Sustained pressure from local journalists and domestic and international press freedom advocates, including CPJ, pushed the Bulgarian Parliament to modify its press law, eliminating jail sentences for libel.
The reform, which was approved by Parliament on January 12, 2000, also forces public officials to press libel charges themselves rather than having the prosecutor’s office launch an investigation automatically on their behalf. In another change, public officials would also have to find their own lawyers and pay their own legal expenses.
While the new policy is expected to decrease the number of criminal-libel cases, libel remains a criminal offense. Parliament also approved fines of up to 30,000 levas (about US$15,500) for damages in defamation cases. Some legislators also proposed mandatory imprisonment for journalists who refused or were unable to pay the imposed fines. On January 17, 2000, President Petar Stoyanov, a long-time free press advocate, vetoed the proposed fines as “excessively high compared to the low income of journalists.” At press time, it remained to be seen which side would prevail.
Bulgarian lawmakers, who still enjoy immunity from criminal prosecution, failed to eliminate penal code Articles 146, 147, and 148, which criminalize “attacking the honor and dignity” of individuals, libel, and “insulting the authority of the state.” While the legal reforms represent a step forward, the threat of criminal prosecution will likely continue to discourage journalists from investigating Bulgaria’s chief obstacles to economic reform: corruption and organized crime.
In a case that highlighted the need for reform, journalist Tatiana Vaksberg, a Sofia-based free-lance correspondent for Radio Free Europe, was still facing prosecution at year’s end on criminal defamation charges brought by the prosecutor general then, Ivan Tatarchev, in January 1999. Tatarchev, who was angered by Vaksberg’s critical reports on his performance in office, was replaced in February, but the investigation was ongoing as of January 2000.
On July 19, Interior Minister Bogomil Bonev ordered ministry officials to refrain from using violence against journalists and cameramen and barred them from confiscating or destroying film. The order was issued in response to a public outcry in July when police seized film from Darin Kirkov, a photographer for the newspaper Cherno More. Kirkov was attempting to document the illegal destruction of property along Sofia’s waterfront.
While the legal climate is improving, journalists continue to be concerned about violent attacks, perpetrated largely by criminal organizations. On June 28, 1999, Alexei Lazarov, a writer for the daily Kapital, suffered multiple knife wounds and a broken leg when he was attacked by unknown assailants. Despite intensive investigations by Bulgarian authorities, the attackers had not been found by year’s end. Authorities also failed to apprehend any suspects in the violent attack on Anna Zarkova, chief crime editor for the daily Trud. In May 1998, Zarkova suffered severe burns and permanent blindness in her left eye when an unidentified man threw acid in her face, in apparent retaliation for her reporting.
The 1998 telecommunications law, aimed at diversifying ownership of the country’s television stations, was put to the test in mid-December 1999, when the Balkan News Corporation (BNC), a company financed by international media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, won approval for a license to operate Bulgaria’s first private national television station. Although still subject to cabinet approval, the deal would allow for the privatization of the state channel Efir 2, leaving Channel 1 as the only remaining state-owned broadcaster.
Alexei Lazarov, Kapital ATTACKED
Lazarov, a journalist with the Bulgarian daily newspaper Kapital, was assaulted outside his home in Sofia. According to Lazarov, three hooded assailants attacked him with knives and baseball bats. He sustained a broken leg and a number of cuts in the assault, which took place shortly after 1 a.m. He received immediate surgical treatment in a local hospital and was released in mid-July.
None of Lazarov’s personal belongings were taken during the assault. Lazarov and his editor, Ivo Prokopiev, believe the attack may have been motivated by Lazarov’s coverage of the privatization of the Bulgarian telecommunications industry.
Before the attack, Deputy Premier Evgenii Bakhardziev, who had been supervising telecommunications, apparently warned Kapital several times to stop criticizing his role in the privatization process. By year’s end, no assailants had been found or charges filed.