Bulgaria: Outrage at Trials of Probing Journalists

 Charges lodged against a Romanian reporter and the BBC over concealed cameras trigger a furore over the limits of press freedom.

Bulgaria: Outrage at Trials of Probing Journalists

 Charges lodged against a Romanian reporter and the BBC over concealed cameras trigger a furore over the limits of press freedom.

Prosecution charges lodged against foreign journalists using hidden cameras have aroused a storm of protest in the Bulgarian media, triggering calls for changes to a law that they obstructs investigative journalism.


Demanding an end to prosecutions of reporters using concealed cameras or recording devices, journalists are closely following the outcome of the first of two trials, expected on December 3.


The first case centres on George Buhnici, a Romanian journalist from the private television station, Pro TV, who was detained last week at the Bulgarian-Romanian border and charged with possession and unauthorised use of a camera hidden in his spectacles.


After being detained for 70 hours he was released but forbidden to leave Bulgaria before the end of the trial.


The prosecution accuses Buhnici of violating Article 339 (a) of the penal code, which proscribes the unlicensed “produce, use, sale or holding of a special technical device, aimed at concealed gathering of information”. The penalty is up to three years in jail.


The journalist told IWPR his sole purpose was to film illegal cigarette trafficking in a duty free shop on the Romanian side of the border. He said he crossed into Bulgarian territory as it was the only way to reach the shop, lying inside the border zone. He said he was not filming with the camera when he was caught.


Buhnici’s lawyer, Milena Dyakova, said she hopes for an out-of-court decision, though as matters stand, a trial is expected on December 3.


The detention of the Romanian journalist has coincided with another, related, case involving Britain’s BBC.


This concerns a BBC crew who made a television documentary suggesting Bulgaria’s International Olympic Committee, IOC, representative, Ivan Slavkov, was corrupt.


The BBC crew, disguised as British businessmen offering cash for IOC votes to secure London’s bid to stage the 2012 Olympics, showed Slavkov displaying great interest in the offer. Slavkov told the Panorama programme he was “open to negotiations” over his vote.

As a result of the documentary, Slavkov had his IOC membership suspended and was not allowed to attend the Athens 2004 Olympics.

The Bulgarian prosecutor’s office has charged the BBC journalists with breaking Article 339 (a). They have effectively been accused of entrapment, and of inciting bribe-taking.


The chief reporter involved in filming “Buying the Games”, Justin Rowlatt, is no longer in Bulgaria but local media report that BBC representatives in Bulgaria, including office staff, fixers and other Bulgarians involved in the film, will have to appear in court.


The controversial charges have triggered a broad debate in Bulgaria and drawn fierce criticism from media organisations of what they see as encroachments on legitimate press activity.


They say the current law is inadequate in a modern democracy, stressing that as the law stands, even holding a hidden camera or recording device constitutes a crime.


Buhnici said the media furore had already helped his case. “Thanks to my Bulgarian colleagues, who stood united, I was released after 70 hours and not two months,” he said.


But no amount of public pressure has yet resulted in the prosecutors dropping the charges, in spite of an appeal to do so from the Bulgarian Media Coalition, one of the country’s major professional journalist organisations.


There are also divisions in the journalistic community over what changes they advocate. Most believe the use of concealed cameras should be seen as a legitimate means to gather information in the public interest. But they differ over whether the existing law should be abolished, or amended.


Kiril Vulchev, a reporter from Radio Darik, a national radio station, does not support the removal of the disputed article from the law, but wants it “modernised”.


Recalling that Article 339 (a) was adopted in 1997 mainly to prevent abuses by the security services, he thinks it important that it should remain, but be amended to enable journalists to go about their normal business.


Such calls meet a sympathetic response from the opposition Union of Democratic Forces and from Novoto Vreme, a caucus of young intellectuals formed within the ruling coalition.


Borislav Tsekov of Novoto Vreme said he wants to see changes to this part of the penal code becoming the springboard for a public debate about the broader principles underpinning Bulgarian law.


“I believe the principle of overwhelming public interest should be incorporated into Bulgarian law, so that those who reveal classified information in [the public] interest should be cleared of charges”, he told IWPR.


Bulgaria’s Helsinki Committee for Human Rights also supports changes to the law, claiming the existing code does not comply with the European convention on human rights.


Yuliana Metodieva of the committee told IWPR her organisation would press for changes, though she was not optimistic that politicians would respond. Metodieva said journalists feared the two cases might herald a fresh attempt to limit the media.


Petko Georgiev, from ProMedia, the US government’s media programme for eastern Europe, told IWPR that the court needs to “interpret clearly whether any public interest has been harmed and come to a precedent decision”.


This, he added, at the same time should “leave journalists feeling confident that when they act in favour of the public interest and are able to prove it, they will be cleared of any charges about the methods they have used”.


Georgiev dismissed proposals to insert a special provision in the penal code for journalists, claiming it would immediately attract other people who would use the provision for purposes not necessarily connected to the public interest.


The two cases have the potential to damage Bulgaria’s image as a modern, westernised state at a sensitive time; the country expects to join the European Union in 2007.


The cases have already attracted outside criticism from international media organisations and experts.


The Paris-based Reporters Without Frontiers has written to Bulgaria’s chief prosecutor, Nikola Filchev, stating their belief that the Romanian journalist is “the victim of an absurd and archaic law”.


The leading international media organisation went on to condemn the potential use of “a punishment of utterly disproportionate severity for the use of a hidden camera, which is nonetheless a common practice by investigative journalists”.


The World Association of Newspapers and the World Editorial Forum, an international editors organisation, have written to Bulgaria’s prime minister, Simeon Saxcoburggotski, expressing concern that Buhnici’s arrest was intended to intimidate journalists “who investigate controversial or unsuitable subjects”.


Christophoros Christophorou, a media expert in the Council of Europe, author of two reports on the harmonisation of Bulgarian media and communications laws with European standards, says the controversial law breaches Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, on freedom of expression. “I am not aware of the existence of any similar legal provision in any European country,” he told IWPR.


Meanwhile, the Bulgarian media this week agreed to adhere to a set of journalistic ethics, a move seen as an historic step in the development of democracy in the country.

The code of conduct was signed by representatives of virtually all Bulgaria’s publishers and journalists after years of divisions on the subject.


But this apparent milestone in the history of the Bulgarian media has now been overshadowed by the two cases. And in the eyes of many, they prove that important steps concerning the freedom of the media in this country still need to be taken.


Albena Shkodrova is a regular IWPR contributor in Sofia.

Support our journalists