September 28, 2020

This case study is part of Resilience Reports, a series from the European Journalism Centre about how news organizations across Europe are adjusting their daily operations and business strategies as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.

In a nutshell: A sharp focus on collaborative cross-border investigations helped this Bulgarian investigative news outlet expose government wrongdoing and solidify its reputation for journalism that has impact.

COVID-19 has exacerbated the failings of political leaders in many countries. But in few places has it been as stark as in Bulgaria.

The southeastern European country has long had a reputation for government corruption and, in January, Transparency International named it the most corrupt country in the European Union. But it wasn’t until the coronavirus emerged that citizens, frustrated by Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s poor handling of the pandemic, took to the streets in protest.

In part, these protests can be put down to the investigative report of Bivol, an award-winning Bulgarian investigative news outlet. Despite the challenges of working from home, its small team has shone a light on legislative failings and data privacy concerns and published hard-hitting reports that have been picked up around the world.

In this case study, Tara Kelly from the European Journalism Centre explains how Bivol’s remote team setup and tightly defined focus allowed it to have an outsized impact in Bulgaria and beyond.

What is Bivol?

Founded in 2010 by investigative journalists Assen Yordanov and Atanas Tchobanov, Bivol is an investigative online media outlet exposing corruption and links with organized crime in Bulgaria. Bivol means “water buffalo” in Bulgarian and was chosen because the animal has a strong sense of justice, a good memory and is intelligent. The team consists of three remote editors based in Bulgaria and France and four regular freelancers and translators.

Bivol publishes about three investigations per week and around 120 articles per year. These are available in three languages: Bulgarian, English and French. It is also a member of the OCCRP and ICIJ and a partner of WikiLeaks.

80% of Bivol’s revenue comes from reader donations. In 2019, the outlet received €50,000 in donations. Readers are provided the option to pay €2, €3 or €5 per month, although many take up the option to pay more. All funds are used to pay for translators, investigative costs (e.g. travel) and server infrastructure that is necessary to withstand Distributed Denial of Service attacks.

Although most advertisers fear aligning themselves with Bivol’s anti-government reporting, the outlet makes 20% of revenue from one client: Botanica Lozen, a Bulgarian real-estate suburban project. In exchange for free IT services, Bivol offers, a Bulgarian IT company, free advertising on its site.

Bulgaria has significant issues with corruption and was named 2020’s most corrupt country in the European Union by anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International. Media freedom is under threat and the country has been dubbed the black sheep of the European Union by Reporters Without Borders. Bivol’s investigative reporting has repeatedly demonstrated the close relationship between the government, the judiciary and organized crime, leading mainstream media outlets to mount a smear campaign against Yordanov, Tchobanov and Bivol as a whole. On Sept. 2, police briefly detained one of its reporters during ongoing anti-government protests.

Social media is responsible for 40% of the site’s traffic and is the main way Bivol communicates with its readers. 97% of visits from social arrive via Facebook (the remaining 3% come from Twitter, YouTube and Reddit) with its sizeable Facebook page proving a crucial way that it distributes stories to readers. Bivol’s typical reader is 25-55 years old and university-educated but it also has a substantial diaspora audience in Western Europe and the United States.

In 2020, Bivol won a Sigma Award for best data-driven reporting for its part in The Troika Laundromat investigation. The far-reaching investigation unveiled 70 shell companies that were used to move more than €26 billion of private wealth from Russia to the west.

How did Bivol handle COVID-19?

When the pandemic first emerged, Bivol put all its resources into covering the virus. Between March and May, it published 31 stories on COVID-19, 10 of which were translated from Bulgarian into English. In June, the outlet switched back to its original beat of covering government corruption and anti-government protests. Since then, it has published 25 stories.

One of its investigations, published in April, exposed government information about coronavirus supplies as false and proved particularly popular. #DateGate revealed that 15 tonnes of medical supplies sent from the United Arab Emirates mostly consisted of dates, a popular fruit in the Middle East. The investigation was published on its website and on the OCCRP website and was picked up in numerous Bulgarian and foreign media outlets, including Mediapool and OffNews. Almost six months on, Bulgarian authorities are yet to provide an explanation regarding the deal with the UAE.

A follow-up investigation by Bivol showed that the disinfectants that arrived from the UAE in the cargo were toxic. Although this story received less media attention, consumer testing of the hand sanitizer in the days following the story’s publication showed that only three brands out of 21 for sale in Bulgaria at the time complied fully with the recommendations of the World Health Organization.

Other investigations published by Bivol during the last six months include:

  • How the Bulgarian government’s amendment of the country’s Health Act allowed hospitals to buy masks and other medical equipment without public tenders.
  • How government ministries were able to access mobile operator data in order to track those under mandatory quarantine, because of a failure to amend the Electronic Communications Act
  • How unreliable Chinese rapid antibody tests were rebranded and sold in the United States and Europe as part of a  joint OCCRP investigation.

Bivol’s website received an influx of visitors as a result of the global pandemic and its reporting on the mishandling of the crisis by the government. In the six months between March and August 2020, its website receives an average of 490,000 unique visitors per month. In June and July 2020, unique visits jumped to 870,000 views and 730,000 views respectively.

Bivol has not seen a significant increase in reader revenue since the start of the pandemic. In March, it saw a slight drop in one-off donations, but in April and May, this increased following the publishing of #DateGate investigation. Bivol could not provide the breakdown of total reader donations for these months, nor an overview of its total revenue so far in 2020.

How has COVID-19 changed the future of Bivol?

COVID-19 has reiterated the need for Bivol to invest in secure servers and increased digital security to prevent bot and DDoS attacks intended to bring down its website.  Bivol had one DDoS attack in April, but it was successfully mitigated. After that, it invested in its web infrastructure and now the site is very responsive. The investment required a lot of time from the team, but also involved purchasing a new machine. The team would not comment on how much it spent but revealed that the majority of revenue goes towards the upkeep of its IT infrastructure.

The ongoing anti-government protests in Bulgaria have strengthened Bivol’s resolve to cover government corruption in relation to the pandemic as well as elected politicians’ links to organized crime. As of Sept. 20, citizens have been demonstrating for 71 days in a row and are demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Boyko Borissov. Bivol’s editors believe that the protests present an opportunity to highlight government failures and bring about reforms in Bulgaria.

However, as COVID-19 cases in Bulgaria pass 19,000, Bivol will continue to be on the lookout to find further opportunities to cover the virus and publish important investigations about government policy in relation to the pandemic.

What did they learn?

“We learned that people are hungry for relevant and verified information, especially regarding the corruption surrounding the Bulgarian government’s response to the health crisis. We are shocked that the authorities are trying to use the situation to restrict more and more freedom of speech in the country. We have reported this to the International Press Institute — to vote on new laws and punishments of websites using the situations of COVID-19.”

— Assen Yordanov, founder and director of Bivol

This case study was produced with support from Evens Foundation. It was originally published by the European Journalism Centre on Medium and is published here under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 license. The Poynter Institute is also the fiscal sponsor of the Verification Handbook.

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