Communist-era habits die hard in a country that has little if any tradition of Western-style openness; and access to public information, which many societies in the West take for granted, is at best difficult and at worst may require lengthy court cases. Unless you are determined to employ a lawyer and go into legal battles, you are not very likely to be granted information about even some simple things in Bulgaria, like... the opening times of the District Prosecuting Office in Varna.
However, not all Bulgarians and expats in Bulgaria are content with the climate of secretiveness that has arisen from the ashes of the Communist-ere spy phobia, and an increasing number of them are using their rights under the Access to Public Information Act to demand, and successfully gain leave to see documents and other kinds of information that is in the interest of the public.
A pioneer of the right-to-know in Bulgaria, the AIP, or Access to Information Programme, is an NGO that has assisted citizens and organisations in asserting their rights to openness and transparency since 2002.
In September it gives out a series of prizes to foster awareness of civil rights in Bulgaria and to whistle-blow on public institutions that refuse to obey the law by withholding the information they possess.
In 2010, the Golden Key award went to Rosen Bosev, a journalist for the Kapital weekly for his successful application of the Access to Public Information Act in investigating how the families of some top Bulgarian magistrates bent the law to buy properties at the Black Sea coast at rock-bottom prices. The Active Citizen award was given to Dr Georgi Litov from Plovdiv who sued six municipalities for their refusal to disclose the number of stray dogs they had euthanised. And Burgas City Council was declared the most transparent local administration in Bulgaria.
But the real hit of the AIP's annual awards ceremony are the "anti-awards" given for the most absurd refusalsto grant access to information and lack of transparency. The Golden Padlock, whose name speaks for itself, went to Zlatitsa Municipality, one of the few local governments in Bulgaria that still has no Internet site. Even though it had won an EU subsidy and chosen a contractor, it refuses to say who that contractor is and why there is still no web site. Interestingly, a person from Zlatitsa came to collect the anti-award, promising he would relay it to the people "responsible for the situation."
But no from the Municipality of Sofia bothered to show up to collect another anti-award, the Shame Diploma for its failure to employ a member of staff to handle requests under the Access to Public Information Act.
And the Tied Key? Yes, it did go to the Varna prosecutors, and it was really given to them for their refusal to disclose what their opening hours are. Defying a court decision, the Varna District Prosecuting Office justified itself by saying the NGO that had filed the complaint against it had some problems with its own registration. Absurd?
Find more about Access to Information Programme's work on their website www.aip-bg.org/index_eng.htm.