Reporters Without Borders is disturbed by renewed cases of threats and physical violence against Bulgarian journalists in the past few days. An assault on TV reporter Dimitar Varbanov on 10 February and a police spokesman’s threats against news agency reporter Ivan Yanev in the city of Stara Zagora on 8 February show that a climate of intimidation continues.
These incidents and major irregularities in the handling of Radio K2’s application for an official broadcasting licence suggest that the new government’s promises of reform have not yet begun to materialise. The Communications Regulation Commission’s refusal to approve the license obtained by Radio K2 has been referred to the Supreme Administrative Court.
“We had been hoping for clear signals from the new government and a determined policy on press freedom,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Death threats by a police spokesman against a journalist are as unacceptable as the authorities’ failure to firmly condemn murders of journalists. Georgi Stoev’s murder and the attempted murder of Ognyan Stefanov in 2008 showed that such threats must be taken seriously in Bulgaria.
“The irregularities and blackmail attempts that often mark the issuing of broadcasting licences are intolerable in a European Union member country. It is time the Communications Regulation Commission disregarded political considerations. The rules for allocating licences need to be clarified and implemented.”
Reporters Without Borders added: “We urge the government and regulatory authorities to actively guarantee Radio K2’s intellectual, commercial and administrative ownership of its licence. Bulgaria has few independent radio stations and Radio K2’s disappearance would be a blow to independent news coverage.”
Reached by telephone, the staff of Radio K2 told Reporters Without Borders they have initiated an appeal. “We filed our petition today before the Supreme Administrative Court’s five judges, who have 30 days to issue a ruling,” a member of the staff said. “We are under a lot of pressure. It seems our audience interests many people, who clearly want to control the licence or want our commitment to give them favourable coverage. We hope the judges confirm that we are the owners of the licence, which we acquired in December.”
Varbanov, a reporter for Gospodari na Efira (Masters of the Antenna), a current affairs programme on privately-owned BTV, was attacked with a hammer by real estate entrepreneur Kristo Chapanov on 10 February in the northern city of Veliko Tarnovo, where Varbanov was investigating fraudulent real estate transactions.
The attack took place when Varbanov went with a TV crew to an apartment complex where buyers have been unable to obtain title to the apartments they bought. He was rushed to a hospital with multiple contusions while the police arrested Chapanov.
Cases of harassment and physical attacks on the press are on the rise again, especially in regions that have been badly hit by the economic crisis, while corruption in the real estate market is now a hot topic in Bulgaria. It falls to the authorities to combat the corruption but investigative coverage of the problem by the media should also be encouraged and protected.
Yanev, who is a reporter for the BGNES news agency, was threatened by Yonka Georgieva, the regional police spokesman in the central city of Stara Zagora, while trying to cover a policeman’s murder in the nearby village of Enina, where he was one of the first people on the scene although he is now banned from going back.
“How dare you report this before the police has given the official version,” Georgieva told him. “You are dead. Do you understand? You are already dead!”
The head of BGNES, Lyubcho Neshkov, told Reporters Without Borders: “Ever since the threats were made against our correspondent, the interior minister has been repeating in the media that it was ridiculous to believe that a man who weighed only 50 kilos (the police spokesman) could threaten anyone. He nonetheless refuses to get back to us although we have had our phone number passed to him several times. We have asked him, so far without success, to take a clear position on the threats made by a member of his staff.”
Lyubcho Neshkov added: “Mr. Georgieva has for several days been waging a campaign of denigration against BGNES, accusing it of sensationalism and profiting from this policeman’s death. Nothing is farther from the truth. Ivan contacted the spokesman before going to the murder scene. We have not been given any other information. Since this altercation, we have not been able to go to any crime scenes and we have not had access to information.”