Concerns persist about deterioration of the media environment in Bulgaria because of corporate and political pressure that, combined with the growing and nontransparent concentration of media ownership and distribution networks, gravely damaged media pluralism, the US state department said in its country report on human rights practices in 2014.
The report, released by the US state department on June 25, said that the International Research and Exchanges Board’s (IREX) 2013 media sustainability index indicated a further decline in the Bulgarian media’s editorial and financial independence and management practices.
IREX had noted the “nontransparent media ownership and the huge concentration of media outlets within a few conglomerates remain the weakest feature of Bulgarian media.”
It highlighted the increased politicisation of the Bulgarian media, stating they had “abandoned their functions as providers of objective news and played an active role in political battles.”
During the year, the Bulgarian media market saw further concentration of media ownership.
NGOs noted an increased concentration of online media as a trend in economic consolidation as well as achieving political influence. Reports of intimidation and violence against journalists persisted.
In September 2014, 37 public and private media journalists formed an early response network to act against violations of journalist rights as well as overt and covert censorship, the US state department report said.
Their first case was obtaining legal aid for Ivan Bakalov, owner and editor of online outlet e-vestnik, who was facing legal action for slander from the owner of Investbank over his 2011 publications on the banking system.
The report noted that Bulgaria’s Penal Code provides for one to four years’ imprisonment for incitement to “hate speech.” The law defines hate speech as speech that instigates hatred, discrimination, or violence based on race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, marital or social status, or disability.
According to NGOs, hate speech was becoming a somewhat more common form of expression not just for xenophobic politicians, but also in societal confrontations, and paid “trolls” populated forums and social media of all media outlets, targeting political opponents with racist and xenophobic comments. As of October 2014, there were no convictions for hate speech.
The US state department report said that independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. The laws restricting “hate speech” also applied to material appearing in the print media.
The process of media consolidation continued, with larger groups acquiring more online outlets. Domestic and international organizations criticized both print and electronic media for lack of ownership and financial transparency, editorial bias, and susceptibility to economic and political influence.
The report said that in April, unknown persons burned the car of political interviewer Genka Shikerova. Her car had previously been set on fire in September 2013. As of October the investigation into both incidents did not revealed the perpetrators and was suspended.
In September, two television crews, one from bTV and the other from TV7, were subject to intimidation and physical attacks while doing investigative reports on telephone fraud schemes and drug distribution, respectively. Eventually the authorities identified some of the attackers, took them into custody, and indicted them.
The report said that Bulgarian journalists continued to report privately about their and others’ exercising self-censorship, editorial prohibitions on covering specific persons and subjects, and the imposition of a political point of view by corporate leadership.
The Bulgarian Association of Cable and Communication Operators stated that self-censorship had turned into the rule rather than the exception.
In January, members of parliament from the ultra-nationalist party Ataka forced their way into the studios of private television broadcaster NovaTV and attempted to attack physically the participants in a live program who had criticised Ataka’s leader, Volen Siderov.
The report noted that in Bulgaria, libel is legally punishable.
Usually the courts interpreted the law in a manner favouring journalistic expression. Journalists’ reporting about corruption or mismanagement prompted many defamation cases brought by politicians, government officials, and other persons in public positions.
In January, the Supreme Court of Cassation rejected the appeal of online outlet Vseki Den and upheld the Sofia Appellate Court’s verdict imposing a fine for libel against the outlet for a publication mentioning by name a politician who was featured in the book, Secrets of the Gay Elite 2.
The state department report said that the Bulgarian government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.
According to International Telecommunication Union statistics, about 55 per cent of the Bulgarian population used the internet in 2013.
The security services could access electronic data with judicial permission when investigating cyber and serious crimes. NGOs had criticised gaps in the law that allow the prosecution service to request such data directly from the service providers without proper authorisation, the report said.
(Photo: Brano Hudak/sxc.hu)