Bulgaria has done nothing to implement EC recommendations on protection and safety of journalists

A study by the European Commission (EC) has found that there have been no relevant initiatives in Bulgaria to follow a 2021 recommendation to EU countries on the protection, safety and empowerment of journalists.

The EC published the report on May 3, World Press Freedom Day.

Adopted in September 2021, the recommendation was aimed at ensuring safer working conditions for all media professionals, free from fear and intimidation, whether online or offline. It set out concrete actions for EU member states to take, with particular attention to female journalists.

The EC noted that in the 2023 release of the Media Pluralism Monitor (MPM) Report, Bulgaria was assessed at “medium risk” (46 per cent) for the journalistic profession, standards and protection indicator.

The main concerns were an increase in online threats to journalists; threats to the physical safety of journalists; established data retention obligations; limited influence of journalists’ organisations; stress and financial difficulties; and interrogation of journalists by Bulgarian authorities.

The 2023 Rule of Law Report underlines the significance of the threats to the physical safety of journalists, highlighting how they constitute a form of external pressure.

The EC said that a constructive development within the legislative sphere had taken place, as a joint draft aiming to amend and supplement the Penal Code was approved in a preliminary vote in Parliament. The objective of this draft is to decrease the fines that journalists could have to pay if someone denounced them for insults or defamation.

No relevant initiatives have been implemented in Bulgaria to follow the recommendation, the EC said.

On the recommendation on measures to promote investigation and prosecution of criminal acts against journalists, the EC said that in 2023, three Level 2 alerts regarding the harassment and intimidation of journalists have been reported on the Council of Europe platform.

The state replied to two out of three alerts, not replying to one alert regarding the civil lawsuit against a media outlet. In addition, in January 2023 the State replied to one Level alert from November 2022, regarding the harassment and intimidation of journalists. There are 29 active alerts in the country, the EC said.

No national-based activity to promote exchange of information and best practices with other member states or relevant EU institutions or authorities has been implemented, the EC said..

“However, Bulgaria cooperates with other Member States and other international institutions to share expertise and best practices on cases related to the safety of journalists. This cooperation takes place mainly through the participation in international organisations, such as OSCE and the Council of Europe.”

No activity regarding a continuous dialogue between national authorities and journalists has been implemented; however, the Bulgarian Journalists’ Union involves, when possible, national authorities in discussions regarding the state of the art of the media environment and the protection of journalists’ rights.

No measure to ensure personal protection of journalists had been implemented, the EC said.

As to support to the establishment of independent specialist services/contact points/helplines (legal advice, psychological support and shelters), the EC said that the Bulgarian Journalists’ Union has its own lawyer who provides support for journalists seeking assistance; such service also covers online threats.

Regarding the recommendation on specialist services in case of online threats, the study found that no activities regarding specialist services in case of online threats have been implemented.

As to the recommendations on access to public authorities’ conferences and events, the report said that media representatives need to follow a specific accreditation procedure only in the case of reporting on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ work.

To be accredited, journalists need to provide a letter to the editor (head) of the media company with a request for accreditation and a photo. Freelancers, instead, need to provide copies of published materials and a document certifying the membership of the applicant for accreditation in a professional organisation.

Bulgaria did not sign the Council of Europe Convention on Access to Official Documents, the EC said.

It said that however, the access to information held by state bodies is a constitutionally guaranteed right in Bulgaria.

The Bulgarian constitution states, in Article 41, that “Everyone shall be entitled to obtain information from state bodies and agencies on any matter of legitimate interest to them which is not a state or other secret and does not affect the rights of others”.

This right is further regulated by the Access to Public Information Act, enacted in 2000 and amended in 2015. It also contains provisions for appeal mechanisms in cases of denials of access to information, and for restrictions to freedom of information on grounds of protection of privacy in accordance with international standards, the report said.

However, the Classified Information Protection Act207 does not prohibit the classification of information and documents containing data on crimes, abuses, corruption, or violations of human rights.

No specific measure regarding press card delivery has been implemented, the report said.

Regarding the recommendation for training for authorities relevant for the protection of journalists, the report said that training modules for all Bulgarian police forces, on how to handle attacks on journalists, are held by the Police Academy.

No training carried out by self-regulatory bodies, associations of journalists and industry representatives has been reported.

No specific public funds are available to support in-house training carried out by media companies.

As to actions to support journalists working in non-standard forms of employment, by ensuring accessibility to formal and effective social protection and other practical support measures, the report said that the Bulgarian welfare state does not provide dedicated social protection for journalists employed in non-standard forms of work.

Regarding measures to ensure that journalists and other media professionals are able to operate safely and without restrictions during events, the report said that showing a press card is sufficient to be recognised as a journalist or media professional.

In addition, on every journalistic press card there is a text, approved by Parliament, requiring all government agencies to provide full support to the holder of this card in the exercise of his or her professional responsibilities.

No specific initiative regarding the establishment of standard operating procedures and risk mitigation strategies has been implemented.

No specific initiative for ensuring effective communication between journalists and law enforcement during protests and demonstrations has been implemented.

No specific initiative to promote regular exchange of views between law enforcement forces and journalist associations has been implemented.

No specific initiative regarding cooperation with public authorities and industries on online safety and digital empowerment has been implemented.

No specific initiative regarding cooperation with online platforms and civil society on online safety and digital empowerment has been implemented.

No specific initiative regarding protection against online surveillance has been implemented.

No specific initiative regarding the empowering of female journalists, journalists belonging to minority groups or those reporting on equality issues has been implemented.

No specific measure to improve transparency in reporting data on attacks against female journalists, journalists belonging to minority groups, or those reporting on equality issues has been implemented.

As to initiatives to raise awareness and organising campaigns on preventing and combating violence and harassment against female journalists belonging to minority groups and those reporting on equality issues and providing information on how to seek assistance and support, the report said that no specific awareness-raising initiative has been implemented.

(Photo: Victor Semionov/ flickr.com)

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