Or how Bulgarian media distort crime stories
Students of physiognomy would delight in the expressions of Bulgarian incredulity when foreigners remark how peaceful and crime free the streets of Bulgaria seem in comparison with their home towns in England, France or Italy. Last year, Kapka Kasabova’s statement that she felt safer in Sofia than in Edinburgh was reported in every Bulgarian newspaper and provoked extreme astonishment.
Bulgarians don’t like to be told about the frequency of murderous violence and vandalism in countries they regard as being more advanced than theirs. While there is abounding evidence of corruption in high places and routine failures of the police and judicial system, at ground level Bulgaria remains an extremely civil society. Standards of public conduct are still enforced on the street. Balkan morality or plain nosiness means that people generally do not look the other way. Streets of big towns do not routinely become no-go areas thronging with drunken youths.
The perverse belief that the country has unparalleled levels of crime is partly down to Bulgarian desire to see themselves as uniquely unfortunate but mostly as a result of media exaggeration and glamorization. The Bulgarian media’s love affair with crime began in 1990 and the downfall of communism. For the first time since the war newspapers were allowed to report crime. And of course they learnt the simple rule that crime sells copy.
The recent death of Kaloyan Stoyanov provides a perfect case study for current media values and practice. In their rush to get the story out accuracy of detail is the first casualty. Then in the desperate fog of speculation comes the problem of how to frame the story.
The bare facts are these: Kaloyan Stoyanov, a relatively insignificant racketeer, was being driven by a friend out of the Meden Rudnik complex – an unattractive high rise suburb of Burgas. At an intersection they were cut up by a 39 year old motorcyclist, Petko Lisichkov. Petko was then attacked and kicked on the ground before first pulling out a truncheon and then a gun and shooting Kaloyan three times. Lisichkov then rang the police, handed over his gun and submitted himself to arrest. Kaloyan’s friends gathered and shouted threats.
Every criminal seeks glory from their otherwise banal and short lives. Of course the media are keen accomplices so over the past nineteen years we have become familiar with a series of colourful nicknames that reel off the pages like characters in a Batman comic – the Doctor, the Beak, the Potato, the Eyes. And so Kaloyan is better known as Big Ginger.
First reports had Lisichkov attacked by not two but four assailants. The story then could easily be framed as self defence – particularly as it turned out that Lisichkov was an ex cop and legally entitled to own a gun. Under attack by knife wielding monsters what choice did the older man have?
However newspapers like to have their cake and eat it, so Standart’s first report uses the word execution more than once in a story which otherwise stresses aspects of heroic self defence. But by the next day all the media seemed to agree on the latter. It was typical of the Bulgarian justice system that the victim of a crime should be the one who suffers. Sympathy was encouraged for poor ex-policeman Lisichkov who faces a possible five years in prison on a strangely verbose charge of causing death under extreme provocation and threat to own life. Demonstrations by former police colleagues and Rocker motorcyclists are planned.
Ex-policemen do not normally attract such public sympathy. Lisichkov who left his short police career in 1993, was declared to have no criminal record. The fact that he doesn’t even have a nickname must be the clincher – just a normal private citizen going about his business with a gun and a truncheon.
The media love binary opposites and of course Big Ginger has got a significant record – from petty extortion outside discotheques, to working for drug dealer Dian the Boxer.
“When Big Ginger’s gang gets out their knives, they show no mercy,” says a Meden Rudnik underworld source. Ah where would the media be without such sources? The knives are of course lovingly measured as though they were giant penises. But If there was ever evidence needed of Big Ginger’s stupidity – it clearly lies in his weapon of choice. You’d think he would have learnt his lesson in 2007 when he attacked Greasy Ivan in the main street in Burgas. A knife however large is no match for a gun and Big Ginger ended up in hospital with a bullet in his loins.
So that’s that then – virtue triumphed and Big Ginger is dead. His brother Little Ginger is under arrest along with other members of the gang who shouted threats at Lisichkov that he was a dead man and brandished their knives. The only concern is for the safety of a heroic ex-cop. But hang on a moment! Lisichkov does have a past. In 2003 he was arrested at the Kulata border crossing carrying a lorry load of chemicals used for synthetic drug manufacture worth 3 million dollars.
With no rules of sub-judice, the Bulgarian media will run and run with variations of this story, and their audience’s sense of hopelessness can only increase.