In rule of law report, EC reiterates concerns about Bulgaria’s Prosecutor-General

The second rule of law report by the European Commission (EC), released on July 20, has reiterated concerns about the extensive influence, lack of accountability and effective invulnerability from criminal investigation of the country’s Prosecutor-General.

The release of the report coincided with a motion to the Supreme Judicial Council, to be discussed on July 22, to recommend the removal of Ivan Geshev from that post, and moves to air in the newly-elected National Assembly allegations against Geshev by the caretaker interior and justice ministers.

The EC report said that the lack of a possibility for an effective criminal investigation concerning the Prosecutor-General and his or her deputies had been a long-standing issue which had been raised not only by the EC but also by the European Court of Human Rights and the Council of Europe.

“The combination of the powers of the Prosecutor-General together with his position in the Supreme Judicial Council results in a considerable influence within the Prosecutor’s Office, potentially in the Supreme Judicial Council (both in the Prosecutorial Council and in the Plenary) and within the magistracy,” the report said.

A new law on the Prosecutor-General and his/her deputies had entered into force, the report said, but added that in the meantime, that same law had been challenged in the Constitutional Court, which had declared it unconstitutional.

“As a consequence, the challenge with the accountability and criminal liability of the Prosecutor-General remains.”

Concerns related to the composition and functioning of the Supreme Judicial Council also remained, the EC said.

“A reform on this matter had been proposed in a draft new constitution but this was ultimately not adopted.”

The report noted that the Inspector General and the Inspectors of the Inspectorate to the Supreme Judicial Council were continuing in office in spite of their terms having ended in April 2020.

The promotion system within the judiciary raised concerns as appointments of judges to higher positions had not been carried out as per the ordinary procedure of open competition, the report said.

Despite legislative efforts, digitalisation of justice is still lagging behind in practice.

The report said that efficiency of the administrative justice system was showing “significant progress”.

The implementation of the institutional reforms on anti-corruption has been consolidated, the report said.

It said that “significant challenges” remain concerning the effectiveness of measures related to the integrity of public administration, lobbying and whistleblowing protection, where no dedicated regulation exists.

“Despite the increased investigative activity and the reinforcement of resources, final convictions for high-profile cases of corruption remains low and a solid track-record of final convictions remains to be established in this respect.”

The lack of transparency of media ownership remains a source of concern, the EC said.

The lack of regulatory safeguards for fair and transparent allocation of state advertising continued to raise concerns, it said.

The report said that political interference in the media continued to be a pressing issue.

Lack of legislation preventing politicians and parties from owning media outlets appeared to be an important factor, and a higher risk in this regard was registered in the TV and newspaper sectors.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has negatively affected media pluralism and no measures supporting directly the media sector have been put in place,” the report said.

The pandemic had affected media pluralism and protection of journalists mainly in economic terms, due to salary cuts and delayed payments, with a severe impact on regional journalism, as highlighted by stakeholders.

“It is reported that some of the smaller and regional media went bankrupt as a consequence of the pandemic.”

The working environment and safety of journalists continue to raise concerns, the report said, noting that six new alerts regarding attacks and harassment of journalists were registered on the Council of Europe Platform to promote the protection of journalism and safety of journalist since the last report, which was issued in September 2020.

Regarding checks and balances, the limited use of impact assessment and public consultation in the legislative process remains a concern, especially for draft laws proposed by Parliament.

“Similar concerns also remain with the practice of introducing important changes through amendments to other unrelated legal acts, which bypass public consultation and impact assessment requirements,” the EC said.

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