Attacks on the Press 2002: Bulgaria

During 2002, Bulgaria was invited to join NATO in 2004, but the European Union (EU) postponed Bulgaria’s admission until 2007 at the earliest. The EU’s decision reflected concern about the country’s economic underdevelopment, rampant corruption, weak judiciary, and politicized Prosecutor General’s Office. Bulgarian journalists, meanwhile, spent much of 2002 covering local drug gangs and police attempts to control them. Bulgaria, geographically situated in the southeastern Balkans, is a major drug smuggling route into Europe.

Regulation of the state media remains politicized, and in November 2001, the Parliament approved amendments to the Media Law strengthening the Electronic Media Council, a broadcast media regulatory body, by granting it authority to elect the directors of state radio and television and increasing its power to issue licenses. In March, the council appointed Kiril Gotsev, a veteran with two decades of administrative experience at the station, to replace Liljana Popova, a supporter of former prime minister Ivan Kostov.

The NATO requirement that new members restrict access to intelligence information led the Parliament to enact some disappointing legal reforms in 2002. For instance, in April, Parliament suspended partial public access to communist-era secret-police files and adopted a Law on Classified Information, which regulates access to classified documents. As a part of these changes, a commission established in 1997 to screen senior politicians and government officials for a history of collaborating with the secret police was dismantled. This took place while the commission was preparing to open the secret-police files of senior journalists and directors of banks and insurance companies, and to publish a list of agents and informants.

In April, Parliament began wrangling over the proposed removal of Panayot Denev, director of the state news agency, BTA, for allowing the agency to publish articles that criticized state policies. Legislators dismissed Denev in October and replaced him with Stoyan Cheshmedzhiev, the director of a local radio station in the eastern city of Varna.

Politically motivated libel lawsuits and violent attacks continued to discourage reporters from covering sensitive issues, such as corruption. Katia Kassabova, a journalist with the independent newspaper Compass, was convicted of libeling four government officials in May and fined 4,700 levs (US$2,500). The case stemmed from an article she had written in September 2000 about corruption in the local education system. And in March, Pavel Nikolov, owner of the independent Radio Montana, received death threats and was later beaten with metal pipes by several men. Nikolov is well known for his reporting on government corruption in the northwestern city of Montana, and, according to several local sources, the attack was widely considered an attempt to discourage both him and his station from continuing to pursue such stories.

While tabloid journalism dominates much of Bulgaria’s press, the launch of the Internet newspaper, which focuses on serious analytical news and updates its site several times a day, may change the media landscape in the future.