Bulgarian government urged to engage fully in defence of press freedom
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) welcomes the Bulgarian parliament’s adoption of measures combating abusive lawsuits and defending access to information, and calls on the ruling coalition to go further with the adoption of systemic measures in defence of press freedom in accordance with RSF’s other recommendations.
Bulgaria now has a penal code that provides journalists with more protection. On 4 August, the president promulgated a legislative reform which, inter alia, reduces the fines for defaming a government official from 7 500 to 3 500 euros, hence to the same level as the fine for defaming any other person. The amendment reduces the fine for insulting a state official from 5,000 to 1,500 euros.
Approved by parliament at the end of July, this reform was one of RSF’s recommendations for Bulgaria. It provides Bulgaria’s poorly paid journalists with better protection against judicial harassment by politicians and senior officials.
Furthermore, on 26 July, parliament rejected the restrictions on access to information that had been heavily criticised by RSF five days before. Rejected by the committee for direct citizen participation, the restrictions had been proposed by parliamentary representatives of GERB, a party that is a member of the ruling coalition. Their proposal would also have limited those eligible to request information and the type of documents that would be accessible – with alarming consequences for journalists’ access to information.
"We welcome the new penal code’s adoption and we are relieved by the parliamentary committee’s rejection of dangerous provisions for the right to information. In the wake of these initial demonstrations of goodwill, Prime Minister Nikolay Denkov’s government should now fully engage in a virtuous circle by implementing systemic reforms in defence of press freedom based on RSF's recommendations and in consultation with Bulgaria’s journalistic community.
Opportunities not to be missed
The various projects that need developing include the reform of the law on access to information, on which parliament is due to deliberate again after the summer break, and which needs to go further, in RSF’s view. In its recommendations in March 2021, RSF called for increased accessibility to the declarations of ownership of senior officials, the commercial register, the property register and the registers of courts and prosecutors.
Aside from the issue of fines, measures to combat abusive lawsuits (SLAPPs) are high on the agenda proposed by RSF and are currently the subject of a debate led by a working group that the Ministry of Justice created last April. RSF urges the government to implement concrete measures by the end of 2024, as it undertook to do in its 26 July manifesto.
This manifesto also announced – by the end of 2023 at the latest – initiatives to make the media regulator more independent, media funding reforms, and measures to combat disinformation. RSF will be waiting to see that these promises are kept and will offer new proposals in line with its 2021 recommendations.
Bulgaria is ranked 71st out of 180 countries in RSF's 2023 World Press Freedom Index.