Polarization is a lethal threat to democracy

Interview with Martin Kothé for the Premiere of Black Book of Government Waste 2020
martin kothee

© Gergana Kostadinova/BGNES

The interview with Martin Kothé is given for the Bulgarian newspaper, Dnevnik. Article was published on 15 January by the journalist, Lora Fileva. Read the article in Bulgarian here.

What is important to know about the new edition of the Black Book?

I have to admit that we look at the Black Book of Government Waste very much as our baby at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom. In Africa they say, “it takes a village to raise a child,” and this very much applies to the sixth edition of the Black Book as well: Without the help of so many committed, knowledgeable and engaged investigative journalists from all over Bulgaria, it wouldn’t have been possible. 

Again, we were able to compile 15 stories of inefficient or questionable spending of Bulgarian citizens’ money, including indications of corruption or conflicts of interest. By pointing out these cases, we invite Bulgarians to demand transparency and accountability from the authorities. We believe Bulgarians have a right to know how their money is spent, and the people’s money should create welfare.

This time, we also did follow-ups of cases from previous years of which there are now more than 50 in all. TV journalist Genka Shikerova and cameraman Miroslav Mihaylov traveled through the country with our team and compiled a series of video stories uncovering what has become of past cases.

Plus, we won macroeconomist Georgi Ganev from the Center of Liberal Strategies to evaluate the waste and explain to Bulgarian citizens how their money as taxpayers could be spent better to improve peoples’ lives.  

'We look at the Black Book of Government Waste very much as our baby at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom. In Africa they say, “it takes a village to raise a child,” and this very much applies to the sixth edition of the Black Book as well: Without the help of so many committed, knowledgeable and engaged investigative journalists from all over Bulgaria, it wouldn’t have been possible.'

martin kothee
Martin Kothé

What do you think about the effect of the Black Book on general public? How much time is needed to react against, to open the eyes for the cases of wasted money, of corruption?

We find the interest in the Black Book has been growing with each year. Everybody who wants a copy can just send a message to the Facebook Page of the Black book to receive one. I also want to thank all media in Bulgaria which promote it. This support is important to us.

We also ask our readers to point us to new cases they might have observed which we would then investigate with our team of journalists and authors. All citizens have a right to be heard, and they can help us to document cases of misuse of taxpayers’ money and require the local and national authorities to correct them.

Of course, this endeavor is a long shot, but we are committed to it. Misuse of taxpayers’ money happens in all places. Just look at my home country of Germany. The German version of the Black Book which inspired ours exists for more than 45 years by now.

I like to think that many in the local and national authorities are aware of the Black Book by now and would not wish to be featured prominently in it. I mean, who wants to be an anti-hero of the Black Book?

martin kothee
Martin Kothé

Do you think that there is a change since the first edition of the Black Book in Bulgaria? What is that change?

Well, I like to think that many in the local and national authorities are aware of the Black Book by now and would not wish to be featured prominently in it. I mean, who wants to be an anti-hero of the Black Book?

But I can also give you a positive, best practice example. It’s from Vratsa. Due to the excellent work of an investigative journalist there who, after publishing her case, handed all his documents to the prosecutor’s office, the municipality council acted and stopped a project and cancelled a contract. The prosecutor’s office started an investigation. This is a great example of the power of the media, and we tell this story in the Black Book 2020.

How the reactions towards cases of governmental waste and corruption are different in Bulgaria and Germany?

The power of the German Black Book is its credibility. Its impact is big, it can actually stop projects of inefficient spending. The publisher of the German Black Book is the German Taxpayers Association, an NGO financed by small donation of the citizens. The German Black Book does not focus on corruption cases, but more on stories of stupid and inefficient waste. The German Black Book has actually led to legislation changes passed by the Bundestag over the years.

Here in Bulgaria, we from the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom invite investigative journalists to write the cases. Some of them have to use pseudonyms. In the end, we send a copy of the book to the institutions that are targeted. And it is their job to check and change their ways if necessary.

By the way, we would be more than happy to partner with lawyers to bring cases to the court.

This year is crucial for the Bulgarian political landscape. Parliamentary and presidential elections will change the political environment. New political projects might enter the parliament. The Bulgarians have it in their hands to see for change, so a strong turnout will be important. I just hope the pandemic will not interfere too much with the process.

martin kothee
Martin Kothé

What is needed so that journalism in a media environment that is not famous with its pluralism to gain higher credibility?

I think professional journalists need to be able to enjoy independence to fulfil their role. This means also that the media they work for have to be independent from outside interference. And of course you have to safeguard media pluralism by making sure there is no undue media concentration in a single hand. For this, you need a tight competition law and a strong consensus in politics and society that a free press needs rules that all abide by to flourish.

What are your expectations for 2021 in terms of governmental waste cases and media freedom in Bulgaria?

This year is crucial for the Bulgarian political landscape. Parliamentary and presidential elections will change the political environment. New political projects might enter the parliament. The Bulgarians have it in their hands to see for change, so a strong turnout will be important. I just hope the pandemic will not interfere too much with the process. Looking at neighboring countries that recently underwent elections in times of the pandemic, I am afraid the virus is not only bad for your health, but it can also be bad for democracy. Let’s hope for the best, but let’s also be prepared otherwise. Polarization such as we currently see in the US is a lethal threat to democracy, and we all need to give our best to prevent this cancer to spread even further in Europe. With regard to the Bulgarian media situation: 2021 will show what the changes in media ownership in the two biggest private televisions mean in practice. I see reason to be watchful.