A version of this post was originally published on the author's blog in March. It has been edited and updated for Global Voices.
The biweekly satirical newspaper Prass-Press was supposed to have its first issue released across Bulgaria on March 1, but the cartoonists behind it allege that influential figures who were angered by its content hindered the paper's distribution ahead the volatile parliamentary elections later that month.
So, the cartoonists pieced together an alternative distribution network to get their irreverent publication to readers. Nearly four months and seven issues later, Prass-Press is still at it.
The biweekly is often compared to Charlie Hebdo. It's run by Chavdar Nikolov, Chavdar Georgiev, and Christo Komarnitski, who call themselves the three “mischievous cartoonists” in the newspaper masthead. Together with journalist Ivan Bakalov, they have been contradicting and ridiculing political leaders in Bulgaria for years.
In 2016, Nikolov was fired from the Sofia-based broadcasting company NOVA TV, because of his cartoon with the Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, who is depicted as a leader of criminal groups that hunt down migrants along the border. Shortly after, the cartoons were removed from NOVA TV’s official website, and so was Nikolov from his position.
“We are at war with the monopoly, with stupidity, with hypocrisy, and sadly with most of the Bulgarian institutions which keep quiet,” said Nikolov in an interview for bTV in March 2017.
Despite readers’ enormous interest, only a small portion of the 10,000 printed copies were available on March 1, with major newsstands in Sofia near universities, bus stops and shopping malls receiving a maximum of five issues. Other cities in Bulgaria received even fewer or no copies at all.
— Simona Yordanova (@SasiYordanova) March 11, 2017
When holding this newspaper is a reason for jealousy. There is expression, but no freedom. #Prass-Press
“According to our calculations, less than 1,000 copies are distributed in the country. The rest are left somewhere unseen,” wrote Bakalov in his article in e-vestnik.bg.
A report on the low level of media freedom in Bulgaria by Deutsche Welle in Serbian notes that the national distribution company Bulgarpress advised owners of small kiosks not to ask about issues of Prass-Press. The Prass-Press team believe that the company is in some way owned or influenced by Delyan Peevski, a former member of parliament and a media magnate.
Peevski owns more than 50 percent of shares in companies like Technomarket Bulgaria, Balkan Media Group (which owns five news agencies) and Lafka newsstands chains, among others. In many of these companies, Peevski has stake alongside his mother, Irena Krusteva, and together they are the majority shareholders, as is the case of the recently privatized state-owned print agency Rodina.
Peevski is also known for previously serving as chair of the State Agency for National Security (DANS), from which he was removed in 2013 because of public protests.
Together, Bulgarpress and Lafka control the supply of newspapers to nearly all the newsstands in the vital positions in the big cities, including those which are not part of their franchises. Peevski hasn't publicly responded to the accusation that he was behind Prass-Press's distribution troubles. His involvement in both politics and media, however, has been noted by Reporters Without Borders:
Bulgaria is ranked lower in the World Press Freedom Index than any other European Union member. This is due to an environment dominated by corruption and collusion between media, politicians, and oligarchs including Deylan Peevski, a former head of Bulgaria’s main intelligence agency and owner of the New Bulgarian Media Group. His group has six newspapers and controls nearly 80% of print media distribution.
Taking matters into their own hands
After officials from Bulgarpress failed to respond to the situation, the journalists decided to distribute the newspapers on their own, at Slaveykov square in Sofia, the permanent print market in Sofia.
“We will fight for the trust of our readers with honest and open position. We believe there is a huge niche for a newspaper like ours,” Komarnitski told mediapool.com.
For the second issue, which was released on March 15, Prass-Press worked mainly with smaller distribution companies and private owners of newsstands. This time, the authors stood in front of the Parliament to sell the symbolic 113 copies, which was the position of Bulgaria in the 2016 Press Freedom Ranking of Reporters Without Borders (in the 2017 edition, Bulgaria stands at 109).
The “mischievous” journalists also alerted the Commission for Protection of Competition, the Bulgarian antitrust commission, and have reached out to other European institutions for what they call human rights violations.
Months after the first issue was released, none of these institutions recognized any violations in the distribution process, and therefore did not react to the case.
Prass-Press published part of an official letter they received from the Commission for Protection of Competition on their Facebook page, which stated that out of 10,000 copies circulated, Bulgarpress confirmed that more than 6,337 copies were sold, and the rest was returned to the publisher. The Prass-Press team questions that figure, which to them seems much higher than the actual number of papers they observed in readers’ hands.
The second part of the Facebook post contains a caricature of the Commission head giving Peevski a massage and asking him, “Are you a monopolist?” In the cartoon, Peevski responds “Oh, no, no, you're tickling me!”
In spite of all the obstacles, the Prass-Press team succeeded in finding ways to keep the publication going. Online copies can easily be ordered and received within minutes in a .pdf format for the price of one euro through the website https://prass.press/. For print-lovers, they maintain a distribution map showing all the locations in Bulgaria where the newspaper is available, as well as the exact bookstores that distribute it.
Thanks to the public interest and support, Prass-Press managed to keep the same level of circulation with the alternative network as the first issue. “Now we rely on small distributors and booksellers, who fearlessly sell our newspaper, and of course on those who buy it,” Nikolov said about the eighth issue.