Those in power in Bulgaria are not fans of transparency and of civilian control that defends it. If anyone doubted it, this has become more and more obvious in recent weeks, writes Krassen Nikolov.
Krassen Nikolov is a journalist specialised in judiciary affairs. He works for Mediapool and will be a regular contributor for BulgarianPresidency.eu for the six months of the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU.
A week ago, the Interior Ministry restored one of the regimes that existed during the Cold War. A very special 300-meter security zone has been created alongside the fence at the Bulgarian-Turkish border, which was built in recent years to stop migrants from crossing.
Taking a photo of the fence is now prohibited. Any movement to the security area of the fence requires special permission, and journalists can only go there only if they are escorted by a cop.
The situation reminds the times when the Bulgarian Communist Party was in power, when the Turkish border was guarded in the same heavy-handed way.
The erecting of the fence started five years ago and so far about €90 million have been spent on it. The interior ministry has so far failed to answer what required the special statute alongside the fence. The secrecy was instituted in October last year, when the fence was declared a matter of national security.
This has created tensions between the ruling GERB party and the opposition BSP. The left-wing MP and former journalist Elena Yoncheva broadcasted in November a 20-minute film about corruption related to the construction of the fence, also revealing its inefficiency. She argued that compared to Greece, Bulgaria has built a twice-as-expensive defense facility that does not even stop the crossing of migrants. The documentary contains footage of refugees easily jumping over the fence with a ladder, and nobody preventing them from doing it. The film also makes it plain that sensors and cameras do not work.
To respond to the journalistic revelations, the government made it simple. It decided not to allow anyone near the fence without special permission or escort.
The fence is not the only issue highlighting a crackdown on transparency and media freedom. Since 25 May, the Bulgarian authorities have also decided to use the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) to crackdown on journalists. Secrecy was imposed on the names of conflicts of investigated, accused or indicted parties. Media cannot even report the names of those convicted by a verdict in force.
The new way the authorities announce indictments and prosecutions no longer mention even initials, while cities have are identified by only one letter. The most striking is the case of a man who was arrested two days ago for murder in the Kozlec village in Haskovo. The official message mentions the village by its first letter, and the case was described as a Bulgarian citizen who shot two other Bulgarian citizens.
The announcement of the indictment brought against the ex-CEO of the National Palace of Culture Miroslav Borshosh was also incomprehensible. No initials were used in his case. [The reason may be that Borshosh is a personal target of the minister who was put in charge of the Bulgarian Presidency.]
The new Anti-Corruption Commission has also introduced full secrecy in its work. Its decision concerning the agriculture minister Rumen Porozhanov, was completely censored.
Porozhanov’s name was completely erased and even his function wasn’t mentioned. The justification was the protection of personal data, although he is a public figure from the top of power.
Also, with the GDPR excuse, the Sofia City Court, which is a key in the Bulgarian judicial system, removed from its electronic registers the option to search by names.
The Association of European Journalists (AEJ) has criticised the restrictions on access to public registers, including search of already published legal acts.
“On the personal data pretext, names are being erased from legal acts not only concerning legal entities – traders, non-governmental organizations, but even names of institutions. The proposed amendments to the law on personal data will exacerbate this negative trend”, AEJ warned.
The Association reminds that in Germany data protection legislation explicitly makes sure that the limitations of the European regulation do not apply to journalists and the media that serve the public interest to inform.
“That is precisely what needs to be enshrined in the Bulgarian data protection legislation, so we do not find ourselves in the situation of Orwell’s protagonist in his 1984 novel, whose job was to re-write the old newspapers in order to falsify history”, the Union of Publishers in Bulgaria stated.
The Union of Publishers in Bulgaria represents a small number of press outlets outside the quasi monopoly of Delyan Peevski, a shady power broker, “thanks” to whom Bulgaria is sinking in the world-recognised press freedom rankings.