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July 23, 2014 - Updated on January 20, 2016

Letter to Bulgaria’s legislators about threat to media coverage of banks


Paris, 23 July 2014 Dear Parliamentarians, The National Assembly adopted an amendment to Bulgaria’s penal code on first reading on 16 July that is very disturbing because it envisages sentences of two to five years in prison for circulating “false or misleading information” about banks that could “cause panic.” The amendment follows a series of rumours in the news media and on social networks that has undermined the Bulgarian public’s confidence in the country’s banks and threatened economic stability. By adopting this amendment, you hope to protect the banking sector, which is experiencing a major crisis. But in practice, you would be turning it into a walled-off fortress that would have to render accounts to no one. Banks and financial institutions are no more immune to abuses and excesses than any other sector of Bulgarian society, and it is the media’s job to make the public aware of these problems. It is also the media’s job to explain how this complex sector operates, because the public’s understanding is essential to the country’s prosperity. What journalists would dare to fulfil this role, even when sure of their facts, if the threat of a jail sentence were hanging over them? How could they prove to a judge that their stories were not “false or misleading” especially as, in the overwhelming majority of defamation cases, it is the journalist’s good faith that is demonstrated, not the story’s accuracy? And finally, how could journalists be sure that judges, at their discretion, would not decide that the public’s reaction constituted a “panic”? The balance of power between the banking sector and journalism was already skewed, inasmuch as the banks can afford much better legal advice. If you adopt this amendment, this imbalance will be enshrined in the law. Many civil society representatives have come out against this amendment. Some say the very vague reference to “other information” should be made more precise. Some want “false or misleading information” changed to “deliberately false or misleading information.” Others point to the fact that “causing a panic” is not defined. Reporters Without Borders shares these criticisms. But Reporters Without Borders asks you to go further. This amendment should be abandoned altogether. It has no place in the penal code because it is draconian, it contradicts all of the international accords that protect fundamental rights, and it contradicts the Bulgarian constitution, which enshrines the right to receive and disseminate information freely. Our organization understands your concern to protect the banking sector against collapse. You are responsible for the country’s stability, which depends on the solidity of its banking institutions. But history shows that if you trample on civil liberties and forget the rights that are fundamental to democracies, one crisis leads to another and a dangerous spiral of democratic decline sets in. The Bulgarian media have their problems. Some of them report the rumours that are undermining the banks and threatening your country’s stability. There are solutions. Demand more transparency from the media companies about their owners. Reinforce the self-regulatory mechanisms that already exist for the media. Above all, improve the justice system so that it is able to enforce the constitution, which guarantees freedoms and sets out responsibilities. Freedom of information is in poor shape in Bulgaria, which is ranked 100th out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, the lowest position of any European Union member. You have a duty to improve your ranking, not make it worse. You can use the crisis to achieve this, or you can weaken your position even further at the expense of the democratic values you nonetheless share. Sincerely, Christophe Deloire Reporters Without Borders secretary-general