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Voice to the Voiceless

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The media in East-Central Europe used to be idea-centric. The unofficial samizdat publications focused on the cruelties and inanities of the regimes, unearthed nearly forgotten history, and often featured philosophic meditations on politics and morality. Even the government-run media tended to be rather high-minded in its emphasis on economic statistics, proletarian values, the activities of fraternal countries, or the workings of the Communist state. In neither case was it Entertainment Tonight.

Today, the media environment looks more or less like it does elsewhere in Europe, with a few serious publications and a lot of tabloid journalism. Scandals and celebrities dominate the news. Infotainment has become ubiquitous. Political figures set up their own TV channels to promote their careers. In short, the world of mass media has arrived, and with it another trend that scholars have called the "Italianization" of journalism in East-Central Europe. In other words, as in Italy of the 1990s, the state has continued to interfere in the media realm, and media outlets have become highly partisan.

Irina Nedeva does a morning show for public radio in Bulgaria, edits the news programming, and does documentaries for Bulgarian national television. She is a serious reporter who tackles serious topics. She's never been interested in beat reporting in the sense of covering the ministry of foreign affairs or the president's office. She views her microphone as an instrument that is capable of leveling the playing field in a game dominated by the powerful.

"I don't feel like the microphone empowers me," she told me in an interview that took place half in Washington, D.C. over the summer of 2012 and half in Sofia later the following October. "But even now, because I'm the one with a microphone, I feel that I'm obliged to tell the story of people from vulnerable communities. These people are struggling without any kind of voice, so it's my obligation to give them a voice. I'm not breaking and entering into their places because of my microphone. I think it's the opposite. I'm not interested in covering the prime minister, for instance, because he is very wealthy and already has a very strong voice, a very macho type of high-volume voice. He doesn't need my microphone at all. But there are quiet voices in our society that are never heard, and I feel that it's my duty to help them with my microphone."

So, while other reporters in Bulgaria are following the latest twists in the wiretapping scandal involving former primer minister Boyko Borisov, Nedeva is interested in looking at society from a multiplicity of different angles. She has interviewed ethnic Turks expelled from Bulgaria in the 1980s, the man who introduced Coca-Cola to the country under Communism, skinheads who espouse racist philosophies, environmentalists who embrace a new politics, academic experts, foreign observers of Bulgaria, and many, many more. Several of these interviews have ended up in documentary films.

With so many interesting people to interview, Nedeva doesn't need to chase after the prime minister. "I think that this obsession with the prime minister is pretty unhealthy," she told me. "I don't like to even talk about him. We should talk about the policies of government not his personality. I don't care about his personality."

She remains, however, passionately concerned about the policies of government and their impact on people. We talked about her early days as a student activist, her continuing enthusiasm for democracy, and her expectations concerning the upcoming elections.

The Interview

Many people of your generation left Bulgaria. But you are still here.

I stayed probably because I was relatively lucky to work in something that I like and to feel a certain level of independence, although with very limited benefits and resources. Also I have my family here: my mother, father, daughter. And there is something to lose if I emigrate. I would lose a certain status. It's not just financial security. I work with public media, so my salary is probably five times less than if I worked in private media. It's not a very secure type of living. At the same time, I'm not ready to lose the luxury to do what I love to do and what I think do well. If I emigrate, I'll have to totally change my work. I'll have to start at the beginning. I have travelled a lot, so I know. I'll always be in a position in which I'm overqualified and less experienced, because I will not be able to do what my employers will expect from me, being a poor immigrant, but at the same time I will be overqualified at the position.

What is your feeling about the prospects of the new left here in Bulgaria?

I think the biggest obstacle for the new left will be the lack of authentic reasons to be there. For me it's an academic project, like the theoretical construction of people who are happy to read some leftist theoreticians but still have no will to be involved with poor illiterate people, for instance. I think this will be the next elitist project for Bulgaria. I'm not against an elite that adores knowledge. But the problem is that you can't make a good society only out of such people. Not everyone is obliged to read John Locke or Noam Chomsky or Roland Barthes or Jacques Derrida.

Especially Jacques Derrida! Some people have told me that 15-20 percent of the population supports Ataka policies even if its vote count fluctuates. There's an even larger number that supports a softer extreme nationalism. What do you think?

I'm very much concerned about this. I think this is a threat to many people here. It doesn't matter whether the nationalist parties have bigger numbers in the next election or not. On an everyday level, these hostile feelings and hate threats are increasing.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.