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Bulgaria AEJ Media Freedom report shows drastic worsening of conditions for journalists

A new AEJ-Bulgaria’s National Press Freedom Survey finds that more than half the country’s journalists have experienced undue pressure on their reporting and nearly three-quarters reported observing such pressures exerted on their colleagues. The 2015 AEJ-Bulgaria Media Freedom Report describes growing pressures that constrict the space for independent journalism, including regulators’ attempts to stop coverage of banking scandals, defamation cases aimed at silencing critical voices, public smear campaigns and physical as well as verbal abuse.

AEJ-Bulgaria Press Freedom Report 2015

2015 was marked by continuous deterioration of the media environment in Bulgaria. The country hit a new historical low in the Reporters without Borders Press Freedom Index 2015, being rated in 106th position –in the lowest place of allthe EU countries. The drop of 6 places compared to 2014 is related mainly to the extensive pressure exercised by the financial regulators on media and investigative journalists who cover the problems of the state’s banking system.

In 2015 AEJ-Bulgaria carried out its third National Press Freedom Survey which also discloses alarming trends about the state of the local media. The research, following a pilot survey in 2011 and a second one in 2013, shows that the "pressure culture" in the Bulgarian media is on the rise. There are stable tendencies of control and restriction of media pluralism.

The survey was conducted online among 143 journalists at national level. The majority of the respondents - 53.8%, admit having been subjected to presure while exercising their profession. An even larger number - 72% - say they witnessed colleagues of theirs being subjected to undue pressure. A new leading problem rises among the forms of pressure in 2015 – rumour-spreading and slander of journalists - mentioned by 40.6% of all respondents.

Business entities (69.2%) and advertisers (60.8%) are the new rulers of media content, the study found. Still, serious influence of political parties (67%) together with state and municipal institutions (42.7%) is also observed.

AEJ-Bulgaria put a precise focus on the problems of the regional press, interviewing 31 local journalists from different Bulgarian cities. They uncovered the dire situation in the regional media where threats with court proceedings, physical threats and blackmailing are an integral part of the working life of the journalists who insist on exercising their profession freely.

Major concerns concerning the safety of journalists and threats to media freedom :

1.  Administrative pressure by financial regulators (Bulgarian National Bank and Financial Supervision Commission). In 2015one of the key financial regulators in Bulgaria, Financial Supervision Commission (FSC), imposed fines on two Bulgarian media (Capital and Mediapool) as they refused to reveal their sources of information for materials used in covering problems of the banking system. Four media in total (Capital, Mediapool, the investigative website Bivol and the regional newspaper Zovnews) became subjects of investigations and disproportionate fines imposed by the FSC on the grounds of market manipulation. 

This unprecedented censorship provoked harsh criticism from international organizations and institutions such as Reporters without Borders and the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights. Currently the decisions against Capital and Zovnews are being appealed in court, while the FSC still hasn’t announced the result of its investigations against Mediapool and Bivol.

2.  Lawsuits as a form of pressure: Alibelcase was opened against our colleague and a member of the AEJ-Bulgaria, Marieta Dimitrova, owner of the website -www.blagoevgrad-news.com, by the mayor of Blagoevgrad - Atanas Kambitov. Kambitov claimed 100,000 levs in respect of non-pecuniary damages for her article from August 05th 2015 entitled "Mayor Kambitov - bankruptcy or elite"- a result of nearly three-month investigation conducted by Dimitrova. 

Following public reaction of AEJ-Bulgaria and increased media interest the mayor withdrew the claim. There is a second court case open against a member of the AEJ-Bulgaria: the Chairman of the Financial Supervision Commission, Stoyan Mavrodiev, is advancing a defamation suit against Rosen Bosev, a journalist from “Capital”. He has filed a claim to the Sofia District Court asking for 20,000 levs in respect of non-pecuniary damages. Mavrodiev claims he feels “tense, disturbed” because of Bosev’s articles in "Capital" and his interviews in other media, dating to mid-January. AEJ-Bulgaria observes with great concern an increasing trend in recent yearsof theuse of defamation complaintsby those inpositions ofpower as a form of pressure against journalists.

3.  Physical and verbal assaults. Unfortunately, the electoral campaign for the municipal elections in September-October 2015 was accompanied by cases of physical assaults and verbal threats against journalists. On 6 October a team of Nova TV (reporter Nadya Gancheva, cameraman Mihail Krastev and driver Valentin Ivanov) were attacked and beaten by the candidate for a member of the Municipal Council, Traycho Vassilev, and a group of his supporters. The journalists were investigating criminal schemes allegedly involving Mr. Vassilev. On 22 October the investigative journalist Veronika Dimitrova received brutal threats against her life from the leader of the political party Solidarnost. 

The threats, delivered by phone, followed an investigation by Dimitrova, disclosing links between a member of the party and a pick-pocketing mafia. Earlier during the year, another public figure – the football boss and President of the Confederation of the Employers and Industrialists in Bulgaria, Kiril Domuschiev, - displayed an intolerable offensive attitude towards BTV’s sports reporter Dimitar Tassev. This was not the first time that Domuschiev has been associated with such behavior: who has censored and criticized journalists before when he was displeased with their coverage of his team Ludogoretz.

4.  Organized slander campaigns against journalists. As corroboration of the results of the AEJ National Press Freedom Survey, during the year we witnessed appalling campaigns to discredit a number of renowned Bulgarian journalists: Iren Fileva (Bulgarian National Radio), Alexey Lazarov (Capital), Atanas Chobanov (Bivol.bg). The three smear campaigns bear the same characteristics, involving well-organized and coordinated publishing of discrediting materials and their viral dissemination via numerous linked media – print, online, TV and social networks.

5.  The crisis at the public BNR (Bulgarian National Radio) has continues for more than 6 months in 2015, demonstrating dysfunctional regulation in the field of public broadcasting. Since May 2015 a group of staff journalists, producers, editors, sound engineers and musical editors in all structures of the Bulgarian National Radio have been protesting against what they call authoritarian and incompetent radio management that threatens the public nature of the media, with opaque spending of the state funds and a controversial processes of decision-making by the high management of BNR, which is appointed by the state regulatory body CEM (Council for electronic media). The protest began on 14 of May 2015 with a petition of nearly 170 professionals working in media content production who asked for the general director of BNR to resign or to be dismissed by the regulatory body for his poor governance of BNR. 

The protesters alerted the Council for Electronic Media to several cases of programs that were dropped without any reasonable explanation, and to the replacement of self-regulatory mechanisms with administrative mechanisms that interfere in the editorial independence and the broadcast content. In response to the requirement of the Ministry of Finance for 10% cuts in state funds, the general management of the BNR (Board and the Director General Radoslav Yankulov),reduced the pay only for the people who produce and prepare the broadcasted content, but not for the administrative and advertising staff. 

The reduction of journalists’ pay has reached 40 percent, in contrast to the unchanged salaries in administrative departments and the recently employed new managers. The situation at the Bulgarian National Radio is falling into the general trend of discrediting the journalistic profession. The protest is still going on with the symbolic sound "slogan" dedicated to the Beatles' song "Let it be" that is played in almost all the daily programs of Horizon Channel (the main informational channel) of BNR.

Prepared by members of the AEJ-Bulgaria Section