Defamation law, regulation of public broadcasting and a crisis at the official news agency BTA once again provoked heated discussion about links between politicians and the media.
Bulgarian journalists still have to work under the shadow of a very strict defamation law and courts readily impose heavy fines - of between 1,000 and 20,000 leva (500 to 10,000 euros) - although journalists only earn an average 500 leva (250 euros) a month. In early 2003, one journalist, who was fined the equivalent of 3,900 euros for saying political figures were involved in corruption, took the case to the European Court of Human Rights.
The year also saw a crisis at the official Bulgarian News Agency (BTA) that began in October 2002 with parliament’s appointment of Stojan Cheshmedjiev as the agency’s new chief in what many of its journalists, as well as the opposition, saw as a political move. The journalists went on strike on 15 March 2003 to protest against planned restructuring and layoffs. More than half the staff signed a petition against the appointment of "people who have no idea about the workings of a national news agency" and against the layoff of "professionally sound" journalists. Cheshmedjiev resigned on 18 March after six weeks of demonstrations.
A draft broadcasting law presented to parliament by five government MPs on 5 February also sparked strong criticism of the growing influence of politicians over the media. The bill, about which there had been no public discussion, would replace the Electronic Media Council, which monitors broadcasting, with a National Electronic Media Council, most of whose members would be appointed by parliament.
A journalist physically attacked
Anton Lukov, editor of the local daily Chernomorie and the online newspaper Dnes+, was attacked by thugs outside his house in the eastern city of Varna on 19 May 2003 and hospitalised with multiple head injuries. The attack came after the paper criticised the city’s mayor, Kiril Yordanov. Lukov said he had received many threats. A police enquiry found nothing and the case was closed.
Harassment and obstruction
An appeal court in the southeastern town of Burgas upheld in January 2003 an order on 11 May 2002 for journalist Katja Kassabova to pay 500 euros in damages to four regional education ministry inspectors, as well as a 1,400-euro fine and costs of 500 euros. She had written articles on 12 and 14 September 2000 in the regional daily Compass about corruption in the state education system, naming the four inspectors who worked in Burgas. The education ministry then launched an investigation. Kassabova has appealed the case to the European Court of Human Rights.
Emilia Ivanova and Nevyana Sokolva, of the privately-owned Darik Radio, were questioned by police on 19 June for allegedly putting out "false news" about prime minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg Gotha. The prosecutor-general closed the case just before programme chief Bogdana Lazarova was due to be questioned. The president of parliament, Ognyan Gerjikov, called on the station to apologise.
The station had quoted a Spanish justice ministry official, Inigo Koral, on 3 June as saying the prime minister had dual Spanish and Bulgarian nationality, which is not allowed under the Bulgarian constitution. The government denied he had dual nationality. On 16 June, the head of the prime minister’s office, Radi Naidenov, asked the prosecutor-general’s office to investigate the allegations.
The Electronic Media Council watchdog suspended on 17 November the broadcasting ban on the privately-owned cable TV station Den for incitement to ethnic and racial hatred pending a decision by the country’s supreme administrative court. The council had on 6 November cancelled the operating licence of Union Television, which puts out Den, and fined it 7,670 euros. Nick Stein, who presents the programme "From Phone to Microphone," had said on the air that the government was giving too many rights to the Turkish and Rom minorities and criticised the special Turkish language news on state-run TV.