Bringing charges against experts for opinions they have expressed is a form of obscurantism that goes directly against Bulgaria’s European Union (EU) membership because it clearly shows a lack of understanding of the fact that democracy can only work in the presence of free and independent media.
In expressing its indignation, the Association of European Journalists – Bulgaria (AEJ-Bulgaria) notes that this is the first time an official representative of a trade association – Asena Stoimenova, chairwoman of the Bulgarian Pharmaceutical Union – has been charged because of interviews she has given – that is, because of statements in the media in which she discloses information of indisputable public interest, namely possible problems in relation to the production and supply of certain medications in the context of the coronavirus pandemic.
According to the Prosecutor’s Office, Prof. Stoimenova has been charged because of statements of hers that ‘generate unfounded anxiety among citizens’. As we pointed out in a recent statement, Article 326 of the Bulgarian Criminal Code does not apply to such statements, which, in the very least, makes the charges unfounded from a legal point of view.
It seems that the Prosecutor’s Office is trying to use this provision of the Criminal Code as a bat with which it can prosecute government critics according to vague criteria. As a result, anybody who discloses information about any problem may face accusations on the same ground of ‘generating unfounded anxiety’ among citizens.
Another absolutely unacceptable practice is the imposition of such a big fine – 20,000 Bulgarian levs (about 10,200 Euros). Such measures in relation to a statement on a specialized topic have a repressive character and aim to ‘punish’ the person who has dared express their own opinion, which may differ from the government’s opinion. They have ‘a chilling effect’ not only on experts who may express critical opinions in the future, but also on journalists and media organizations.
With regards to the charges brought against Prof. Stoimenova, the Prosecutor’s Office has also interrogated journalists from several media. Some of these journalists told us that they were asked whether their interviews with Prof. Stoimenova had made them anxious. As journalists, we seek expert opinions on topics of public interest in nearly every situation. Many of the interviews we conduct result in the disclosure of alarming data in various areas of public interest, and this disclosure is the very purpose of these interviews – to elicit the necessary preventive measures.
The fact that we find ourselves in a state of emergency does not limit all our rights as citizens. For example, freedom of thought is a right that cannot be limited under any circumstances, and the right to express one’s opinion can only be limited on legal grounds and when there is a legitimate reason for such limitations.
Limiting one’s freedom of expression is not an effective measure and has nothing to do with the measures taken to stem the spread of a contagious disease. Such a limitation is unacceptable in the current situation and, thus, if the Bulgarian authorities allow it, this may lead to numerous lawsuits in Bulgarian courts as well as in the European Court of Human Rights. In turn, this can have a very negative effect on the country’s international reputation.
It is no accident that in her statement on 31 March 2020, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, cautioned that emergency measures should not be ‘at the expense of our fundamental principles and values as set out in the Treaties’. She further stressed that ‘democracy cannot work without free and independent media’.
The prosecution of experts and other people disclosing information about real problems constitutes censorship and creates conditions for self-censorship. It simultaneously takes us back to George Orwell’s 1984 and the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986, when the then-ruling communist party tried to hide the truth from the public – actions that caused enormous harm to the lives and health of millions of people.
That is why we call on Prosecutor General Ivan Geshev to inform the Bulgarian public about all cases in which the Prosecutor’s Office uses Art. 326 of the Criminal Code in relation to statements in the media and offer justifications for this practice. We believe that if Geshev stands by these charges, he should bear personal responsibility in case the proceedings end with acquittals.
We remind the Prosecutor’s Office that, instead of accusing people of expressing their opinions in the media, it can work harder to reveal real crimes, such as the assault on Bulgarian investigative journalist Slavi Angelov. Almost one month has passed since this hideous crime was perpetrated in the center of Sofia, but so far neither the perpetrators nor the person who ordered the attack has been identified and arrested.
Bulgaria has experienced a progressive decline in media freedom rankings in recent years. For instance, the country ranks 111th in the 2019 World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders, coming last among EU member states. Bulgarian journalists remain convinced that the media environment in the country is not as free and independent as it should be in a truly democratic, EU country.
We are all facing difficulties in these challenging times. Many journalists lose their jobs or their incomes shrink dramatically. At the same time, today we need high-quality journalism more than ever. AEJ-Bulgaria firmly opposes any attempt to limit access to information and freedom of expression and believes that professional and responsible journalism is the most effective tool for countering rumors and fake news. You can support us with a donation here.