How many Ministries of Truth does Bulgaria have?
Bulgarian state institutions compete in disseminating falsehoods.
Critics of Bulgaria’s government often compare the situation in the country to George Orwell’s famous novel 1984. In Orwell’s dystopian world, there is a Ministry of Truth that pretends to correct lies but is ultimately devoted to disseminating propaganda. In Bulgaria, however, there are many institutions that compete for this shameful role. A series of events show how state institutions and public servants spread false or manipulative information on purpose. This phenomenon is even more relevant in light of a new initiative by the government that follows Russia’s example and purports to criminalise the spreading of “fake news.” But, if the government itself disseminates false information and asserts it speaks the truth, then is this new project aimed at closing the mouths of critics for good?
The Ministries of Truth
When giving interviews, Boyko Borissov’s ministers often make claims which raise the eyebrows of Bulgarian intelligentsia. Tsetska Tsacheva, the former Minister of Justice who resigned because of a corruption scandal this spring, argued there was a difference between corruption and а criminal act; in her view, only the latter could give rise to criminal liability. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ekaterina Zaharieva, threw a curve ball at political scientists by declaring that infrastructure brought freedom and democracy to Bulgaria. Neno Dimov, the Minister of the Environment who was nominated by Borissov’s far-right coalition partners, has openly stated that he believes climate change is “a hoax”.
The government’s gaffes have progressively multiplied. Prime Minister Borissov recently announced that Bulgaria was overflowing with Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) to such an extent that there has become a shortage of labour. In this way, he contradicted research by the Bulgarian Industrial Association, which demonstrates that FDI has fallen ten times in absolute terms since 2007. In fact, data from the World Bank shows that FDI’s decline started when Borissov first came to power in 2009. The shortage of labour seems to be linked to demographics – according to population projections by the United Nations, Bulgaria is the fastest shrinking nation in the world. Meanwhile, scholars from the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences have established that there are more Bulgarians working abroad than in Bulgaria. Citizens emigrate because of the rampant corruption and the lack of job opportunities in the country.
The wild imagination of Bulgarian institutions is particularly evident in the way they respond to public controversies. Plamen Georgiev, the head of Bulgaria’s Anti-Corruption Agency, was forced to resign because of corruption allegations. The head of this agency is directly appointed by the majority in the Bulgarian Parliament; in this case, GERB and its allies. Borissov decided to provide what seems to be a soft-landing mat for Georgiev by appointing him as consul of Bulgaria in Valencia and the Balearic Islands. This led to vocal criticism by the diplomatic profession and Bulgarians living in Spain; they deem he is unqualified for this post.
Borissov publicly defended his protégé: “Plamen Georgiev has several degrees, thousands of awards, has confiscated billions, and speaks several languages.” In reality, Georgiev has one degree in law. Critics calculated that to have thousands of awards, Georgiev would have needed to receive an award every three days throughout his career as a prosecutor. We only know of two awards given to him by the municipality of Blagoevgrad. According to official reports by the Anti-Corruption Agency, in the period of 2016 to 2018, they confiscated property worth 122 million leva (approximately 61 million euro). In principle, the Anti-Corruption Agency is often used for the harassment of the government’s political and economic opponents because Bulgarian law does not respect the presumption of innocence. In the current framework, this agency can confiscate property without a guilty verdict; an accusation by the Prosecutor’s Office suffices to trigger confiscation. The raising of charges is not subjected to judicial oversight, which opens the door to arbitrariness. Georgiev’s language skills have also been put into question; on the CV which Georgiev submitted to parliament in 2017, it is indicated that his level of Spanish is A2 (basic) according to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages.
Like a Kafkaesque movie
Unlike Borissov’s ministries, which often deny indisputable facts or spread misleading information, other state institutions seem to borrow ideas straight from the movies. This summer, Bulgaria’s National Revenue Agency was hacked and the personal data of millions of Bulgarians and foreigners living in Bulgaria was leaked to the media. Bulgaria’s Prosecutor’s Office arrested several people and accused them of cyber terrorism. Ivan Geshev, the only nominee for General Prosecutor of Bulgaria, said they did horrifying things. He claims they searched for the personal data of Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, Member of Parliament Delyan Peevski, and the current General Prosecutor Sotir Tsatsarov, a crime which constitutes conspiracy against the Bulgarian state.
Evgeniya Stankova, head of the Anti-Terrorism Division at the Prosecutor’s Office, gave further “evidence” of these people’s guilt; she told the media that they planned to hack the irrigation system of the Bulgarian Parliament and activate it when foreign delegations visit the parliament, so that their movement would be impeded. “In the prosecution, we have concluded that this would lead to instability, which would destabilise the whole political system,” she announced. Svobodna Evropa, the Bulgarian branch of Radio Free Europe, made inquiries before the Bulgarian Parliament and found out that the irrigation system of its garden was not automatic – the plants are watered by hand.
Not only have Bulgarian institutions clearly provided false information to the public regarding a criminal case, but civil society is also concerned that this could be a case of abuse of the law. Associate Professor of EU law, Hristo Hristev, argues that the hack of the National Revenue Agency could be a case of computer crime but not terrorism because the constitutive elements of the latter have not been satisfied. It is also unclear how the dissemination of false information about water terrorism proves the people’s guilt. Hristev maintains that “[the] intersection between the arbitrary application of criminal law, law enforcement and the dissemination of false, defamatory, manipulative information is a type of Goebbels propaganda”.
After Stankova’s manipulative statements attracted much criticism by independent media and civil society members, the Prosecutor’s Office sent a letter of complaint to Bulgaria’s Supreme Judicial Council in which it claimed Bulgarian prosecutors like Stankova were subjected to inadmissible media attacks. Earlier this summer, without debate, the same Council nominated Ivan Geshev, a man known for violating human rights, as Bulgaria’s General Prosecutor. This resulted in discontent among civil society members and mass protests in the country.
Tarnish the critics
In Bulgaria, critics are usually subjected to harassment in pro-government tabloids. Many government opponents face bogus criminal proceedings opened in an attempt to shut their mouth. As explained above, the Prosecutor’s Office can raise charges that are not subjected to judicial oversight. Under Bulgarian law, as amended in 2017 by Borissov’s government, an investigation can last indefinitely. A person may have the status of accused but cannot defend themselves in court unless they are indicted. While the accused sits in legal limbo, the Prosecutor’s Office can impose various restrictions, such as an interdiction to leave the country or, permanent arrest, and the Anti-Corruption Agency can confiscate the person’s property.
Recently, I personally experienced a different intimidation technique. I published a post on my personal blog in which, through legal research and reasoning, I demonstrated that the Ministry of Finance was misinforming the general public about the outcome of a major multimillion Euro case against Bulgaria before the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes at the World Bank. In response, the Ministry of Finance issued an unprecedented press release on a Friday night in which it labeled me as a speculator and in which it did not address any of my arguments in substance. Beyond the unusual situation that a state institution responds to a blog post in a formal press release, one may wonder why the government has not made this arbitral award public if it has nothing to hide.
When books come to life
In a prior article, I set out the key features of Bulgaria’s autocratic model. Bulgaria’s government has developed a highly repressive arsenal and has zero tolerance towards criticism. However, it appears it is currently headed towards establishing a monopoly on the truth, too. Sometimes books come to life and reality is frightening.
Which of the many Ministries of Truth will be vested with the authority to implement the likely future law on fake news? Will we have a new Agency of Truth? The practicalities do not seem to matter because it is obvious who will be targeted. As somebody said: “[in] a time of deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” Was it George Orwell? We need to ask Bulgaria’s Ministries of Truth.
Radosveta Vassileva teaches law at University College London. Her research interests encompass comparative public and private law and EU law. She maintains a personal blog dedicated to the rule of law in Bulgaria.