Freedom of the Press
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The media in Bulgaria are generally free of overt government interference, but many outlets are beholden to major advertisers and owners with political agendas. Journalists also face threats and assaults in the course of their work, including from politicians and other powerful interests.
- Banking regulators imposed fines on two media companies in January 2015, penalizing them for their coverage of a corruption-related 2014 financial crisis and its aftermath.
- The parliament adopted positive amendments to the country’s freedom of information law in November.
- Politician and media mogul Delyan Peevski continued to acquire new assets during 2015, and several outlets that were thought to serve his interests participated in smear campaigns against investigative journalists and others who criticized him or the government.
Legal Environment: 12 / 30 (↓1)
The constitution protects freedoms of speech and of the press, and the government generally respects these rights in practice. However, some laws authorize financial penalties for media-related offenses. Defamation is punishable by large fines, and government officials have filed suits against journalists, though the courts tend to favor press freedom in such cases.
A regulatory body, the Financial Supervision Commission (FSC), has intervened in media coverage of the banking sector and related corruption since the 2014 collapse of Corporate Commercial Bank (KTB) unsettled the country’s financial system. In January 2015, the commission imposed a record fine of 160,000 leva ($90,000) on Economedia, the publisher of titles including Capital Weekly, Capital Daily, and Dnevnik, accusing them of “market manipulation” and refusing to disclose sources. In a similar case that month, the regional news website Zov News received a fine of 100,000 leva. Appeals were pending at year’s end. Meanwhile, in August, FSC chairman Stoyan Mavrodiev sued Capital journalist Rossen Bossev for defamation in his articles and interviews in other media. Prior to the January fines, Capital and Dnevnik had reported on corruption allegations against Mavrodiev.
In November 2015, the parliament adopted amendments to the Access to Public Information Act that facilitate electronic information requests and expand the categories of information subject to proactive disclosure, among other improvements. While the law was already considered fairly robust, state officials sometimes improperly deny information requests or withhold basic information from media outlets they consider unfriendly, and courts are not consistently supportive of access rights.
The broadcasting regulatory body is subject to pressure from the government, politicians, and large corporate interests, and is notably ineffective at addressing problems such as hate speech. Vacancies on the broadcasting council remained unfilled during 2015 due to political disagreements in the parliament.
Political Environment: 16 / 40 (↓1)
The media environment is pluralistic, but editors and journalists routinely shape their reporting to suit the political and economic interests of owners or major advertisers. The New Bulgarian Media Group (NBMG), owned by Irena Krasteva but widely believed to be controlled by her son, parliament member Delyan Peevski, has a history of strongly supporting whichever parties are in power. In August 2015, Peevski declared that he held 50 percent of the shares in the Balkan Media Company, the parent company of NBMG, making his role more explicit. The group continued to acquire new media assets during the year.
Some television stations or hosts are openly associated with political parties, and those linked to right-wing nationalist factions often carry hate speech aimed at minorities and refugees. Media coverage of the October 2015 municipal elections and a referendum on electoral reform featured paid partisan content that was often not labeled as such.
Reporters continue to face pressure and intimidation aimed at protecting economic, political, and criminal interests. Journalists, commentators, and bloggers are sometimes questioned by law enforcement personnel about their activities, and prominent politicians have displayed intolerance for media criticism. Impunity for past crimes against journalists remains the norm, encouraging self-censorship.
There were multiple reports of harassment, threats, and physical attacks against journalists and media outlets in 2015. In October, a reporter and a cameraman from Nova TV were assaulted in the town of Samokov by a municipal council candidate and several of his supporters. Another reporter from Nova TV, Veronika Dimitrova, was publicly threatened by a politician that month after her investigation revealed connections between his party and a criminal group. In August, the daily newspaper Sega, which had been critical of the government, revealed that the National Revenue Agency had started a tax inspection against it. The agency then announced that it was investigating the entire print sector because it had been identified as an industry with a high risk of tax fraud.
In a new trend that emerged during the year, several media outlets and tabloid-style websites—many of them owned by or associated with Peevski—launched smear campaigns against journalists and editors who produced critical reporting on the government or the media mogul.
Economic Environment: 12 / 30
A number of private newspapers publish daily, though most are owned by NBMG and a small number of competitors. Foreign media companies own two of the three leading national television stations, bTV and Nova TV; the third is the public broadcaster, Bulgarian National Television (BNT). Both Bulgarian National Radio (BNR) and BNT generally provide substantive news coverage with a range of viewpoints, but they are vulnerable to political interference, and BNR was shaken by disputes over its management, editorial independence, wage cuts, and controversial opinion programs during 2015. Foreign firms have also played an important role in the print and radio sectors. Internet connections are readily available, and online media outlets have proliferated in recent years. The internet penetration rate in 2015 was nearly 57 percent. Social media are extremely popular and play a crucial role in civic and political mobilization.
Media concentration remains problematic, and ownership transparency rules are weak and poorly enforced, though a law that took effect in 2014 was designed to restrict ownership of media by companies based in offshore tax havens. Some observers said the measure was aimed at rivals of Peevski’s media conglomerate, which controls multiple print, broadcast, and online outlets as well as the country’s dominant print distribution business. In 2015, Peevski declared ownership of a stake in the cigarette maker Bulgartabac, a major advertiser, and moved to acquire other such companies, including the electronics retailer Technomarket. Peevski also received regulatory approval to purchase the television station Kanal 3.
A number of media outlets suffered economic repercussions from the 2014 failure of KTB, which was widely suspected of funding media enterprises to advance the political and business interests of its owner and his associates, including Peevski. The television station TV7 moved toward insolvency during 2015, having depended on loans from the bank, and bankruptcy officials attempted to seize its equipment in an April raid. In August, the daily newspaper Presa and its weekly affiliate Tema were abruptly closed due to similar financial problems related to KTB loans.
The limited and increasingly concentrated private advertising market has raised the importance of state advertising and other de facto subsidies, especially for local outlets. Individual journalists face decreasing salaries and job insecurity, leading to unethical practices and acquiescence to editorial pressure.