The poorest member-country of the European Union (with a third of the population living below the poverty line) still has to make efforts to fight corruption and organised crime. Press freedom needs attention too.
New EU member-state Bulgaria started 2007 badly, with a threatened acid attack on journalist Maria Nikolayeva, of the weekly Politika, who was co-authoring a report that a construction project was endangering the country’s biggest nature reserve, the Strandzha Park. Two men got past security at her office on 9 February and made the threat to her in person. Despite a previous incident in 1998, when acid was thrown in the face of journalist Anna Zarkova for exposing human trafficking, Nikolayeva’s report was printed fully the following week.
But the issue could not be distributed in Burgas, the main town in the Strandzha region, on the Black Sea, because all copies were bought up by an unidentified person at the wholesalers. Nikolayeva’s co-author, Assen Yordanov (also the son of a well-known poet), was beaten up by four thugs in Burgas in December.
The leader of the ultra-nationalist Ataka party, Volen Sidorov, and one of the party’s MPs, Dimitar Stoyanov, burst into the Sofia offices of the daily 24 Chasa and the weekly 168 Chasa in February with about 50 party activists and threated 168 Chasa’s editor, Nikolai Penchev, and other journalists present. A hundred Ataka members were also in the street outside. The paper had printed a report the day before that the party had received funding from one of its political rivals, the DPS (Movement for Rights and Freedoms). The Ataka leaders demanded a right of reply which appeared on 2 March denying the 168 Chasa report.
The names and addresses of the editors and journalists of the two papers were publicised by an Ataka TV station and all of them subsequently got threats and insulting messages. A complaint was filed with police and they were given temporary police protection. This violence did not stop Ataka getting 14.2% of the votes at the European Parliament elections in May, winning three seats, one of them occupied by Stoyanov.
A photographer from the daily paper Express, Emil Ivanov, was arrested in May and beaten up by police outside a Sofia court as he was waiting for a rich businessman, Mladen Mihalev, who had given evidence at the trial of the murderers of one of his colleagues. Mihalev’s appearance was under heavy security, with traffic diverted, his own security guards present and journalists searched as they went into the courtroom. Media organisations protested at the beating but interior minister Roumen Petkov said the police were not guilty and would not be punished. Ivanov may take the case to the European Court of Human Rights.
The editor of Express, Danka Vasileva, was also threatened, when a senior anti-gang police official went to her office on 24 October and accused her of “a crime against government authority” (article 273 of the criminal code) by publishing that day the first part of a list of candidates in local elections who had belonged to or collaborated with the former secret police (the Darzhavna Sigurnost). He demanded that she sign a promise not to print the rest of the list. She was then interrogated to get her to say how she had obtained it. She was also told she was being legally investigated.
The entire list was made public the next day by a state commission, as required under a law passed in December 2006 opening old secret police files and also under EU law.