Bulgaria’s draft election code: Media face huge fines for damaging ‘good name’ of candidates

Media that publish material that damages the “decency, honour and reputation” of candidates during an election campaign will face fines from 5000 to 10 000 leva (about 2500 to 5000 euro) and 10 000 to 20 000 leva for a second offence, all four parties in Bulgaria’s Parliament agreed at a meeting of the ad hoc committee on the new election code.

The proposal was made by centre-right former ruling party GERB but was supported by the other three parties, the Bulgarian Socialist Party, Movement for Rights and Freedoms and ultra-nationalists Ataka.

So are they all, honorable men.

The new measure goes beyond the existing election code’s provision obliging the media to give right of reply to a candidate that is the subject of a negative report.

The proposed measure is likely to raise a number of issues, from just what is intended – in law – by the concepts of “decency, honour and reputation”, to whether and how the provision is seen as in line with the media freedom provisions of Bulgaria’s constitution, and further, comes on top of concerns among human rights and media freedom watchdogs about declining standards of media freedom in recent years.

Those who proposed the provision failed to define what the criteria would be for an article being deemed to have violated the rights and reputation of a candidate. Nor was it clear who would impose the fines.

Local media reports on the issue swiftly attracted numerous comments on readers’ internet forums suggesting that protection of the good name of a candidate was futile because protection could not be extended to something that Bulgaria’s politicians did not have.

Or one could resort to Shakespeare once more, also from Julius Caesar, this time act one, scene two:

Indeed, it is a strange disposed time
But men may construe things after their fashion
Clean from the purpose of the things themselves.

A number of controversies have arisen about the provisions of the draft code, not least from critics who say that it is out of line with European principles of rewriting election rules less than six months before an election. Bulgaria goes to the polls in European Parliament elections on May 25 2014.

Maya Manolova, the socialist MP who chairs the ad hoc committee on the code, has proposed that an existing ban on election campaign material, in the form of billboards, outside the official election campaign period be extended to “all materials”. Clarity on definitions and how this is meant to work in practice also is awaited.

In the committee, one of the most controversial issues was the revival by the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, the party led and supported in the main by Bulgarians of ethnic Turkish descent, of its campaign to allow election campaigning in languages other than Bulgarian.

The MRF sought to change existing law requiring campaigning to be solely in Bulgarian through a new clause saying that campaigning could be conducted in a language other than Bulgarian provided translation into Bulgarian is provided.

The party argued that in the case of European Parliament and municipal elections, citizens of other EU member states may vote and stand as candidates. Further, the MRF argued, it was common practice when foreign guests took part in Bulgarian election campaigns to endorse candidates or parties, translation was provided.

“When the president of the European People’s Party, Joseph Daul, comes to a rally for the European elections in Bulgaria, he does not speak Bulgarian,” MRF MP Chetin Kazak said.

Apart from vehement rejection of the idea by Ataka – although that party’s representatives left the meeting before the vote on the issue – the MRF idea did not win the backing of its ruling axis partner, the Bulgarian Socialist Party, nor from GERB.

Yet to be decided by the committee is the controversial issue of providing funding, to the tune of several thousand leva (a final sum has not been decided), to participants in elections that do not receive state subsidies to enable them to pay for media campaigns. This has been a matter of debate in several elections, on the basis of the argument that the state subsidies paid to parties already represented in a legislature puts them at an unfair advantage.

A vote on the issue was postponed pending the parties being able to come up with a mechanism for monitoring that money paid to parties for media campaigns actually was spent on media campaigns and not used in some other way.

Adopted by the ad hoc committee, and like all other measures still subject to final approval, was a proposal to give all parties free-of-charge appearances on public broadcasters Bulgarian National Television and Bulgarian National Radio at the beginning and end of the official month of campaigning. But, at the same time, the committee dropped the practice of the “election chronicle” that, in previous elections, saw successions of mandatory coverage of political party campaigns on the public broadcasters.

The results of polls on election day will be made public after 7pm, the committee decided.

A number of proposals already have been turned down by the committee, mainly through being jointly rejected by the BSP, MRF and Ataka.

One was a GERB proposal that the prime minister and deputy prime ministers be required to take compulsory leave during election campaigns. The MRF argued that the state could not remain without a head of government.

Also already shot down were proposals for electronic voting, mandatory voting and a majoritarian element in the election of members of Parliament. These are the questions raised in the referendum proposed by President Rossen Plevneliev, with the very idea of a referendum on these questions already rejected by the BSP, MRF and Ataka.

On February 7, a group organised on social network Facebook was to hold a protest outside Parliament against the rejection of electronic voting. Supporters were invited to each bring a computer mouse and throw it over the barrier outside Parliament.

In a commentary on the election code drafting process on February 5, daily Sega said that the BSP, MRF and Ataka were reducing to a bare minimum any possibility for citizens to directly influence the election process and elections lists and to achieve better representation in the legislature – meaning better representation for people from outside the ranks of established large-scale political parties whose hegemony over the political process in Bulgaria has been the subject of public protests.

The BSP’s Manolova, in arguing for the rejection of the GERB idea of making voting compulsory, said that voting was a right and exercising a right could not be made mandatory.

Also rejected was a proposal by GERB that the threshold for a party to get seats in the National Assembly be reduced from four to three per cent of the vote.

The majority in the committee also rejected a recommendation dating back from after previous elections that the Central Election Commission be transformed into a permanent standing professional body, deciding instead that its members would be proposed by parties represented in the National Assembly and in the European Parliament. This rejection of turning the body into a permanent one with fixed membership also is a rejection of calls by civil society organisations.

The majority also turned down the idea of the President having a quota in the Central Election Commission, which would have enabled the head of state to appoint some of its members.

The deposit for participation in elections will be the same for parties and coalitions, 2500 leva.

A controversy in the committee has been the BSP proposal that all ballot papers be printed by the printing works of Bulgarian National Bank, the country’s central bank.

In spite of objections by GERB, Manolova said that she had been assured that BNB would be able to handle the task.

The issue comes against a background of an incident on the eve of the May 2013 National Assembly elections in which ballot papers were found at a privately-owned printing house in Kostinbrod. Anti-GERB media and the BSP alleged at the time that the then-ruling party was behind a scheme to falsify voting. Prosecution in the matter of a former government official has effectively come to nothing.

But this is the background against which GERB and the BSP continually fling allegations at each other of a desire to manipulate the vote, to say nothing of previous media reports alleging large-scale vote-buying by the MRF, an allegation that that party consistently had denied.

The alleged collusion at the time between a media organ and Manolova in the reporting on the Kostinbrod incident has been a matter of considerable annoyance for GERB, which may have been damaged by the reports on the “day of contemplation”, the eve-of-election day on which no campaigning is allowed.

Local media said that a main reason for GERB to want the new provision about huge penalties for the media in publishing damaging information about candidates was directed against untrue allegations being placed as part of smear campaigns in the media. To which it may well be added that smear campaigns in the media have long been part of electioneering in Bulgaria, perhaps most vicious of all in the May 2013 election campaign.

Presumably, by the time official campaigning has started, allegations such as those regarding attempts at electoral fraud might well result in sanctions for the media. To say nothing of anything that might tarnish the glistering reputations of Bulgaria’s politicians of all parties.

For they are all honorable men (and women).

(Photo of Manolova: bsp.bg)




Clive Leviev-Sawyer

Clive Leviev-Sawyer is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of The Sofia Globe. He is the author of the book Bulgaria: Politics and Protests in the 21st Century (Riva Publishers, 2015), and co-author of the book Bulgarian Jews: Living History (The Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria 'Shalom', 2018). He is also the author of Power: A Political Novel, available via amazon.com, and, on the lighter side, Whiskers And Other Short Tales of Cats (2021), also available via Amazon. He has translated books and numerous texts from Bulgarian into English.