Grave threat to public media independence in Bulgaria
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is appalled by the political pressure that led to a programme host on Bulgaria’s state-owned national radio broadcaster BNR being suspended, and then to the radio station itself being taken off the air for more than five hours on 13 September.
Silvia Velikova, who has worked for BNR for 26 years and is known for her tough interviews and probing questions, learned on 12 September, on the eve of her next programme about the judicial system the following morning, that the management had decided to take her off the programme with immediate effect.
Velikova is convinced that her removal was directly linked to the controversy about the appointment of Bulgaria’s next prosecutor-general without the usual public selection procedure. He is due to take office next month.
Velikova’s colleagues at BNR unexpectedly rallied behind her the next morning, forcing the management to suspend all broadcasting for more than five hours. In the wake of this unprecedented protest, Velikova was told she could resume hosting her programme, but “in tandem” with another person for the sake of “pluralism.”
“This attempt to ‘gag’ a journalist in order to protect the ruling party’s sole candidate for the position of prosecutor-general illustrates the lack of independence of Bulgaria’s public broadcasting and the control that certain politicians exercise over its editorial line,” said Pauline Adès-Mével, the head of RSF’s European Union and Balkans desk.
“Amid growing harassment of Bulgaria’s independent media, the prospect of Ivan Geshev’s appointment to the position of the country’s prosecutor-general on 24 October suggests that the prosecutor’s office could step up the pressure on journalists even more.”
Although BNR’s management has continued to blame the five-hour broadcast blackout on “a technical incident,” Prime Minister Boyko Borisov had to intervene publicly to call for Velikova’s reinstatement.
The programme director responsible for Velikova’s removal has been forced to resign. After an investigation, the prosecutor’s office said “no link could be established” between her removal and the broadcast suspension. But BNR chief editor Daniela Kusovska publicly reported that BNR director-general Svetoslav Kostov had received pressure “from a very high level” to take Velikova off the air.
The situation is so serious that President Rumen Radev this week said freedom of speech was in crisis in Bulgaria. “The suspension of national radio broadcasting has again shown the need to establish who governs the public media and how,” he said. “It is apparent that the state is being ruled via someone’s phone, not through the institutions, as is the normal European practice.”
Judicial harassment of independent media outlets has intensified dramatically in recent months in Bulgaria, which is ranked 111th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2018 World Press Freedom Index.