them alone.” (It was signed by the co-owner of the group Spassov had written about.)

Press freedom is especially crucial in Bulgaria, given its recent political turmoil. In 2012 and 2013, the country saw some of the most intense protests since the collapse of communism over 20 years earlier. Largely student-led, the demonstrations focused mostly on stamping out corruption and cronyism. These problems have contributed directly toward Bulgaria’s curtailed media freedoms, since several outlets are controlled by opaque chains of ownership that link back to communist era figureheads. So intertwined are the issues of media control and statewide corruption in Bulgaria that the protests were sparked initially by the appointment of media mogul Delyan Peevski to the State Agency for National Security.

But the growing protest movement that looked so promising in 2013 eventually crumbled, and a lack of media plurality may have contributed to the demise. The demonstrators initially seemed concerned with Occupy-esque tenets like a lack of opportunity and high-level corruption, but eventually devolved into infighting. The media often fueled public opinion against the protesters, who lacked a comparable platform to communicate their side. (One exception is social media, which was noted for its effective deployment by the protest movement’s supporters.)

The European Union has begun to pressure Bulgaria to make changes, after a report in 2014 found its government to be the most corrupt among member states. Bulgarians have also emigrated in high numbers to Western E.U. states in response to the bleak employment outlook at home, sparking widespread xenophobia and anti-Bulgarian sentiment in countries like the U.K. and Germany. Statistics also show Bulgarians to be the least satisfied and poorest citizens in the union.

These problems are certainly more nuanced than press freedom alone, but it certainly seems clear that they are all intimately intertwined with Bulgaria’s government woes. The country has been free of communism for some time now, but has never escaped the influence of those the old regime ordained.