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World Press Freedom Review
2000 World Press Freedom Review
In the beginning of the year, Bulgaria was lauded by the Council of Europe (COE) for its democratic progress. A statement released on 17 January read, "despite the difficult economic situation in Bulgaria imposing financial and budget limits in the administration and state-owned enterprises, all administrative and political conditions have been created for the active participation of the minorities, who traditionally live in Bulgaria, in the decision-making processes on issues that concern them". It was also noted that bias in the media against minority groups, such as the Roma, was not as prominent as it had been in the past.
Regardless of this, ethnic tensions remain entrenched to a certain extent in Bulgarian society. New York based HRW reported several violent attacks on Roma both by police and private citizens. In addition, a number of Islamic clerics were expelled for preaching without a permit.
There was however an improvement in the field of media law. On 12 January, the Bulgarian parliament scrapped articles of the penal code which made libel and slander criminal offences. However, parliament decided to increase the maximum level of fines for such violations which led Bulgarian President Peter Stoyanov to step in and use his veto power to stop the bill. Explaining his action, Stoyanov said the fines were, "excessively high compared to the low income of journalists". The president's sentiment echoed that of Henning Gjellerod, the Parliamentary Assembly of the CoE observer who said that the fines were too high for Bulgaria and that they should be reduced.
The behaviour of Justice Minister Teodossii Simeonov was less progressive. On 4 November, Simeonov refused to let Alexander Mihailov, a photographer with the newspaper Sega, take a picture of him and former Interior Ministry chief secretary Bozhidar Popov. The reporter, covering a seminar of the ruling United Democratic Forces coalition at the winter resort Borovets, claims that the minister hit him. Simeonov denies this, stating that he had only covered the lens of the camera with his hand. Irrespective of Simeonov's denial, the Bulgarian media immediately lashed out at him.
Owners of nine Sofia newspapers demanded that Simeonov resign. Commenting on the incident, Simeonov stated that he has a constitutional right not to be photographed. Bulgaria's Prime Minister, Ivan Kostov, disagreed however and reprimanded Simeonov on 7 November urging him to apologise. There was no immediate reaction from Simeonov, who according to local opinion polls is among the least popular ministers in the government with an approval rating of less than 15 per cent.
This year, Bulgaria's government decided to privatise its second national TV channel. The channel has been off the air since 1997, when the government stopped subsidising it. On 19 October, the Bulgarian government granted Greek-Bulgarian Nova TV the nation-wide license. However, the decision was marred by speculation in the Bulgarian media that political pressure may have played a part in the outcome of the tendering process for licences. The daily Trud reported that the prime minister is closely associated with Stefan Dimitrov, head of winning Nova TV. The Director of Czech TV Nova, Vladimir Zelezny, one of the runner-ups who failed in his bid to acquire the licence, told Trud that he had never thought that he "would be welcome" in Bulgaria and that the outcome had been a political decision.
As one of the major reasons for selecting Nova TV the government pointed to the existence of the station's considerable experience and Nova TV's readiness to immediately begin broadcasting on a 24-hour basis. The new channel will compete with the State channel and a third channel owned by Rupert Murdoch's media company News Corp Ltd. It is possible the privatisation deal will lead to a change in Bulgariansí attitude toward the media which many believe to be under the thumb of the state.
Fifty-one per cent of Bulgarians queried in a national opinion poll conducted by the MBMD Research Institute for Marketing and Research said that they do not think the media is independent. The respondents identified political restrictions as the main reason, followed by economic, moral and legislative obstacles. Many Bulgarians look toward the private media in order to obtain reliable information. The distrust shown towards the media is also prevalent among media professionals. Forty-eight per cent of the journalists polled believe that only part of the Bulgarian media is independent, while 45 per cent say that there are almost no independent media. Journalists pointed to economic factors as having the most cumbersome effect on freedom of the media. In addition, according to the journalists, the most pressure is exercised over Bulgarian National Television, followed by the Bulgarian National radio.
On 5 October, the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry asked the Interior Ministry to order Yugoslav news agency TANJUG's Sofia correspondent, Dusan Drazic, to leave Bulgaria within 24-hours. The Foreign Ministry did so in response to the decision by Yugoslav authorities to expel Bulgarian National Radio Belgrade correspondent Ivailo Vassilev. Vassilev had obtained a one-year accreditation from the Yugoslav authorities, nonetheless, the police allowed Vassilev to stay for just one week at a time, repeatedly extending the period by one more week. On 23 September, however, Vassilev was given a 24-hour advance notice to leave Yugoslavia. The police failed to provide an explanation for their decision.
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