Having emerged from the grip of totalitarianism just over 20 years ago Bulgaria, one would have thought, ought to be very sensitive about freedom of speech and any attempt to encroach on it. Yet, a survey conducted last year by the Association of European Journalists-Bulgaria indicated that the majority of journalists interviewed assessed the state of freedom of speech in this country as "bad." On a scale of five-to-one, where five is excellent and one is very bad, 48 of the 113 polled said their assessment was two. Just four said it was "excellent" while 15 asserted it was "very bad."
The journalists interviewed ranged from TV and radio reporters to print media journalists and bloggers. 95 of the 113 work in Sofia, 65 belong to print media, and 94 work in privately-owned media. The majority of those working in Sofia assessed the quality of freedom of speech as "bad," while those outside Sofia tended to consider it "acceptable."
Political pressure remains the main impediment to free speech in Bulgaria, according to 58 of those interviewed, while 28 indicated economic pressure. According to 57 of those polled, the media they work in has been the target of political pressure, while 45 said the pressure had been economic. Just 12 said their employers have not experienced any pressure.
In response to a question on whether their media would permit criticism of advertisers, 34 of those polled categorically said no, 30 said yes.
82 of the journalists polled said they had had their personal freedom of speech curtailed.
Just 12 of those polled signed their questionnaires with their names, suggesting an overwhelming fear of reprisals.
The majority of those polled said the kind of pressure their media was being subjected to came from politicians calling up executive editors and telling them what to do, or advertisers threatening to withdraw funding. Two of the journalists interviewed were fired after writing articles critical of political or economic interests.
It is interesting to observe the concrete examples of freedom-of-speech violations cited by the journalists polled. One said the media now ran "mainly paid, PR articles." Another added: "The pressure comes from the economic dependence of the private media, as well as from the economic links of their executive editors with economic groupings and companies." An example: "The crash of the computer system of a major telecommunications operator went almost unreported in the media."
The examples of political pressure being put on the media include a ban on asking government ministers certain questions, phone calls being made by senior governmental officials telling news editors what news to report and in what running order to carry it, angry threats by ministers to executive editors, and a crack-down on a former whistle-blowing police officer who reported corrupt practices in Tsvetan Tsvetanov's Interior Ministry.
Bulgarian TV stations gladly report foreign news, including Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin being booed at recent rallies in Moscow, but they keep strangely quiet on similar cases of booing involving Prime Minister Boyko Borisov at home.
Bulgaria is possibly the only EU country which has no freedom-of-speech watchdog. It does have an Electronic Media Council, which supervises the implementation of the Electronic Media Act, but that only concerns radio and television.
Some of the more drastic violations of freedom of speech in Bulgaria in 2011 included physical harassment and beatings of journalists, as well as the planting of a bomb in front of the editorial offices of Galeria, a newspaper critical of the GERB government. No real investigation was conducted and the perpetrators of the crime, which ruined the newspaper's offices but fortunately did not result in any injuries, remain at large. Boyko Borisov, the prime minister, explained that the editors of Galeria had planted the bomb themselves "in order to attract attention."