Committee to Protect Journalists
Country Report: Bulgaria
As of December 31, 1998

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The pro-reform government of Prime Minister Ivan Kostov and his United Democratic Forces (UDF) coalition, elected in 1997 in the wake of nationwide political and economic upheaval, brought a degree of stability and recovery to the country after a year of crisis. The improved conditions have benefited the independent press, especially the national independent dailies Trud and 24 Chasa, and the weeklies  Kapital and 168 Chasa. In some small towns, however, local authorities and prosecutors used their virtually unrestricted political power to intimidate the few critical voices of the independent press.

Widespread corruption and the influence of organized crime still plague the country. And for reporters who dig into these issues, Bulgaria is a dangerous place. Threats and violent attacks on news outlets, journalists, and their families occur with alarming frequency and virtual impunity.

In May, Anna Zarkova, a crime reporter and chief editor of the crime section of Trud, suffered severe burns and the loss of sight in her left eye when acid was thrown in her face in retaliation for her reporting, which has covered such explosive topics as corrupt prosecutors and government officials, police violence, and arms smuggling. Although her assailant has confessed, police have not identified those behind the attack. Zarkova met with CPJ staff, board, and supporters in New York City during her October visit to the United States to receive two international journalism awards and to seek medical assistance.

In another alarming trend, criminal libel prosecutions against independent journalists increased significantly. In May, CPJ joined local press freedom groups in petitioning the government to remove Articles 146, 147, and 148 of the penal code, which criminalize libel and defamation and carry prison sentences of up to three years for journalists convicted of violating these provisions. On July 17, the Constitutional Court ruled that the articles did not violate the constitution. Although authorities in September told a delegation from the International Press Institute that they planned to reassess the penal code in the near future, they continued to use the statutes to prosecute journalists throughout the year.

The results of this prosecutorial zeal are manifest in the plight of Yovka Atanassova, owner and editor of the independent daily Starozagorsky Novini. This year, appeals courts upheld two suspended criminal libel sentences she had received after being convicted of libeling local prosecutors and businessmen. (In 1997, Atanassova lost appeals of three other suspended sentences.) When the fifth five-month criminal libel sentence was upheld on appeal in December, the court ordered her to serve 16 months in prison. At press time, she remained free pending official notice of the start of her sentence.

In July, the parliament passed a draft law on radio and television. The draft legislation was intended to regulate the transition of state-run Bulgarsko Natsionalno Radio (Bulgarian National Radio, or BNR) and Bulgarska Natsionalna Televizia (Bulgarian National Television, or BNT) to public media. It stipulated that news and public affairs programs should be the exclusive province of BNT and BNR, while privately run stations should focus on music and entertainment programming. Journalists and press freedom advocates criticized the draft law for attempting to dictate the content of broadcast media. Because of these problems with the legislation, and its failure to guarantee the political independence of the members of the National Council on Radio and Television, which has the power to ban programs and suspend broadcasting licenses, President Petar Stoyanov vetoed the draft bill in September. Parliament is likely to revise it in 1999.

Also in July, parliament passed a telecommunications law, which established financially and bureaucratically burdensome procedures for granting frequency licenses to independent broadcasters and created a telecommunications commission, tightly controlled by the cabinet, to oversee frequency distribution.

Most Bulgarians rely on state-run national television for their news. The government has delayed the promised privatization of the second national state-run television channel, Efir 2. The sole alternative station, Nova Televizia, is available only in the largest cities. Of the approximately 100 private radio stations, most operate without the required licenses and could be shut down at any time. For this reason and the weakness of their signals, they cannot compete with state-run radio's news coverage
Attacks on the Press in Bulgaria  in 1998
Date Journalist Incident
12/11/98 Yovka Atanassova, Starozagorsky Novini Legal Action
07/14/98 All media Threatened
05/11/98 Anna Zarkova, Trud Attacked, Threatened

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