Freedom of information fumble a missed opportunity for Bulgaria’s new government
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) urges Bulgaria’s new ruling coalition to firmly reject legislative amendments proposed by members of a major government party that would restrict access to public information. The coalition should instead show goodwill by adopting positive measures for journalism.
The new government promised to respect “the principles of rule of law, efficiency (…) transparency (…) and resilience to corruption.” Nonetheless, having only just taken power in the country dogged by corruption, the ruling coalition is now on the point of undermining these very values by endangering the right to information.
Nine members of the parliament of GERB – the centre-right party led by former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov that is part of the new ruling coalition – have proposed amendments to the freedom of information act.
On 19 June, taking advantage of the transposition of a piece of European legislation into Bulgarian law, they proposed changes that would limit both those who are eligible to request public information and the categories of information that can be accessed.
Those requesting information would have to have a “legitimate interest” and be a “member of the local community.” This would mean that a journalist based in the capital would be denied access to the financial accounts of another city although the law defines such information as “public”. Also, a restriction on the law’s applicability to primary accounting documents would deprive the journalist – and by extension the public – of the right to see the invoices and receipts of the city hall in question or any other state entity.
Although GERB’s leadership eventually distanced itself from the amendments, they have not been withdrawn.
“After two years of inaction on press freedom, expectations of the new Bulgarian government are high. But with this fumble over the freedom of information act, Nikolay Denkov’s new administration will miss a crucial opportunity for Bulgaria’s citizens. We urge the ruling coalition to firmly reject these amendments that would restrict access to public information. We call instead for a demonstration of goodwill in the form of positive measures for journalism.
In addition to the proposed changes to the freedom of information act, the Bulgarian parliament’s legal affairs committee will – on 22 June – consider proposed criminal code amendments that would reduce the fines for defaming public officials to the same level as those for defaming any other person. Decreasing the fines would reduce the risk of Bulgarian journalists being subjected to judicial harassment by politicians and senior civil servants.
Such amendments to the criminal code were among the recommendations that RSF addressed to Bulgaria two years ago. But the proposed amendments to the freedom of information act would run counter to RSF’s demands. In 2021, RSF recommended that Bulgaria rather broaden the scope of the freedom of information act and limit the possible grounds for refusing access.
According to lawyer Alexander Kashamov, the amendments proposed by GERB’s parliamentarians contradict the Bulgarian constitution and the relevant European and international standards. Reducing fines for defamation, on the other hand, would accord with the European Commission's recommendation on gag lawsuits. By adopting it, the ruling coalition – which is co-chaired by former European Commissioner Mariya Gabriel – could translate its pro-European commitment into concrete action.
Bulgaria is ranked 71st out of 180 countries in RSF's 2023 World Press Freedom Index.