Reporters Without Borders is worried by a bill adopted by the Bulgarian cabinet on 20 October that would amend the criminal code section dealing with “crimes against the national and racial equality” of the country’s citizens. Prompted by Council of Europe recommendations, it would increase the penalties for discriminatory statements in the media to four years in prison and a fine of 5,000 to 19,000 levas (2,000 to 5,000 euros).
Instead of applying just to incitement of racial, national or ethnic hatred (article 162-1), the penalties would henceforth cover “all forms of discrimination established by the law and agreements between states.” According to jurists, a total of 23 forms of discrimination are to be found in article 6-2 of the constitution and article 4-2 of the Law against Discrimination. They include not only sexual orientation, religion, ethnic origin and physical handicaps but also age, political affiliation, social and material status, and family situation
In statements to journalists, deputy justice minister Daniela Macheva has denied any intention to restrict free speech and says these sanctions will be applied only when the courts find a “continual and affirmed desire” to wage a discriminatory campaign against an individual or group.”
“We are very concerned about this bill, which goes far beyond the Council of Europe’s prescriptions and contains too much imprecision as regards its scope,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Subjective interpretation of the new discriminatory elements and criteria could result in the courts punishing the expression of critical views or even investigative reports targeting, for example, the ‘material status’ of government officials, a very sensitive subject in Bulgaria.
“Experience shows that attempts are often made in political, business and judicial circles to limit media investigation. The danger of this proposed law turning into legalized censorship is only too real and must not be neglected. There is also a danger that it would reinforce self-censorship, which is already widespread in Bulgaria.
“We call on parliamentarians to treat this bill with the utmost caution when it is submitted to them. Amendments must be made to define with much more precision what racial hatred and the various forms of discrimination cover. We also urge them to conduct a dialogue on this subject with the relevant NGOs. They should be in no rush to deal with such a sensitive matter.”
In another worrying development, the Bulgarian press has reported an “explosion” in recent weeks in interior ministry requests for detailed mobile phone bills and for access to information exchanges between Internet users.
According to the daily Sega, the Sofia regional court has received 3,640 requests of this kind since 10 May, when amendments to the electronic information law were finally adopted after a long wrangle between the interior ministry and civil society. Sega says an average of 24 requests for phone-taps and dozens of requests for surveillance of computer IP addresses are made every day, of which the court rejects about a quarter.
According to the law, these requests can only be made in cases involving serious crimes (punishable by at least five years in prison) and must always be the subject of a court decision. The heads of the various police departments can nonetheless obtain detailed mobile phone bills on “emergency” basis without going to court, as long as grounds are submitted to a court afterwards.
“We fear an increase in these intercept requests and the possibility that, if applied to journalists, as they have been in the past, they could restrict the right to confidentiality of telephone and Internet communications,” Reporters Without Borders said. “The phone-tapping practised by the intelligence agency DANS in 2008 showed that it was easy for the authorities to sidestep the legal restrictions. We will follow developments in these issues closely.”
Bulgaria is ranked 70th in the 2010 Reporters Without Borders world press freedom index.