Deputy Prime Minister Valeri Simeonov is under heavy pressure to step down after he verbally threatened popular talk show host Viktor Nikolaev in a live studio discussion.
In the government, Simeonov — who says he will not quit — has no real power as he is deputy prime minister without portfolio. However, he is the loudest of the three leaders of the United Patriots, a group of nationalist parties that became the coalition partner of Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s ruling Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) earlier this year. Whether he is ousted from the government or not, the latest scandal involving the nationalist politician will most likely strengthen Borissov in relation to his coalition partners.
Another politician embroiled in the same scandal has already submitted his resignation to the parliament. GERB MP Anton Todorov resigned on October 11 amid the popular backlash after he also threatened Nikolaev on the same show for asking “too many questions”.
Both politicians had been discussing the procurement of new fighter jets, already a highly controversial issue in Bulgaria, with Nikolaev, the host of Nova TV’s morning chat show Hello, Bulgaria, earlier this week.
In response to a question on the procurement process, Todorov replied that Ivanov was “using very strong words and they might cost you your bread. They already cost the bread of your colleague – she had taken a certain direction, and as far as I can see, her chair is missing now”.
In September, Nikolaev’s long-time co-host Anna Tsolova unexpectedly resigned from “Hello, Bulgaria”, claiming that she was about to launch her own lifestyle show. However, there was speculation among Bulgarian journalists that Tsolova had been forced to quit due to her journalistic work. In the week before her resignation, she had focused on the latest attempts at judicial reform in the country.
Simeonov appeared after Todoroiv, and also tried to put pressure on the journalist, saying he could easily “develop a Viktorgate”.
After the parliament accepted his resignation, Todorov told reporters that he plans to return to journalism and already has a proposal for his own TV show, daily Dnevnik reported.
Meanwhile, MP Jordan Tsonev, an MP from the opposition Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), announced that will demand the resignation of Simeonov as he is becoming "a symbol of the hate speech".
“What language has the Deputy Prime Minister Valeri Simeonov? Isn’t he one of the pioneers of this language,” Dnevnik quoted Tsonev as saying during the parliament’s debate on Todorov’s resignation.
Several opposition parties that are not represented in the parliament also requested Simeonov’s resignation earlier this week. Meanwhile, the deputy prime minister claims he is the victim of an organised attack.
The two politicians have angered journalists in the country, as these were the most significant and blatant attempts by politicians to put pressure on journalists in the country in recent years.
Dozens of Bulgarian journalists gathered on October 11 in front of the government’s building to protest against politicians’ attempts to silence them. The protest took place while MPs were debating Todorov’s resignation.
“Media silence serves those behind the curtains”, “WHO emptied the chair?”, “Where is Annie?” were some of the slogans at the protest, put on empty chairs, referring to Todorov’s words about Nikolaev’s co-host.
Media freedom in Bulgaria has been assessed as very poor by many institutions, as well as highly dependent on the interests of businessmen and politicians. In April, media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) published its latest World Press Freedom Index. While Bulgaria moved up on the ranking, it remained the lowest ranked EU country at 109th position. This was attributed by RSF to “an environment dominated by corruption and collusion between media, politicians, and oligarchs”.