Three MPs from the Bulgarian Socialist Party have tabled proposed legislative amendments in the National Assembly on heavy penalties for media that “violate the rights and reputations” of election campaign participants in covering the 2014 ahead-of-term parliamentary elections.
The amendments appear to be a bid to revive a failed attempt in the BSP-driven new electoral law earlier in 2014 to penalise media that damage the reputations of politicians in electoral coverage.
That attempt failed amid an outcry not only over the principle of curtailing media coverage but also because of the vagueness and subjectivity of the proposed provisions.
The amendments were tabled in the National Assembly on July 18 by BSP MPs Maya Manolova, Stefan Danailov and Martin Zahariev. Manolova was behind the new electoral law voted in this year with the backing of the ruling axis.
But in a twist, a few hours after news broke about the proposed amendments, Manolova distanced herself from them, saying that they had been drafted by observers of the elections and would not be discussed by this parliament.
Even before Manolova’s move, it had been doubtful whether the new amendments – already sharply criticised by one Bulgarian-language media website as a “disturbing proposal to censor the media during election campaigns” – would even be debated and voted on.
The 42nd National Assembly is due to be dissolved on August 6 to make way for the ahead-of-term parliamentary elections on October 5, called after the ruling axis gave way in the face of the BSP having been soundly defeated in the May European Parliament elections.
Far-right ultra-nationalists Ataka have been boycotting parliamentary proceedings in recent weeks and party leader Volen Siderov said that his party would not return to the National Assembly until the legislature was dissolved.
From the beginning of the ill-fated 42nd National Assembly in May 2013, the ruling axis of the BSP and Movement for Rights and Freedoms was dependent on the formal presence of Siderov’s Ataka – a presence now absent.
This has put the achievement of a quorum for proceedings in the hands of centre-right opposition GERB, the largest single party out of the four in the current Parliament.
In turn, amid a dispute over proposed Budget amendments, GERB too is now boycotting Parliament, with its leader Boiko Borissov saying that his party would return only to vote on the resignation of the government.
But events in Bulgaria’s Parliament remain unpredictable, as inter-party political agreements are made and broken, and full and partial boycotts come and go.
With this unpredictability, it cannot be ruled out that Parliament may sit again, for something other than the departure of the cabinet. The bill proposes a new Article 177 of the Electoral Act, entitled “editorial responsibility”.
The proposed amendment says that all media – print, radio, television and online – have the editorial responsibility not to prejudice the rights and reputation of participants in the election campaign.
The only exemption from liability would be if this kind of information comes from official channels, quoted from official documents or accurately reproduced public statements.
Website Offnews commented that this would mean the media would fall foul of the law if it publishes, for example, the results of its investigations or information coming from sources other than party or institutional press centres.
Although existing legislation allows candidates in election campaigns to bring court actions to defend their reputations, the proposed restrictive text would limit what the media could write.
The proposed amendments add that when documents are quoted, there should be “no changes” and that facts must be distinguished from commentary on them.
Offnews commented that these two provisions were established journalistic principles, respected in most developed countries because of in-house rules and self-regulation of the media market.
Bulgaria has a media law, the Radio and Television Act which, as its name suggests, applies only to those two media. Further, the provisions of this law, such as a mandatory plurality of opinions, apply solely to public broadcasters Bulgarian National Television and Bulgarian National Radio.
The amendments proposed by the BSP three say that the Central Election Commission (CEC) would control election campaign coverage by radio and television through specialised monitoring by the Council for Electronic Media, while for print and online media, monitoring would be done by a non-government organisation registered as an observer.
Complaints of alleged infringements would be submitted to the CEC. The proposed amendments also provide for more stringent requirements for paid coverage of election events. These would have to have text or sound labelling them as (in translation from the Bulgarian text of the draft amendments) “paid publication”.
The type of notice to be used by each media would have to be published before the start of the campaign along with the rates and conditions for the service. Online and print media would have to provide the same conditions and advertising tariffs to all parties and make these public no later than 40 days before the election.
The proposed amendments say that payment would have to be in advance. No reason was offered for this latter proposal, which also suggests a certain unfamiliarity with the fact that payment for advertising is seldom made in advance (again, Offnews added that it was a “open secret” that payment to media for advertising sometimes was deferred or delayed for months).
Media found not to have made public tariffs and contracts could face fines of between 20 000 and 50 000 leva (about 10 000 to 25 000 euro).
In the motivation for the bill – and before Manolova’s renunciation of it – the BSP three (two of whom, Manolova and Danailov, have been nominated to stand in the BSP leadership election on July 27) said that the reason for their amendments was to ensure transparency in the financing of the media and media interaction with parties, coalitions and independent candidates during election campaigns “as one of the fundamental principles of democracy”.
The three claimed that the amendments arose from shortcomings during the 2014 European Parliament elections, and this required alignment of the administrative and legal status of print and online media with that of public and commercial broadcasters.
Not mentioned by the BSP three was the fact that Bulgaria’s media environment has come in for sharp criticism from various foreign and international media watchdog and human rights groups, which in recent years have consistently reported a continuing decline in media freedom in the country.
(Photo: Brian Lary/sxc.hu)