FREEDOM OF THE PRESS OR FOR THE RABBLE?

by Georgi Lozanov; photography by BTA

Freedom of speech and the press is somewhat a blurry term in Bulgaria

volen siderov ataka.jpg

Freedom of speech and the press in Bulgaria is guaranteed by the Constitution, but sometimes journalists find it hard to exercise this right. Especially when a radical political leader bursts into the editorial offices with a hundred supporters, demanding to speak to the editor-in-chief and the author of an article critical of himself. Shouts like “We'll rip out your liver, we know where you live!” coming from a crowd of surly men do little to contribute to a calm, rational conversation.

This episode may sound like it's taken from an over-dramatised gangster movie, but it actually happened recently, here in Bulgaria. Volen Siderov paid a visit to Nikolay Penchev, editor-in-chief of the 168 Chasa weekly, to personally hand him a letter of complaint about an article which quoted Sezgin Myumyun, chairman of the Spravedlivost, or “Justice” Centre. Myumyun claimed that he had documents proving that the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) party had provided funding for the election campaign of Siderov's ultranationalist party Ataka, to the tune of 1.6 million leva. In 2005, Siderov's party received over eight percent of the vote to become the fourth-ranking political force in Bulgaria. A recurrent theme in its leader's provocative speeches has been the “de-Bulgarisation of Bulgaria”. Siderov placed most of the blame for this “de-Bulgarisation” at the door of ethnic Turks in Bulgaria and accusations were targeted against the Turkish-dominated DPS, which is part of the ruling tripartite coalition.

Under Bulgarian law, anybody who finds printed material offensive can exercise their rights and demand to publish a reply by turning to the ethical commissions of the National Council for Journalistic Ethics. If a newspaper refuses to run a reply, the claimant can start legal proceedings. Siderov, however, opted for a more grassroots approach and appeared in the editorial building of 24 Chasa and 168 Chasa accompanied by nearly 150 men, who he said were Ataka followers who had “spontaneously” decided to support him. The offended politician claimed that these followers numbered less than the 150 mentioned in the press release issued by the media. However, photographs taken at the time of the incident show a considerable crowd behind Siderov, who was dressed in his traditional black garb.

This could have been regarded as just another attempt to exert political pressure on journalism in Bulgaria (six months ago, an embarrassing question regarding unverified information about President Parvanov led to the dismissal of journalist Ivo Indzhev from Rupert Murdoch-owned bTV), if it hadn't been for its blatant brutality. It has also proved, even to the greatest optimists, that after 17 years of democracy, political parties still want to control the media and that threats and violence are being used instead of reasoning in public debates.

Siderov claims that he did not barge in. Instead, he insists that he “walked in in a normal way” to express his indignation at what he described as his violated right to reply. He billed the article an “ultimate libel, a mean intrigue and a swinish trick”. No representative of the DPS, however, took any steps against the “slanderers,” although this party also disassociated itself from Myumyun's allegations.

Meanwhile, Siderov declared that the country needed a new law on print media. At present, there is a law and a procedure to follow for its compliance but only for the electronic media. The print media are self-regulated and observe the 2004 Ethical Code.

The Union of Publishers in Bulgaria, the Bulgarian Media Coalition and the South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO) backed the newspaper, and MPs from most political parties rejected the idea of press regulations. However, many observers wonder whether this “spontaneous visit” marked the first open clash between the norms and procedures of democracy – among which are the freedom of speech and editorial independence – and the desire to resolve problems using violence or at least demonstration of physical strength?

Perhaps it was simply another act by a party which is bent on drawing attention to itself. A week after storming the editorial offices, Siderov held a rally in front of the Stalinist building of the printing works where many major Bulgarian newspapers now have their offices. Participants carried portraits of Siderov and demanded: “We want Bulgarian media”; “168 Chasa – Hogwash”. Significantly, the hacks in attendance outnumbered the protestors.

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