Meet the People Behind BIRN: Svetoslav Todorov

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Svetoslav Todorov has been Balkan Insight’s correspondent from Bulgaria since 2020.

Photo: Yana Lozeva

The increase of disinformation in Bulgaria amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine and recurring ideological clashes in parliament are integral topics to Svetoslav Todorov’s work.

Svetoslav graduated in Bulgarian Philology and Visual Culture from Sofia University’s Faculty of Slavic Studies. He has experience as an art curator and speaker at events organised by the Sofia International Literature Festival, the Rhodope Documentary Film Festival and Romania’s Alternativa Sociale. Let’s find out more about his professional situation.

  1. Your original background is in arts and culture writing, and you have also covered topics related to history, education, and human rights. So, how did you become a Bulgaria correspondent for Balkan Insight?

I know some of the previous journalists who have contributed to BIRN from Sofia so I was encouraged to apply for the position. Air pollution, water shortages, gender-based violence and gambling scandals were among the first topics I worked on, right before the pandemic hit.

Being part of BIRN has been a big learning experience about the region, and although all countries have influenced each other culturally in countless ways, there’s always a new layer to explore (I’m yet to fully grasp how elections in Bosnia actually work). It’s a cliche but it’s indeed true how close these countries are geographically, yet how little we know about each other.

As I’m still writing regularly about society, arts and culture for local outlets, I’m essentially leading a double life between my work in Bulgarian and my work in English. Not sure which one is Dr Jekyll and which one is Mr Hyde.

  1. You have been working for Balkan Insight since 2020, right before the onset of the pandemic and the beginning of the anti-government protest wave in Bulgaria. Since then, there has been significant turmoil on a global level. How have these events affected the topics you cover?

It was like being thrown in cold water but finding yourself swimming. Bulgaria has been in a non-stopping rollercoaster of turmoil in the last few years, whether that’s a healthcare crisis, a breach of someone’s rights, yet another election, or a short-lived coalition. There’s a general feeling that, as a society, we’re sleepwalking into vague but scary territory and there’s little international attention given to the destructive processes here.

Following these events and finding the right words and context to explain them has brought about a different layer of understanding; you see how certain issues are even more deep-rooted than expected. But the Balkans are a fertile ground for drama, aren’t they?

  1. What was the most challenging part of your journalistic career so far?

Through my whole professional path that would be my indecipherable handwriting. During my experience as part of BIRN, translating any quote from a leading local politician automatically makes them sound more intelligent than in the original. It’s a challenge to translate the erosion of public speaking.

  1. What Balkan Insight stories did you work on that made you most proud, and why?

The Bulgarian context is hard to explain to foreign readers as, after 2021, when the election spiral here started, there’s been many new figures on the political scene and bubbling movements that come and go, or stay and transform into something bigger. Yesterday’s friends become foes and vice versa in the space of months. The far-right resurgence – with pro-Russia party Revival as a major vehicle for this – has been a particular interest of mine and a curious case for anyone who deals with how disinformation is spread around here.

Also, explaining to an English-language audience how the main Socialist party remains conservative to its core will never stop being entertaining!

Last year, I was traveling by bus to the other end of the town for a club gig and suddenly the bus was stopped at a crossroad because of a protest by locals against the erasure of green spaces by an ambitious developer. I had the eureka feeling that I’d literally stumbled upon a story. This eventually turned into a feature about that neighbourhood’s spirit and endurance. Actually, it was a success story as well, as the protest scared the developer away.

  1. Knowing what you know after years of working in journalism, what would you change regarding your journalistic beginnings?

I would be less anxious about reaching out and pitching to international outlets, collaborating with editors and writers from abroad and working on cross-border stories. Amassing experience is, surprisingly, not a linear thing, especially in the current media landscape, where we constantly have to adapt to new ways of storytelling (or resist them, in some cases). If you think about it, you should do it.

  1. What one message would you like to send to young journalists?

I recently saw a new adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth by a young troupe of local actors and there was a particular line that stayed with me: “there’s daggers in men’s smiles”.

I think one of the challenges of the profession, and one which I might not have been that aware of early on, is that readers and subjects often might express support because a certain article or an opinion fits their narrative, and they might turn against you when you no longer serve this purpose. One must fight very hard for integrity in a climate that is increasingly user-orientated, algorithmic and fragmented. The bigger picture has turned into a mosaic and young journalists must also protect their vision and their sanity (usually after a decade in, quite literally) so they can pick and arrange the pieces.

So my advice would be: be aware of the daggers.