Bulgaria

2000px-Flag_of_Bulgaria.svgBy Talya Morris

I. Introduction

Bulgaria is officially ranked lowest in the European Union for 2019 freedom of information, making it a curious study compared to its fellow EU members (Reporters without Borders, 2019). Despite being subject to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, Bulgaria remains the worst country in the European Union for free speech and free press rights. This includes Article 11 – Freedom of Expression and Information. For this reason, there is a bottom-line humanitarian standard that Bulgaria is held to. Nevertheless, the Association of European Journalists Bulgaria ranked the nation at 109 of 180 in terms of the state of journalism and free speech in 2017 (Resource Centre on Media Freedom in Europe, 2017). As of 2018, Bulgaria has dropped two spaces to land itself at 111 of 180 nations based on Reporters Without Borders criterion. In 2019, this ranking has neither improved nor faltered (Reporters Without Borders, 2019). In 2013, when Reporters Without Borders first began ranking nations by free speech standards, Bulgaria found itself amongst the top 100 nations at number 87. With the exception of the 2016 to 2017 period, Bulgaria has continued to fall farther down on this list. In 2014, Bulgaria slipped from 87 to 100 following a brutal police attack on “seven journalists and at least one blogger” while “covering [a] demonstration outside parliament in Sofia” in 2013 (Reporters Without Borders, 2013). Increased government criticism of the media, political divisiveness, and coordination between media outlets and politicians have resulted in Bulgaria’s ranking as the worst for free speech in the European Union. These trends also seem to suggest that the situation is worsening.

II. Historical Background

Known formally as the Republic of Bulgaria, this territory is located along the eastern section of the Balkan Peninsula in southeastern Europe. At a population of 7,057,504 (estimated in July 2018), Bulgaria is comprised of 76.9% Bulgarians, 8% Turkish, 4.4% Romani, 0.7% Russian/Vlach/Armenian, and 10% uncategorized. It is important to note that there are conflicting reports on the exact number of Romani peoples in Bulgaria – ranging from 9 to 11%. Bulgaria’s capital city, Sofia, is the home to 1,272,000 people. Its borders encompass 108,489 square kilometers, comparable to the size of Virginia or Tennessee. With the Black Sea to the east, Bulgaria is surrounded along its remaining border by Greece, Macedonia, Romania, Serbia, and Turkey. More than half of the nation is Eastern Orthodox Christian (59.4%). The second most common religion is Islam, though this only accounts for 7.8% of Bulgaria’s population. Ruled via parliamentary republic, Bulgaria is comprised of 28 provinces and celebrates its Liberation Day on March 3 (CIA, 2019).

The late 7th century proved to be a pivotal moment in modern-day Bulgaria as the lives of the local Slavic people and the Bulgars, a Central Asian Turkic tribe, began to intertwine – marking the beginning of the state’s existence. During the Byzantine-Bulgarian wars from 680 to 1355, Bulgaria, attempting to establish itself, found itself overrun by the foreign and powerful Ottoman Turk empire. As a result, Bulgaria was unable to establish itself as a commanding force in the Balkans. This fact would remain true for centuries. In 1878, the northern-most portion would gain sovereignty following the Russo-Turkish/Ottoman wars (1877-1879), but it was not until 1908 that all of Bulgaria was able to gain full independence and autonomy from the Ottoman Empire. It is important to note that other classical ancient cultures, such as Greece, Rome, and Persia, also maintained strong presences in the region for periods of time, ensuring their long-lasting influence on the region’s cultural development. As a result of this and its geographic convenience, Bulgaria has traditionally been a hotbed for historical intersectionality and exchange routes.

Unfortunately for Bulgaria, during both World Wars the nation allied itself with the Central Powers and then Axis Powers respectively (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2018). In September 1915, Bulgaria joined the German Empire under promises of economic improvement as they reeled to recover from previous wars in the not-so-distant past. The Bulgarians surrendered in 1918, and the loss further degraded the Bulgarian nation, resulting in revolts and economic catastrophe. This prompted the early abdication of Tsar Ferdinand I in favor of his son, Boris III. The Allied Forces took control in 1919, making the British, French, and Italians the governing rule in the nation in compliance with the agreed-upon peace treaty. It was not until 1923, when the treaty expired, that forces pulled out. Shortly after taking the throne, Tsar Boris III became an authoritarian dictator, eventually leading his people into World War II alongside other members of the Axis Powers. Although Bulgaria did not report any of its population from Bulgaria proper, it coordinated the deportation of tens of thousands of others to both death and work camps alike in Poland and other parts of Nazi-occupied Europe. The sudden death of Tsar Boris III due to a heart complication further complicated political matters for the Bulgarian people. Realizing Bulgaria was planning to slowly surrender to the Allied Powers, the Soviet Union found the opportune time to invade and impose its communist rule by 1948 (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2018). From a humanitarian perspective, this period also marked a significant shift in Bulgarian policy in terms of restrictions.

In 1949, under Communist Party leader Vulko Chervenkov, all noncompliant Bulgarians or anyone believed to be involved with the opposition were subject to imprisonment, forced labor, and even execution. The late 1950s and 1960s were a time of economic hardship in Bulgaria. Unable to repay debts, Bulgaria relied heavily on its Communist ally, the Khrushchev-led USSR. In return, Bulgaria provided unwavering allegiance and militaristic support, partaking in the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2018). When low birthrates became a rising concern in Bulgaria during the 1970s, the government attempted to provide incentives for having children. Additionally, the Bulgarian government began attempting to assimilate the ethnic Turks. This would prove to be difficult in practice. Many Turkish people chose to rebel against such efforts, ultimately leading to internal ethnic turmoil. By 1989, the conflict had become tumultuous enough for the nation of Turkey to extend refugee status to those ethnic Turks fleeing the Bulgarian government. Ultimately, 300,000 Turks would take advantage of this, leaving Bulgaria in search of a better life in Turkey (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2018).

The Bulgarian population found itself affected by the USSR’s Mikhail Gorbachev and his reformist policies following his rise to power during the 1980s and 1990s. Bulgarian leaders were pushed by the public and eventually declared an approach of “openness, pluralism,…respect for law, [and] halted repression of the ethnic Turks” (Encyclopedia Britannica 2018). The Bulgarian Communists went a step further in April 1990 by renaming themselves the Bulgarian Socialist Party. This is indicative of a significant loss of power and support amongst the Bulgarian peoples. July 12, 1991 would mark the beginning of Bulgaria operating as a parliamentary republic after a vote by the National Assembly (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2018). “Under the new constitution…a five-year term in general election” was decided on, making Bulgaria an established parliamentary republic outside of Communist control.

The transition from a Communist nation to a market economy was not a simple one. Facing isolationism and continued debt, Bulgaria began to reach out to the European Union, International Monetary Fund, and World Bank. In 2007, after the 2006 reelection of leftist President Georgi Parvanov, Bulgaria finally joined the European Union (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2018). Since joining the European Union, Bulgaria has faced harsh criticism from other member nations, pointing to a “fail[ure] to make reasonable strides in reforming the judiciary, combating corruption, and fighting organized crime” (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2018). Criticisms have continued through 2019, proving Bulgaria’s alleged transition to full democracy is far from complete. With voter turnout barely topping 50 percent, wide-spread demonstrations of popular unrest, a continued lack of government transparency, and mounting anti-press sentiments the future of Bulgaria’s commitment to free speech remains unclear.

III. Free Speech

Until its 1989 to 1990 transition to a Democratic, capitalist nation, Bulgaria had been under communist rule. As is the case with most communist nations, this meant a government monopoly over information. “In the 1980s, [Bulgarian leaders] succeeded in consolidating classical studies into a dynamic mode of dissenting thought” (Nikolchina, 2018). In this way, it is apparent that the government adopted the method of demonizing conflicting information or opinions. All thought contrary to the interests of the communist-led regime were silenced. In doing so, the Bulgarian Communist Government was able to censor its population by the threat of retaliation, imprisonment, or even death (Trifonova Price, 2019). Bulgaria’s 1995 application to the European Union would open negotiations, leading to the nation’s acceptance by 2007. In doing so, Bulgaria hoped to better its economic situation and further its advancement towards a democratic society with free-flowing thought.

However, it appears that Bulgaria did not fully account for the European Union’s stringent enforcement of its human rights standards, leading to international criticism of its treatment of journalists and political opposition (Todorova, 2009). Still a relatively young country, Bulgaria’s constitution was adopted on July 12, 1991. It was last amended in 2007 (CIA, 2014). In Chapter Two of the Constitution of Bulgaria, the “Fundamental Rights and Duties of Citizen” are laid out. Upon first glance, this constitution is sound from a humanitarian perspective. Logically, this would make sense as the European Union would need to approve Bulgaria’s freedom standards before allowing it to enter as a member. As it pertains to free speech specifically, Article 40 reads, “the press and the other mass information media shall be free and shall not be subjected to censorship” (Bulgarian Const. Art. 40). The constitution even seems to go a step farther, declaring that “an injunction on or a confiscation of printed matter or another information medium shall be allowed only through an act of the judicial authorities” such as in the cases of “encroachment on public decency or incitement of a forcible change of the constitutionally established order, the perpetration of a crime, or the incitement of violence against anyone” (Bulgarian Const. Art. 40). Although this is definitely intended as a protectorate, it should be noted that the exceptions to free speech are relatively vague, leaving a dangerous amount of room for interpretation.

IV. Free Press

The Bulgarian Constitution continues on to Article 41, where two statements are made. First, “everyone shall be entitled to seek, obtain and disseminate information. This right shall not be exercised to the detriment of the rights and reputation of others, or to the detriment of national security, public order, public health and morality” (Bulgarian Const. Art. 41). Second, “everyone shall be entitled to obtain information from state bodies and agencies on any matter of legitimate interest to them which is not a state or official secret and does not affect the rights of others” (Bulgarian Const. Art 41). Yet again, Bulgaria seems to take a step forward toward developing freedoms before abruptly pivoting to murky language that allows for the potential for arbitrary silencing. Rather than following a truly democratic and judicial process, Bulgaria’s vague constitutional language has allowed it to maintain its not-too-distant past relationship with censorship and absolute control during its communist period.

Despite its new codes of ethics, campaign finance laws, criticism from the European Union, and a bevy of other efforts, corruption remains rampant in Bulgaria. When such laws came to be during between 2005 and 2006, however, “very few high-level officials were prosecuted” (Freedom House, 2007). Freedom House, which has done a profile of Bulgaria dating back to 1998, writes that “Bulgarian National Television, Bulgarian National Radio, and the country’s state-owned news bureau, the Bulgarian Telegraph Agency, are often very critical of the government’s actions [but] ineffective legislation leaves the state-owned media vulnerable to government influence” (Freedom House, 2007). According to a study published on March 1, 2019, journalism in the case of Bulgaria is a cesspool for bribery and abuse of power. Although the government itself has not technically directly restricted the rights of any citizen through enacted legislation or constitutional oppression, true free speech seems difficult to come by. In the 2019 study interviewing 35 Bulgarian journalists, it was concluded that “corrupt practices appear to penetrate all levels of the journalist hierarchy – from junior reporters to editors-in-chief and owners – posing further threats to already-low ethical and professional journalistic integrity and ethics” (Trifonova Price, 2019). In this way, Bulgarian news is capable of self-censoring, in a sense. Perhaps if economic conditions improved and media workers specifically were able to earn a higher wage, journalistic integrity and unapologetic free speech in the media would be restored. However, threats of violence and attacks on journalists remain very credible beyond these financial factors.

Another problem is “politicized intimidation from local authorities” (Freedom House, 2007). Journalist Georgi Stoev was gunned down in 2008 following his reporting on what is pointed to as one of Bulgaria’s largest problems – crime groups. Stoev was set to testify in an organized crime case later that week. No arrests were made by the government despite the murder taking place on a busy street. Vasil Ivanov, a Nova Television journalist, would become another victim; only this time there were no fatalities after a bomb was detonated inside of his home (Freedom House, 2008). These examples are limited to events following Bulgaria’s entrance to the European Union, as they have the most modern relevance. However, these trends of speech oppression, political intimidation, and economic pressures are neither newly emerging nor ebbing. In 2007, despite Bulgaria’s Constitution condemning such behavior, far-right Ataka party leader Volen Siderov and a group of supporters physically and verbally threatened 24 Chasa and 168 Chasa reporters following a disagreeable article. Later that year between May and February there was one threat of an acid attack and an instance of an officer beating a compliant photojournalist in two separate occurrences. Such specific attacks have continued to occur consistently. For example, in 2011 the nation saw a string of small-scale bombings targeting opposing media outlets and political parties in addition to reports of excessive force during 2013 protests over corruption (Freedom House, 2018). Such protests have continued in congruency with inflammatory political rhetoric and bribery, but Bulgaria nevertheless remains a member of the European Union.

In January 2018, Bulgaria assumed its six-month term as president of the Council of the European Union, which works on a rotating basis. As of 2019, the perfect storm for oppression of free speech still exists in post-Communist Bulgaria. In this way, and in addition to the fact that Bulgaria consistently ranks lowest amongst other European nations for freedom and equality, it seems ironic that Bulgaria was able to assume this position on the platform of leading other Balkan nations towards membership status in the European Union (Matias, 2018). Vague constitutionality, economic deprivation, and brute intimidation have left Bulgaria and its people susceptible to manipulation for decades, a trend that, unfortunately, carries over into the journalistic and free speech realm.

V. Critical Comparison

A nation’s constitution can provide valuable insight into its fundamental principles and framed priorities. The United States Constitution makes an unrequited appeal for seemingly absolute free speech, stating that “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press” (U.S. Const. Art. 1). Any discrepancies on the understanding of this declaration have been taken up by the United States Supreme Court. Such specific instances will be discussed later in more detail. On the contrary, the Bulgarian Constitution, does not extend these same rights with such a broad brush. As briefly mentioned above, Article 40 of the Bulgarian Constitution states, “the press and the other mass information media shall be free and shall not be subjected to censorship” (Bulgarian Const. Art. 40). However, in a second bullet, this seemingly inalienable right is dismantled and limited, allowing for “an injunction on or a confiscation of printed matter or another information medium… through an act of the judicial authorities” (Bulgarian Const. Art. 40). In this sense, it may be understood that Bulgaria did not guarantee its citizens the same innate expression typically privy to members of the European Union as there is certainly “interference by public authority [and other] frontiers”, such as organized crime and bribery (EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, Art. 11). Considering Bulgaria’s recent bouts with and rejections of Communism, it cannot be considered curious but rather intentional that the constitution would allow for the repression of disagreeable information. Bulgaria and its people had been subject to the strictest Communist conditions and censorships, all technically perfectly legal practices at the time (Dimou, Todorova, & Troebst, 2014).

A “constitutional court in a young democracy”, federal Bulgarian judges have decades worth of decisions to make up for on the constitutionality front (Bagashka & Tiede, 2018). While the Supreme Court in the United States at the very least aims to adhere to judicial independence, Bulgaria finds itself increasingly unable to do so. In June 2018, a speech given by Bulgaria’s Supreme Court of Causation President, Lozan Panov, indicated that the nation is not moving in a positive direction, either. Panov states that, “the attacks against the judiciary members who refuse to copulate with the executive have become crueler,” as Bulgaria suffers under “scandals of corruption, political persecutions, and lynching of judges who refuse to succumb to pressure to satisfy the whims of Bulgaria’s Prosecutor’s Office” (Vassileva, 2018). So long as Bulgaria’s designated watchdogs remain heavily swayed by funding, it is difficult to formulate a concrete argument based on specific events.

The average Bulgarian simply does not have the means to carry the financial burden that would be brought about by a long legal process, nor do the journalistic organizations that are typically granted these watchdog-expectations have the interest in divesting from their deep-pocketed bribers and extortionists (Stephenson, 2018).  For this reason, very few court case examples exist where matters of censorship were taken up by the court. Consider the United States for comparison, which has a slew of opinions and judicial rulings over 230 years, ranging on topics from flag burning, potentially libelous criticisms of public officials, definitions of what defines a protest as an incitement of violence, such as the case with the Klu Klux Klan and the far-left, and what forms of protest are protected by the Constitution of the United States (History of the Supreme Court, 1971) (Texas v. Johnson, & U.S v. Eichman) (Pennekamp v. Florida, 1946, Gitlow v. New York, 1925) (Tinker v. Des Moines, 1969).

Bulgaria’s Supreme Court has not ever attempted any cases of such significance, with one exception, in which they were later overruled. In a recent case regarding access to information, decided on Feb. 17, 2015, the Chamber of the Court of Human Rights ruled on the scope of Article 10 found in the Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms produced by the European Union. Article 10 reads as follows;

“[Firstly, e]veryone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This Article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises. [Secondly, t]he  exercise of  these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary”

(Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Art. 10).

In April 2002, Lyubov Viktorovna Guseva, a member of the Animal Protection Society in Vidin, Bulgaria requested that information from the “mayor of Vidin related to an agreement to collect stray animals, statistics on a local animal shelter, and a public procurement procedure aimed at reducing the number of stray dogs” (Global Freedom of Expression, 2015). After three separate appeals, the “Bulgarian Supreme Administrative Court upheld the lower court’s decisions” with seemingly no legitimate reasoning (Global Freedom of Expression, 2015).

In January 2007, Guseva lodged a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights on the matter, leading to the court’s “reasoning that the Bulgarian law on the enforcement of court judgments lacked the requisite foreseeability as it did not provide a clear timeframe during which an administrative body had to comply with final judgments” (Global Freedom of Expression, 2015). Although this ruling may be considered a victory in the literal sense, it resulted in very little, if any, change. Bulgaria has harbored a harsh environment since its distancing from Communism. Currently, a major party in Bulgaria known as the Atake, literally meaning “The Attack”, “regularly use hate speech in their campaigns, targeting ethnic Turks, Roma, Jews, Muslims, and Syrian refugees, among other groups” (Freedom House, 2018). Nevertheless, the Bulgarian Supreme Court still remains unengaged in the issues of free speech and free press, which is nearly indistinguishable from the other privately, corruptly funded branches and media outlets aimed at furthering or silencing various political agendas.

VI. Conclusion

In harsh reality, the situation in Bulgaria, as of 2019, only seems to be worsening. Since its entrance into the European Union, Bulgaria has slipped in rankings as the most unequal and unfree member nation. Such a notorious title does not necessarily have to be a permanent condemnation, however. Bulgaria certainly has room for improvement, and with the powerful European Union taking it under its wing, one would think this is the prime time to do so. A nation that has too often for its liking found itself on the losing side of wars motivated by dire financial constraints, Bulgaria seems to have found itself on the right side of democracy for all technical purposes. In practice, though, such optimism becomes lackluster. For the time being, Bulgaria remains cripplingly subject to corruption. An elite few possess the majority of Bulgaria’s wealth, allowing them to institute a media monopoly. If that were not enough, these deep-pocketed influencers go so far as to bribe journalists and other privately-owned news networks on an individual basis. Given the Bulgarian people’s grueling past and ongoing struggle with poverty and wealth disparity, the average citizen is willing to self-censor in exchange for finances. Simultaneously, these citizens are protecting themselves from any retaliation by either the government or its equally influential counterpart, organized crime.

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This essay was last updated on April 30, 2019.

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