Six media associations have written to Bulgaria’s caretaker government to urge it to prioritise the improvement of media freedom in the country and the investigation of serious threats and attacks on journalists.
Addressed to caretaker Prime Minister Stefan Yanev, Interior Minister Boiko Rashkov and Culture Minister Velislav Minekov, the letter, announced on June 9, was signed by the Association of European Journalists Bulgaria, Article 19, the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, Free Press Unlimited, International Press Institute and OBC Transeuropa.
The letter was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU member states and candidate countries.
This is the text:
“The Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) are writing to urge you to take the opportunity presented by the interim government to prioritise the improvement of media freedoms in Bulgaria and the investigation of serious threats and attacks on journalists.
Bulgaria languishes as the lowest ranked European Union member state in Reporters Without Borders’ 2021 World Press Freedom Index. Its continued deterioration over the last year reflects poorly on the former administration and presents substantial challenges for the caretaker government, which assumed office on May 12.
Attacks and threats against journalists remain serious and frequent, with those responsible almost never facing justice; police accountability for violence against media workers has been virtually non-existent; legal harassment of outlets investigating the activities of banks and other powerful institutions is common; and journalists have faced new restrictions on speaking with politicians and accessing information.
Improvement of this situation will require significant political will from the government, public officials, prosecutors, and law enforcement authorities, as well as a broader recognition by Bulgarian authorities of the fundamental role that independent journalism plays in society. To address these challenges, our organisations request that you commission an immediate independent review to examine the current state of media freedom in the country and to identify key challenges.
This should consult both national media, civil society and international stakeholders and be tabled for discussion by the next parliament when it is formed in July as a matter of high priority.
Meanwhile, we further draw your attention to the following violations of media freedom that MFRR has monitored and called on the previous authorities to act upon. We ask you to make resolving these cases a priority for your interim government:
- In April 2021 death threats were made against Bivol.bg and Bird.bg investigative journalist Dimitar Stoyanov by businessman Hristo Bliznakov when Stoyanov requested an interview about alleged misuse of EU funds by his companies. Bliznakov responded: “If you call, I’ll find you again and rip your head off”, before hanging up. Stoyanov filed a complaint with the Sofia City Prosecutor’s Office. Instead of taking action against Bliznakov for threatening a journalist, on April 8 Stoyanov was issued with a warning protocol instructing him to not communicate with Bliznakov again by the Sofia District Prosecutor’s Office. We urge this decision not to open an investigation to be reviewed immediately.
- In March 2020, 168 Hours editor-in-chief Slavi Angelov was brutally beaten and to date the attackers have not yet been brought to justice. While three individuals are now on trial at the Specialized Criminal Court, justice has not been served. We urge you to ensure impunity for this attack does not continue.
- In September 2020 journalist Dimitar Kenarov was brutally beaten and detained by law enforcement officers during anti-government protests. No action was taken to reprimand the officers involved and calls for justice were met with silence. We call on the authorities to take immediate action to hold the officers to account and to investigate allegations of a cover-up.
- Newly selected MPs and ministers have already polluted political discourse about the media further. In April, MP Toshko Yordanov joked that Nova TV reporter Blagoy Tsitselkov deserved to have his limbs cut off as punishment for “lying”. The Minister of Interior Boyko Rashkov, publicly discussed the removal of certain hosts from a bTV show.
- We urge you to ensure politicians demonstrate the highest standards and must not denigrate, insult or incite violence against journalists. They must also refrain from meddling in the personnel and editorial policies of both private and public media outlets. MPs and ministers from all parties should instead ensure they do not discriminate while speaking with independent media and publicly denounce future physical and verbal attacks on journalists. Elected officials who call for violence or removal of journalists must also face parliamentary sanctions.
- The government should reverse and refund recent cuts to the budgets of the country’s three public media outlets – the Bulgarian National Television (BNT), the Bulgarian National Radio and the Bulgarian News Agency (BTA) – and restore budget subsidies to their pre-pandemic levels, at a minimum. This funding should be allocated through an independent body, while further legislative steps should be taken to amend the Radio and Television Act to strengthen independence and reduce political control over the public broadcasters. Any future review must also address the serious lack of transparency in the system for state advertising funding for media outlets.
While the issues outlined here are but the tip of the iceberg in the systematic and fundamental issues facing media freedom in Bulgaria, addressing them would be an important start and a welcome signal that media freedom will be given far greater priority during your interim government.
While we recognise that legislative changes are currently impossible, we urge you to take these focused recommendations into account.
Ahead of the July election, we also ask you to urge all candidates and politicians to ensure the campaign is conducted free of intimidation of media and journalists.
The MFRR looks forward to seeing your response and would be willing to meet with a delegation from the interim administration to discuss these issues and our recommendations further.”
(Photo: Victor Semionov)
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