59 out of 173 in the latest worldwide index
Area: 110.910 sq. km.
Head of state: Georgi Parvanov, since 2006
The state of press freedom continued to deteriorate in 2008 within this country that joined the European Union in 2007. Pressure on the press took a variety of new forms. These stemmed from the rise of criminal groups that have also poisoned a section of the political and financial class and replaced the violence of gangland “mutris” (thugs), more discreet forms of corruption and the manipulation of news. The year 2008 however also saw a return of murder or attempted murder against journalists crossing lines that became ever more difficult to determine.
Bulgaria, which is ranked in last place among EU member countries on Reporters Without Borders’ world press freedom index, presents a study in contrasts. Although some major progress was won in laws guaranteeing access to information and public databases, the application of these laws remain at the mercy of a justice system mired in serious corruption and little inclined to support those who expose them.
There may be no taboo subjects in Bulgaria but certain issues are treated with caution. Smuggling and drug trafficking are rarely gone into in any depth. The city centre murder in April 2008 of gangster turned columnist Georgi Stoev served as brutal reminder to investigative journalists of the risks involved in probing too deeply into gangster affairs. The welter of different activities linked to the “grey” economy however make it more and more difficult to see where lines are being crossed and to assess the level of risk.
Various types of pressure have been applied to investigate journalists. Physical or other threats can follow the publication of an article. Journalist on reference daily Dnevnik, Hristo Hristov has been burgled three times and had to quit his apartment after his neighbours were threatened with an attack against the buildings if they did not force the reporter to put an end to his investigations.
Some of his colleagues, worn down by the climate of conflict and the lack of sanctions against those responsible for scandals they uncover, increasingly give way to self-censorship or more active corruption.
Even though the Internet and the blogosphere enjoy considerable freedom, the posting of several secret documents online in August 2008 on the website www.opasnite.net prompted deep disquiet in the political and media class. Ognyan Stefanov, editor of Frognews.bg, was beaten with hammers and left for dead as he left a restaurant in September 2008, just after he had denied on his site that he was behind the Opasnite.net website. His colleague, Alexander Ivanov, deputy editor of Frognews, also received death threats and spent several weeks under round-the-clock police guard.
The year 2008 was also marked from August onwards by a telephone tapping scandal as the national security agency (DANS) tried to identify the authors of Opasnite.net and the case went beyond this investigation, stoking fears among some journalists of wider action aimed at identifying and drying up some sources of information.
Although journalists in the capital still manage to stand firm against pressure and self-censorship, those in the regions are more likely to buckle under the pressure. Collusion between the local authorities and gangland groups go to make up an unrewarding environment for far-reaching investigations. The financial stakes involved in promoting tourism and urban development on the Bulgarian Riviera are sensitive issues. Journalist Assen Yordanov came in for a series of reprisals and even a murder attempt at the end of December 2007 when he exposed the disastrous consequences of building projects in ecological reserves.