Attacks on the Press 2000: Bulgaria

WHILE BULGARIA PURSUED A BROAD RANGE OF LEGAL AND INSTITUTIONAL REFORMS last year, living standards have been slow to improve and corrupt insiders have been the main beneficiaries of privatization. Journalists had more freedom to work independently, but many were still reluctant to pursue controversial stories due to concerns about physical security and legal harassment.

Bulgarian journalists are poorly paid and suffer from low social status. Self-censorship persists in the reform era, though it is most prevalent in the few remaining political party papers and on state-run Bulgarian National Television (BNT).

On January 12, Parliament amended Articles 146, 147, and 148 of the Penal Code, which had imposed criminal sanctions for libel, “attacking the honor and dignity” of individuals, and “insulting the authority of the state.” The changes forced government officials to press libel charges themselves, rather than having state prosecutors act on their behalf. As a result, journalists faced fewer libel suits, because government officials now have to pay their own lawyers.

Under the revised articles, the penalty of imprisonment was initially replaced with fines of between 5000 and 30,000 leva (US$2585-15,500). President Petar Stoyanov vetoed this provision, arguing that the fines were “excessively high compared to the low income of journalists.” Parliament then lowered the fines to between 1000 and 20,000 leva (US$517-10,333), still a significant burden.

Despite these positive changes, Tatiana Vaksberg, a Sofia-based free-lance correspondent for Radio Free Europe, was still facing prosecution at year’s end on 1999 criminal defamation charges filed by Prosecutor General Ivan Tatarchev, who was angered by Vaksberg’s critical reporting on his performance in office. Tatarchev was replaced in February 1999, but the case against Vaksberg was still active as of January 2001, according to the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee.

The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee reported that journalists were also subject to physical assault, particularly from criminal organizations. The worst attack occurred on December 16, when Todor Dimov, the editor and publisher of the Yambol weekly Tundja, was severely beaten by three men in the marketplace in Yambol. Dimov underwent extensive surgery for serious head injuries and spent a month recovering in the hospital. The police arrested three suspects with alleged links to the Russian mafia. Prior to the attack, Dimov had written a series of articles examining allegedly corrupt local businesses and their Russian criminal connections, and had been warned to stop covering this topic.

On November 4, Justice Minister Teodossyi Simeonov punched Aleksander Mihaylov, an 18-year-old photographer for the newspaper Sega, after invoking his alleged constitutional right not to be photographed. On November 7, Bulgaria’s nine largest daily newspapers called for Simeonov’s resignation, but Prime Minister Kostov only announced that the justice minister had “cast an unfavorable light on the government…which respects the media and public opinion.” Nor did Simeonov face criminal charges.

Two serious attacks on journalists in previous years also remained unsolved. In June 1999, Alexei Lazarov, a writer for the daily Kapital, suffered multiple knife wounds and a broken leg when unknown assailants attacked him. And in May 1998, Anna Zarkova, chief crime editor for the daily Trud, suffered severe burns and permanent blindness in her left eye when an unidentified man threw acid in her face, apparently in retaliation for her reporting.

June marked the launch of the Association of Investigative Journalists, headed by Zoya Dimitrova, chief investigative editor at the national weekly 168 Chasova. The association seeks to encourage investigative work that reporters cannot pursue within their own organizations because of pressure from advertisers or politicians. It also hopes to establish international contacts for training and for cooperative work on regional stories such as the illegal trafficking of women and narcotics.