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Guilty of Writing a Facebook Status: the Decline of Freedom of Expression and Media Freedom in Bulgaria

Freedom of expression is the citizens’ tool to criticise, question and influence the actions of their governments. Back in the 18th century, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen defined free communication as one of the most precious rights of man. Today, three centuries later, in Europe, a court sentence has created a dangerous precedent. A Bulgarian politician was found guilty of insult for calling a gold mine company representative an ‘oligarch-poisoner’ on his personal Facebook wall. Borislav Sandov, the former Co-Chair of the Bulgarian Greens and current Co-Chair of the Balkan Network in the European Greens, is sentenced to pay the equal of €1500 to the complainant and €750 to the state. This case caused social media unrest and made us question whether we really are free to speak or write the truth. It made many Bulgarians doubt whether the country is headed towards a European future or is becoming more like the many countries where free speech is repressed and is getting citizens in jail.

The first Bulgarian politician with a court sentence

The Ambassador of France in Bulgaria Xavier Lapeyre de Cabanes tweeted ‘I am Borislav Sandov’, written in Bulgarian.

The complaint filed against Borislav came with a claim of €30 000 as compensation for defamation and insult of Lachezar Tzotzorkov, representative of Asarel Medet. Because of this complaint, the politician was forced to prove what was behind the use of the word ‘poisoner’ and how it was linked to the gold mine company’s many fines for poisoning the waters near the mine, all paid by the company. The court in Panagyurishte found him not guilty of defamation but guilty of insult, in Borislav’s capacity as a Co-chair of The Bulgarian Greens. In an interview for Praven Svyat, the judge further explained that unlike defamation, ‘the verification of the facts linked to the insult is not of importance. In this sense, the knowledge of the defendant that the company represented by the complainant has caused the death of living organisms in the nearby rivers is irrelevant.’ But the judge did not take into account that when it comes to criticising public figures, fiercer expressions are acceptable, unlike in personal communication. Borislav told the truth and the court did not find him guilty of defamation. And yet he was convicted.

To us citizens, this court sentence seems unjust and repressive. We should be free to express our political opinions and speak the facts on our social media accounts without having to fear prosecution. It makes us ask the question whether this sentence isn’t the death sentence of freedom of expression in Bulgaria. From this moment on, each one of us is in danger to be punished for openly criticising public figures. Borislav is the first politician who got sentenced in post-communist Bulgaria. Sadly, it is for telling the truth. Meanwhile, corruption, scams and schemes on the highest state level go unpunished for more than 26 years. The country’s judicial system seems to be derailed.

Borislav explains that the complaint filed against him had other aims than to claim a compensation for defamation and insult. The real motive is to suppress the fundamental freedom of expression and political representation. ‘I won’t give up on defending truth and freedom, even if this leads to the absurd situation for me to be the first politician of the transition period to be put in jail, suing the state in Strasbourg from there,’ he writes on his Facebook wall.

Medias against civil activists

Borislav is just one voice, one of the many environmental activists who fight for nature protection and a lawful state. In many media outlets, these citizens are often portrayed as ‘the green octopus’, ‘Taliban’, ‘paid racketeers’, and ‘people who stop the economic progress’. In all these cases, freedom of expression is abused on a daily basis, defaming individuals and organisations as there is no factual basis behind these statements. Public figures tell offensive lies on national television and the TV presenters often let them do this, instead of questioning their sources. Society has also forgotten to question what is being said or written in the media. The Bulgarian media has lost its role to inform and educate, it is now a tool for those in power to disarm the inconvenient. Instead of using facts, it is juggling with rumours, speculations and hate speech. According to Deutsche Welle, 65% of the Bulgarians don’t believe that the country’s media are independent. Civil society’s fight for lawfulness and democracy is threatened when the quality of journalism and the public political debate are compromised.

Bulgaria’s press freedom has hit rock bottom

In just one decade, Bulgaria’s rank on the Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index has plummeted from 35th to the 106th place, among 180 countries. Among all EU Member States, Bulgaria is next to last before Greece on the chart. The US Department of State’s Country Report on Human Rights Practices states that corporate and political pressure, combined with the non-transparent concentration of media ownership has gravely damaged media pluralism.

Since joining the EU in 2007, more than 40 million euros have been spent on promoting the European funding programmes by Bulgarian media outlets and PR agencies. The decline of press freedom started in that same year. Whether there is a link or not, more transparency and external investigation are needed as to how these funds have been spent to ensure that the European Union is not supporting the government to buy more power and to use the media as a tool to invalidate the opposing civil society actors.

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