SOFIA -- An independent Bulgarian television station has accused Prime Minister Boyko Borisov of "spreading false rumors" after he insinuated it was working at the behest of an exiled oligarch.
On May 16, Borisov twice referred to the U.S.-owned bTV as "Bozhkov TV," a reference to Vasil Bozhkov, the nation's wealthiest businessman who has been in self-imposed exile in Dubai since January following charges of tax fraud, attempted bribery, and organized crime.
Companies belonging to Bozhkov, who built his fortune on gambling and lottery operations, had been major advertisers for Bulgarian media, including bTV. However, that changed after the parliament decided in January 2020 to restrict lottery operations to state-owned companies, shutting Bozhkov’s most profitable business.
“We find it alarming what Prime Minister Borissov is calling bTV,” the Sofia-based station said in a statement later that evening. “The management of the company has neither had close contact with Mr. Bozhkov nor received any money from him.”
As the first private nationwide television channel in Bulgaria, bTV is part of Central European Media Enterprises, which is 75 percent owned by the U.S.-based telecommunications and media giant AT&T.
'Black Sheep Of The EU'
Borisov has tightened his control over the nation’s media since taking power in 2009, raising concerns in Western capitals about freedom of the press in the former communist country.
Bulgaria ranked 111 globally in Reporters Without Borders’ latest annual survey of national media freedom. The watchdog called Bulgaria "the black sheep of the EU" for its weak press freedom.
On May 15, Bozhkov published what he claims are screenshots of his conversations with Finance Minister Vladislav Goranov that indicate they have been in close contact, raising questions about corruption inside Borissov’s government.
The screenshots allegedly show Bozhkov and Goranov discussing the activities of the State Commission for Gambling, which oversees some of Bozhkov's business operations. Goranov and the Ministry of Finance declined to comment on the screenshots but did not deny their veracity.
Bulgarian media, including bTV, covered news of Bozhkov’s conversations with Goranov. Yet, Borisov aimed his anger at bTV, the most influential news outlet in the country and one that is still not under government control.
The bTV network’s two largest competitors are Bulgarian National Television, which is funded and directly controlled by the government, and Nova TV, which was acquired by Kiril Domuschiev, a businessman who is seen as being loyal to Borisov.