Christo Grozev ('95) at Commencement 2022: 'Honor the truth and follow your dreams with dignity and passion''
Christo Grozev (’95) who is a graduate of the first AUBG class and founder of the university radio AURA was the keynote speaker at the Commencement Ceremony 2022. He serves as Chairman of the Management Board and Executive director of Bellingcat, an award-winning open-source and investigative journalism platform headquartered in Amsterdam. Before taking the CEO role, Christo for many years served as director of special investigations and lead Russia investigator for Bellingcat. Christo was awarded the European Prize for investigative journalism in 2019 for his investigation into the Skripal poisoners, and two Emmys for investigative journalism and outstanding research for his team’s identification of the poisoners of Alexei Navalny.
We are republishing Christo's compelling speech, where he talks about his transformative years at AUBG, the power of critical thinking and the importance of "discerning [truth's] contours in the prolific fog of untruths."
Dear Mr. President,
Dear Graduates, Parents, and Alumni,
It is an honour to have been invited to share this moment with you. I remember how thrilled I was back in 1995 when I was about to come on stage near here to receive my AUBG diploma. Very thrilled indeed, mostly because I almost did not graduate…. In my last semester I took a Broadcasting course. As I spent all my time at Radio Aura – the radio station that a bunch of us AUBG students had launched three years earlier - I never showed up for that broadcasting class, nor did I complete any of the professor’s very theoretical assignments. I thought that it was clear to him that I was “broad-cast-ing” for real. He did not share my opinion and I failed his class. Luckily, I got some extra credits, precisely because of Radio Aura, and they were enough for me to graduate. (Who’s laughing now, Prof. Osbourne).
I look back at this episode now and cannot really explain what I was thinking… My parents would have been devastated had the outcome been different. You know, just four years earlier, my father had driven me in his Soviet-made car from Plovdiv to Blagoevgrad to drop me off at the just opened American University. On the way to here, I had gotten cold feet, and had asked him to turn back. But he drove on, ignoring my pleas, saying “just trust me, you will love it.” My father was born on July 4, and had grown up listening to American rock music on short wave radio, so anything American had a special grip on him – and an American University in Bulgaria was no exception.
And I did love it. The AUBG gave me by far the best and most formative years of my life. It taught me to be brave and defend my own opinion. It taught me to be compassionate, empathetic and unprejudiced. It gave me my first start-up – Radio Aura - before start-ups were trendy. And it taught me the power of critical thinking.
At the time of my graduation back in 1995, a war was raging in Former Yugoslavia. It was so close to us, yet it felt so remote. Reporting from a war zone at the time was a difficult task accomplished only by major media outlets that had the technical capabilities to broadcast under such conditions. There were no mobile phones and internet was a word that not many people knew. The old fake news – the one of the authoritarian state’s propaganda – had disappeared, and the new ‘Fake News’ had not yet been invented. “Alternative facts” was not even a set phrase. We were glued to CNN to follow the war coverage and no one doubted that what we saw with our own eyes actually took place. We might have differed in our understanding of why an event took place and what the consequence of it would be; we were particularly careful when discussing the war with our classmates whose families and homes were directly impacted by it, but we never questioned the facts of the war as they were presented to us on screen.
I could have never imagined that 27 year later I would be taking part in another AUBG commencement ceremony that will be overshadowed by yet another war in Europe. The technological achievements of the last decades have made sharing and receiving of information very easy, we are constantly online and though the war this time is not on the very other side of the Bulgarian border, it is dangerously close, its echoes buzzing in my pocket as we speak. It is no longer complicated to report from the war front or from anywhere else for that matter. All that is required is a mobile phone and the ease of ‘sharing’ makes us all feel entitled to spread “our facts.” Along with 5-G internet, mobile phones more powerful than the combined CPU of the AUBG computer lab circa 1995, and the sophisticated cameras, we have also created the phenomenon of fake news and the alternative facts. We are flooded by pictures, reports and opinions, so much so that there are multiple versions of the same events. It seems only natural for us as consumers of the news to choose the version we like. In the Informational multiverse that surrounds us, the truth seems to be crushed under an avalanche of data and it is so difficult to find, that investigative journalists like me from around the world spend their time sifting through the debris in search of that truth. And the new bad actors of today know that they can’t block out the truth – but they can make it terribly hard to discern its contours in the prolific fog of untruths.
It is ironic that I have graduated with a degree in JMC from AUBG and I spend my time now not reporting the facts, but sorting through news reports to find the facts.
I - for one - am a big believer in objective facts. The only way to solve a problem, be it ending a military conflict, getting out of the fossil fuel dependency or finding our way out of the climate crisis - is to base our proposed solutions on facts, on the objective truth and nothing but the truth… I also know all too well that even if the real facts are available, many people will choose not to accept them as such. The truth is not always pleasant or convenient. It is very often easier to ignore it and let someone else deal with it and its consequences. Well, dear graduates, about to become alumni, I am afraid this “someone” is you. As the newest members of our “grown-up” club, you have to find a way to defend the truth, because my generation has failed. You would need to show the rest of us how to differentiate between ‘MY truth’ and ‘THE truth’ and to design a process to defend the truth without limiting free speech. You would also have to remind us every day that the only way to show compassion, grace and responsibility as human beings is by honouring the truth. Seeing you here today and hearing about your achievements and your plans, I feel relieved, I have no doubt that you are up to this task, and I cannot wait to see where your path will take you and what you will achieve. And, since I also have a son your age, I would also ask you to please call your mothers – and fathers, if you are lucky to have them - at least once a week, this would make our lives so much easier, calmer, and happier.
Godspeed, dear Graduates. Honor the truth and follow your dreams with dignity and passion! May the world be kind to you and the roads always rise up to meet you!