by Hilde van Meegdenburg
Berlin, July 23, 2014.
For years Bulgaria has ranked lowest amongst European countries on Press Freedom indices, and a recent government proposal could mean a turn for the worse. In Sofia, and four other European cities people have demonstrated against the recently proposed amendment to the election law and other limitations to press freedom in Bulgaria.
Last Friday, the 18th of July, three Members of Parliament from the government-backing Coalition for Bulgaria (socialists), proposed amendments to the election law that would severely limit press freedom in Bulgaria. Martin Zahariev (former publisher), Maya Manolova (deputy spokesperson of the Parliament) and Stefan Danailov (a renowned actor and former minister of culture), proposed changes that would restrain journalist during election campaigns, the most critical time of the democratic process, to only use and publish information offered by the press offices of political parties.
The changes were cleverly disguised as minor amendments to the Electoral Code so as to avoid a more serious public and political debate on media regulation in Bulgaria. The enactment of this modification would be such a blatant violation of press freedom, that one can barely believe that this was proposed in an EU member state. If this proposal passes the Bulgarian parliament, it would mean the end of investigative journalism during election campaigns.
Adding these proposals to the problems of concentration of ownership, low transparency, and overlap between political and media power that the Bulgarian press is already facing, it is no surprise that on Sunday afternoon, July 20, there was a protest against these infringements in Sofia. To illustrate their point protesters wrapped themselves in newspapers in front of the Bulgarian Parliament. As Lilia Rangelova, activist and local spokes person for the European Citizens Initiative for Media Pluralism said “Bulgarian politicians are getting shameless and fearless. Even if the amendments are dressed up nicely they mean censorship. Bulgarian journalists don’t feel strong enough so we had to interfere; we had to remind the politicians that even if the amendments are not published in English we are here and Europe will hear us”.
The European Initiative for Media Pluralism made sure that these violations of press freedom would not remain unnoticed and organised solidarity demonstrations in front of Bulgarian embassies throughout Europe the next day. In England, the Netherlands, Germany and Italy activist went to the local Bulgarian embassies to show that they too care about press freedom and media pluralism in Bulgaria and Europe.
As Hilde van Meegdenburg, European Campaign Manager of the Citizens Initiative explained: “Press freedom is one of the most important pillars under our democracies, we can't allow this pillar to crumble under political pressure anywhere in Europe. It is time we realise that changes in one member state can erode the foundation of the EU as a whole. If we cannot guarantee press freedom in all member states, how can we be a union of democracies?”.
Whether the amendments will be enacted remains to be seen, but even without further infringements of press freedom the situation in Bulgarian urgently needs improvement, and support from other European countries, either from civilians or government, might help bring about the needed change.
Hilde van Meegdenburg
European Citizens Initiative for Media Pluralism
phone: 0049 176 34 169 881