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Bulgarian Journalist Killed, as Concerns Over Freedom of Press Intensify Globally

On Oct. 6, the body of Viktoria Marinova was found in an alleyway in Ruse, a Northeastern city in Bulgaria. She had been raped and murdered. Marinova was a prominent investigative journalist, reporting on a wide range of topics, including government corruption. Her show, “Detector” premiered just before her death, on which she interviewed two fellow journalists about alleged fraud and misuse of European Union (EU) funds. Bulgarian authorities are insisting that her murder was motivated by sexual assault, denying any link between her career as a journalist and her murder, yet many pundits note the ever increasing threat journalists have been facing across the world.

Reporters Without Borders (RWB) (Reporters Sans Frontieres, or RSF, as they are a French organization) notes in their latest press release that “Marinova is the third journalist and the second woman to be murdered in an EU country in less than a year.” RWB also called for a thorough investigation, as well as protection to be provided to her colleagues also working on similar issues of government corruption and fraud.

Bulgarian Prosecutor, General Sotir Tsatsarov, spoke forcefully about the Bulgarian government’s assertion that her professional career and work as a journalist played no part in her murder, stating that “at this stage, it cannot be said that the murder is related to the professional activity of the victim.” This statement was met with doubt by some colleagues, as her murder came only a few days after the broadcast, and not long after her focus of her work honed in on fraud linked to missing EU funds. BBC reported that a suspect has been arrested in connection with her rape and murder, and will face extradition from Germany.

In terms of press freedom, Bulgaria ranks poorly, coming in last among EU countries, according to RWB. They also rank 111 out of 180 in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index, with the organization citing the increase in threats of violence and intimidation journalists face when reporting in Bulgaria. RWB also notes that “corruption and collusion between media, politicians, and oligarchs is widespread.” Just recently, Bulgarian authorities arrested two investigative reporters looking into the same alleged link between Bulgarian firms and misuse of EU funds that Marinova was. Transparency International, a global corruption watchdog, classifies Bulgaria as the most corrupt member state in the entire EU, leading to further concern about the safety of journalists who dare to venture into the murky waters of government corruption.

As more countries face challenges, ranging from rising autocratic leaders to right-wing populist surges, the basic tenets of democracy have come under siege, with freedom of the press becoming increasingly less sacred. Although historically journalists have always been caught in the crossfire of countries’ political unrest, often reporting on government corruption and abuses of power, the job has proven progressively more dangerous. In 2018 alone, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reports that 60 journalists were killed across the world, breaking it down to note that 43 of those had a confirmed motive and 17 lack a confirmed motive. These trends are also seen in the EU, with RWB noting that the anti-media rhetoric from political leaders and elites has contributed to what they term a “hostile climate for journalists.”

Though Bulgaria is the most recent EU country to be in the spotlight, there have been two other notable murders of journalists, directly linked to their investigative reporting. First, there was the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia, a investigative journalist from Malta, who died in a car bombing not long after leaving her home. She was found by her son, who heard the explosion and raced outside. She had been investigating government corruption and money laundering. Secondly, there was the murder of Slovakian journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiance, Martina Kušírová, who were shot to death in their home. Kuciak’s reporting on former Slovakian Prime minister Robert Fico’s alleged embezzlement of EU funds. His death led to massive protests and calls for Fico’s resignation, which came to fruition when he stepped down in March of this year.

Russia also proves notoriously dangerous for journalists and political dissidents as a whole, ranking 148 on the World Press Freedom Index. CPJ reports that 83 journalists have been murdered in Russia between 1992 and 2018. Most infamously were the murders of Anna Politkovskaya in 2006 and Boris Nemtsov in 2015, both of whom were shot dead in killings directly related to their work. Many political dissidents have died under mysterious circumstances, often times tripping and falling over balconies to their death, or allegedly committing suicide. The Russian government vehemently denies any involvement in these politically motivated killings.

As the political landscape becomes ever more complicated and the world faces numerous challenges, freedom of the press and safety for journalists becomes more tenuous. As this is being written, Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi Arabian journalist and Washington Post contributor is missing, with many suspecting him dead. He is among the many journalists, activists, and dissidents who have gone missing across the world.

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