Attacks on the Press 2001: Bulgaria

During 2001, media outlets that criticized ruling authorities faced harassment, while journalists investigating politically sensitive issues, such as official corruption and organized crime, continued to suffer threats and intimidation for their work.

A crisis erupted at Bulgarian National Radio (BNR), the country’s largest and most influential media outlet, after the director’s term expired on January 18. On February 6, the National Council for Radio and Television (NCRT), a quasi-governmental media oversight board, appointed Ivan Borislavov, a supporter of the ruling Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) party, as the new BNR director. Staff members worried that the station would lose its editorial independence, particularly in the face of upcoming parliamentary elections, because of Borislavov’s ties to the UDF. The following day, 200 BNR staff threatened to strike if he did not resign.

During the following weeks, demonstrations escalated and management dismissed a dozen popular news anchors for participating in the protests. On April 5, the Supreme Administrative Court annulled the appointment, concluding that it had violated administrative procedures, BTA news agency reported. While the decision was being appealed, BNR management dismissed an additional six protesters on April 10 and brought in journalists from the pro-UDF, Sofia-based daily Demokratsia to replace them. Finally, on May 15, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the April 5 ruling.

On May 28, the NCRT appointed a compromise candidate, journalist Polya Stancheva, as BNR director in order to defuse the conflict. Though also considered a UDF loyalist, Stanchev rehired the journalists who had been dismissed for participating in the protests.

The episode at BNR highlighted the problems with the NCRT. While it was originally established to limit excessive political influence over the media, “all nine members of the board were known to be supporters of the ruling [UDF] party,” said Ognian Zlatev of the Sofia-based Media Development Center.

Independent media outlets continued to face indirect government harassment, especially when politicians used their influence to divert advertising revenue to loyal media outlets and away from more independent and critical outlets.

On March 5, Ivo Prokopiev and Filip Harmandjiev, editors-in-chief of the Sofia-based weekly Kapital and the Sofia-based daily Dnevnik, respectively, both accused Prosecutor General Nikola Filchev of launching multiple tax audits against them in retaliation for an article published in Dnevnik in early February. (The article detailed alleged criminal activities of the prosecutor general’s brother.) The two editors also charged the audits were in reprisal for numerous Kapital articles criticizing the Prosecutor’s Office.

On April 23, the Union of Bulgarian Newspaper Publishers, which represents the independent publishers of Bulgaria’s 13 leading dailies, issued a statement expressing its “grave concern and categorically denounce [sic] increasing instances, in which the levers of power are used to exert pressure on daily newspapers and interfere in the editorial policy of many publications,” Reuters reported.

The harassment of Dnevnik and Kapital occurred just as Bulgaria was preparing for crucial parliamentary elections on June 17. The state-run media–both BNR and Bulgarian National Television (BNT)–continued their tradition of providing preferential coverage of the ruling UDF party government.

But broad public frustration with political corruption and declining standards of living led angry voters to dump the ruling UDF coalition. The National Movement of Simeon II, a front representing the former Bulgarian king, who had recently returned from exile in Spain, won the election with nearly 43 percent of the vote. Later in the year, in two presidential election rounds held on November 11 and 18, Georgi Parvanov, leader of the opposition Socialist Party, defeated incumbent president Petar Stoyanov.