Bulgaria: “The state of press freedom is just terrible”

Tchavdar Nikolov was scrolling through his channel at Vbox – a Bulgarian video sharing portal – when his works started disappearing. Since September 2015, the 57-year-old cartoonist was contributing to the morning show of Nova TV, part of the second biggest media company in Bulgaria Nova Broadcasting Group. In that time he drew 90 cartoons of 15 seconds and all of them have been uploaded into the platform, also owned by Nova Broadcasting Group, part of the Swedish Modern Times Group

On April 13 Nikolov must have gone a bit too far.

Some background on the cartoon: For months now different groups of Bulgarians patrol the Turkish border “hunting” for migrants. Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov initially said he welcomed the voluntary patrols. But later he condemned the practice of citizen arrests and warned that anyone who carried them out would be prosecuted.

Nikolov’s caricature described the first phase of the Prime Minster's reflections. Few hours after airing, the cartoon was censored from Nova TV’s web page and Nikolov’s channel on Vbox was deleted. Later the same day, he received a call not to prepare a cartoon for the next day, and in another call was informed that his contract had been terminated.

Nova TV’s CEO, Frenchman Didier Stoessel, later apologized for handling Nikolov’s contract wrongly and Nova TV’s board member Silva Zurleva explained its cancellation as a “business decision”. Prime minister Borisov swore he has nothing to do with the removal of the cartoons.

“I think the prime minister has been involved – indirect or not,”

Chavdar Nikolov says. He claims this particular cartoon was even not his hardest criticism towards the prime minister, but must have hit a right nerve at a wrong time (and as you can see, Borisov is not a sole victim of Nikolov’s satire).

Cartoon 2 / Courtesy of Chavdar Nikolov (Courtesy of Chavdar Nikolov)

After protests in the Bulgarian capital Sofia and a series of publications in international media, the cartoonist’s works are back on Vbox and he received an offer for a new contract with Nova TV. He declined.

Nikolov is now working for a newly established Bulgarian website. Banning his cartoons from Nova TV was a shock for him.

I did not believe that this could happen in a EU country,”

he says. Bulgaria is ranked 113th in this years Reporter without Border’s Press Freedom Index, lowest ranked within the European Union. “The state of journalism in the country,” Nikolov sighs, “is just terrible.”