Bulgarian Journalists Are Fighting a Tough Battle in Conditions of Oligarchic Media System

Interview of Bivol with leading Swiss journalist from RSF Thérèse Obrecht

[box type=”note”]Bivol is publishing the interview with the leading Swiss journalist, exclusively given for our media. Thérèse Obrecht speaks from the perspective of a competent western journalist and analyst on issues related to Bulgaria, the transition to democracy in the former Socialist bloc and the processes that determine the social-political situation in Europe. [/box]

Thérèse Obrecht Hodler, freelance journalist and former President of Reporters Without Borders Switzerland. Having a degree in history from the University of Geneva, it is at the Journal de Genève where Thérèse Obrecht Hodler started her career as a professional journalism before joining Television Suisse Romande (RTS). Between 1991 and 1996, she was a correspondent in Russia for the RTS and Le Nouveau Quotidien (The New Daily). From 1999 to 2001, she led a multi-ethnic radio in Kosovo funded by the Swiss government on behalf of the UN and later the EBU (European Broadcasting Union) . She is the author of an investigative book on Russia (published in 2006) and several television documentaries, the latest being dedicated to Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian journalist murdered in 2006.


B.  Mrs Obrecht, you are a journalist from Switzerland, who has worked many years in Russia. What processes do you think are going on in this part of Europe?

– Most of these countries still battle with the legacy of communism a quarter of a century later.  Maybe we were all a bit too optimistic after the fall of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. It will obviously take a few generations to create democratic structures, good governance and the rule of law. I experienced the final years of communism in Russia, when nobody believed in it, nothing worked and everybody cheated in some way or other to survive. It was basically a criminal or at least a lawless system. When it crumbled there were even less rules or laws, and no civic experience. A gigantic real life monopoly started and lots of people got rich overnight. Unfortunately, many Russians thought that the chaos was due to democracy… What former communist countries need is a sense of responsibility among the ruling elites. How to achieve this? The civil society has to put constant pressure on the leadership in order to create a system of accountability and transparency. But again: don’t expect miracles, this will take time

B.   You have met the legendary Anna Politkovskaya. Do you believe her soul is in peace now, in the afterlife?

– I think she would be very sad to see what has happened to Russia since her death. All the principles she has ever fought for are trampled even more today. But her name will be cherished in the History of Russia, not Putin’s.

B.   How does the Western world interpret the deteriorating democracy in some Eastern European countries? For example, do the developments in Hungary, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia, Russia give you reason to worry?

– As you know, the developments in these countries and especially in Russia are extremely worrying and good relations have become difficult in some cases, especially Moscow. As to the EU members you mention, I find it hard to believe that subsidies are paid as if everything were normal in these countries. This is a concern which Bulgarians, Hungarians etc. have to voice themselves, for example by informing the European commission and/or European media how EU money is spent or how democracy is stifled. The Western public gets to know very little of the information published in these countries.

B.   How do the interests of Putin¹s oligarchic neo-Bolshevik model meet with some far-right and far-left political movements in Europe, such as the National Front (Le Pen) in France and the Greek SYRIZA party?

– Putin seizes every opportunity to show Western countries that he can harm them too. He is a great tactician and he uses all the means available to trick his enemies. So, supporting the far right or the far left in Europe is s great way to pay back the sanctions. But in the long run, this will not work. Even Russian economists say that this is suicidal. Russia cannot survive on its own. It must remain connected to the developed world and this means that it must play by the rules.

B.   Bulgaria dropped 70 places  in the RSF¹s latest freedom of speech index. Indicators of democracy have deteriorated dramatically. This happened after the country became a fully-fledged member of NATO and the EU in 2007. How do you interpret this paradox?

– Since Switzerland is not a member of the EU, it is difficult for me to make a statement here. But one does get the impression that control mechanisms on the use of EU funds are not sufficient. There are lots of stories going around on how these funds actually fuel corruption and strengthen the oligarchic system.

B.  Do you think that the Western press and public care about the problems of Eastern European societies, such as Bulgaria, that have been suffering a huge historical upheaval between World War II until today?

– As I said before, the problem starts with the language… the Western public is flooded with mainstream information on all media canals available. But very little background information is published on smaller countries and few people are really interested. “Too much information kills information” as we say in French. I myself, in spite of being a journalist and spending a lot of time gathering information every day, do not know much about Bulgaria. I admit that I am especially interested in news about Russia and since I speak the language, there is a great number of possible sources. Regrettably, news consumption is extremely limited in today’s society. Information fights a losing battle against infotainment – almost everywhere in the world.

B.   The European political elites today legitimize on the international scene the former communist nomenklatura, which is transforming national wealth into its private property and is keeping countries like Bulgaria and Russia in its neo-feudal possession. Why?

– For lots of different reasons. How do you deal with a Prime Minister who is a member of the former nomenklatura and is known to be corrupt? Can you ignore him, scold him publicly? As to the transfer of money to Western countries, greed is probably a major factor. Take London: its most valuable areas are sold out to oligarchs from all over the world. Prices are skyrocketing and local people cannot afford to live there anymore. I don’t know what the government could do – if it wanted to – to stop this. The problem with democracy is that it is basically an open system, based on confidence and honesty… As to the Swiss banking system, our laws have been reformed and it is difficult to deposit stolen money. After Yanukovich fled from Ukraine, the business assets of his son were blocked immediately in Geneva. Should we have prohibited his entry into the country from the beginning? Not manageable in an open system with thousands of firms registered in all sorts of names… The Swiss Justice system tries to get hold of money laundering schemes whenever possible. But you can whitewash money in 24 hours by sending it around the globe whereas it takes years to track and prove illegal deals. The press investigates as much as possible but as the HSBC Swiss Leaks have shown, in general only whistleblowers can provide the hard facts…

B.  If the crisis in Ukraine had not happened and Putin had not shown his true nature, there would hardly be a reaction against his dictatorship by the West. Is it necessary to shed blood and go to extremes to understand the criminal nature of these post-communist regimes ?

– Western countries, even if they know what is going on in Russia, obviously try to have normal relations and actually need Russia sometimes (ex: US bases for the invasion of Afghanistan). And don’t forget the dependence on Russian gas in Europe… it will take time to change the energy supplies system. I think that the idea always was to include Russia in the community of democratic nations in order to promote change. At some stage, Russia was excluded from the Council of Europe for Human Rights violations and then admitted again. Basically, I think that this approach is OK. But it has backfired in the context of Ukraine. And it came as a good surprise that sanctions could be enforced among 26 nations with different interest towards Russia. One big problem also is the fact that American politics, especially with G.W. Bush, have been extremely damaging. It is difficult to criticise a dictatorship when a so-called democracy ignores international law by invading countries and lying in front of the General Assembly of the UN…

B.   What are your impressions of Bulgaria? You have visited the country and are interacting with Bulgarian journalists. What do they look like from “the height of the Swiss Alps”?

– I have only been to Sofia… but I know that Bulgaria is a beautiful country. I found my Bulgarian colleagues very well informed about their country and the world. But they are obviously fighting an uphill battle in an oligarchic media system. When we had our first workshop in Sofia last November, journalists united in a movement to defend “free speech”. Great! You have to work together and fight for freedom of information without which there can be no democracy. Associations like Reporters Without Borders, although they are not rich, support these efforts and relay information they receive from countries like Bulgaria.

B.   Free Bulgarian media, if any today, must be able to swim in sulfuric acid. RSF is a great moral support for them in terms of the invasion of the political and societal system by the mafia. However, the voice of RSF and of disappearing independent Bulgarian media is fading within the European Commission. Is there a lack of interest to save democracy in a country like Bulgaria?

– Journalists cannot change the world, nor can RSF. It is a constant, daily endeavour to make your voice heard, to get the truth out, to have it published and to make it known on the higher political echelons in Brussels. Progress in this field is very hard to measure, very slow and sometimes discouraging. We have visited the UN in Geneva with your group of journalists and these sessions on freedom of information showed really well how difficult and sometimes even boring it can be to move forward and to achieve a goal. Nevertheless, NGO’s are an essential pillar of democracy as they voice and push forward the needs of society.

B.   The world and Europe are too small a space to be negligent of what is happening behind the fence in our own yard. Could you outline the challenges facing the Swiss society? What are the internal problems it has to tackle it in the next ten years?

– Switzerland has just made a very painful experience of direct democracy. On Feb 9, a minute majority approved a limitation of immigration which goes against the free movement of population in Europe (to which we are tied through bilateral agreements with the EU). Our nationalistic right wing People’s party tries to undermine some of the principles of our State and would like to “go back to the roots”, i.e a strong and proud (medieval) country standing on its own, without international law, without ties to the EU, without immigrants etc. They will not succeed but it is a big political challenge for the years to come. Then we have the problem of our currency which is too highly rated and creates real problems for our export industry and tourism. But as you have seen, on the whole the system functions really well and some Swiss citizens don’t even realise how lucky they are!








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