RSF on visit to Bulgaria, calls for a “crisis exit plan” for press freedom

As Bulgarians prepare to go to the polls for the third time in seven months in November, this time to elect both a parliament and a president, Pavol Szalai, head of RSF’s European Union and Balkans office, made a statement. two-day visit to Sofia on 23-24 September to call for a concerted effort to defend the right to information and information.

The right to information and information is experiencing a major crisis in Bulgaria,Szalai said in his speech at the New Horizons in Journalism conference in Sofia on September 24. “We need a crisis exit plan that guarantees reliable information and supports those who produce and disseminate it – journalists. In a country ravaged by the coronavirus and by corruption in the allocation of European funding, access to reliable public policy coverage is more than ever in the general interest of Bulgarians and all Europeans.

Bulgaria brings together all the press freedom issues that exist in various parts of Europe – physical attacks and smear campaigns against journalists; impunity for crimes of violence against journalists and judicial harassment; through public media, especially in the run-up to elections; corruption, disinformation and lack of transparency on media ownership; media pluralism threatened by concentration of ownership; and partiality and opacity in the distribution of state aid to the media, to the detriment of independent media.

As a result, Bulgaria is ranked lower than any other European country in the World Press Freedom Index, as recognized by Dutch MP Sophie in t’Veld in Sofia on September 24 while leading a delegation European parliamentarian examining the rule of law and the press. freedom in Bulgaria.

While in Sofia, RSF pleaded with officials and key national politicians for concrete measures to encourage reliable reporting and support independent Bulgarian media. “We have presented strong recommendations and we are now asking you to take the measures authorized by your position ”, Szalai said in a meeting with Culture Minister Velislav Minekov.

Minekov is part of an interim government that has been appointed pending new parliamentary elections and, as such, regardless of RSF’s recommendations, is supposed to enforce the rules in force, including those regarding transparency of ownership of property. media and the allocation of European and national funding for the media.

RSF called on Minekov to sanction media that fail to comply with their legal obligations to declare income from public funds and some donors in a dedicated central register. Failure to verify compliance with these requirements creates unfair market conditions, exposes independent media donors to arbitrary prosecution, and ends up undermining media that are not dependent on state funding and meet their legal obligations. .

Szalai also called on the Minister of Culture to start creating a transparent and fair system for allocating state advertising based on indicators of reliability and independence such as those provided in machine-readable form by the Journalism Trust Initiative, an initiative developed by RSF to promote reliable news and information.

The interim government revealed that from 2017 to 2021, Bulgarian media received 5 million euros worth of advertising funded by Europe and placed by national authorities. All possible light must be shed on these questionable practices. RSF asked the Minister of Culture for an investigation into a public awareness campaign on the different forms of drug addiction that may have been used to channel funds to media supporting the GERB, the former ruling party, to the detriment of the media. independent, thus undermining media pluralism.

The Bulgarian media landscape is marked by a strong presence of newspapers and websites which disseminate disinformation and are controlled by oligarchs often close to certain political parties. In a meeting with members of the Electronic Media Council (CEM), the public regulator, Szalai called on the CEM to take action to curb the spread of disinformation, using its legal authority to enforce the Code. Bulgarian media ethics, which was written by the media themselves.

Szalai also called on the CEM to uphold the independence of the Bulgarian public broadcast media, in particular public television, which stood out for its support for the government of the day in the early elections held in July.

During this visit, RSF also met with several major political parties which are running in the November 14 elections and which, so far, have failed to form a government. RSF asked them to make the reliability of information a key issue in their campaigns and, if elected, to consider implementing the recommendations made by RSF with the help of Bulgarian experts last March. . They include measures to improve the physical safety of journalists and protect them from judicial harassment, including abusive prosecution.

Encouraging the right to reliable news and information must be a top priority,Szalai said. “In its absence, it is impossible to fight against Covid-19 or corruption. Professional journalism must be supported by acting now before it is too late.

Bulgaria is ranked 112th out of 180 countries in the RSF 2021 World Press Freedom Index.

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