If the media repeats negative messages about Bulgarian NGOs time after time, people start to believe them.”- Iva Taralezhkova, Board Chair of the Citizen Participation Forum

For several years now, Bulgarian NGOs have been the target of smear campaigns and hate speech because of their actions against corrupt and non-transparent political decisions. To counter this problem, Civitates is supporting a Bulgarian coalition that strengthens support for the work of civil organizations.

Iva Taralezhkova, Board Chair of the Citizen Participation Forum, coordinates this coalition in Bulgaria.

Can you give an example of what NGOs must deal with?
Well, theso-called ‘green’ NGOs have often been the object of smear campaigns when they react to government decisions to construct hotels in protected areas, such as on the beach or in mountain areas. By doing so, they attract the attention of the big private corporations that are strongly integrated in the government. This often results in ‘attacks’ by both the corporations and the government. They for instance claim publicly that Swiss funders support these NGOs  because they fear that Bulgaria will become  its competitor in the tourism sector. If such messages are repeated time after time, no matter how ridiculous they are, people start to believe them.

What has the coalition been doing so far?
We discussed the options for handling these negative messages and decided that we will not respond to them. On the contrary; we will be proactive so that more people get to know and support what we do. According to surveys, about 20% of the Bulgarian population trusts/supports and participates in civil society activities. Then there is another 20% at the other end of the spectrum who are rather negative about our work. Our target is the undecided group in the middle: they do not yet know what we are doing. We want to bring these people closer to us.

How are you going to reach this target group?
We are planning a very broad campaign to reach 6% of this middle group so that they know more about the work of NGOs. We will make use of simple and attractive language to tell people about what we do, how we do it, and who the people are who benefit from our activities. We are looking for a national TV and radio channel as our media partner, and would like to have one or two celebrities on board to show how cool volunteering work is. We want to tell the public that they will be part of a really great community of people if they participate in NGO work. Although this is a long-term process, we believe that such a campaign would be the first step towards achieving the change that we want to make.

How did you get involved in this work?
My very first position was as a teacher, but after that I worked with a medium-sized municipality in Bulgaria. In that job, my colleagues and I worked to establish a regional association of municipalities – an NGO, and I became its first director. Since then I have worked in the NGO sector.

What is your dream for Bulgaria?
My dream is to revive and strengthen the democratic values that we’ve always had, but that were lost during the Communist period. I also dream that the young generation feels at ease in our country. The current negative atmosphere affects their lives and most of them want to leave Bulgaria. For me it’s important that they want to stay, or that they will eventually come back and be happy. Bulgaria needs our children to study, work, and have their children here. I think that change can happen if you believe in the energy and power of the community and its citizens.