CIVICUS

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Bulgaria

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Last updated on 19.12.2018 at 09:12

Bulgaria-Overview

Bulgarian civil society has become more active and visible in recent years, with mass mobilisation against corruption and collusion between business and the state bringing thousands onto the streets. This increasing activism was reflected in a recent survey, which showed a relatively active citizenry, and strong interest in increasing opportunities for citizen engagement and direct democracy.

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 Investigative journalists suspicious of official version of Viktoria Marinova's killing

Investigative journalists suspicious of official version of Viktoria Marinova's killing

On 6th October 2018, Viktoria Marinova, a Bulgarian journalist, presenter and administrative director of the local TV channel TVN was found dead in the town of Ruse.

Expression

On 6th October 2018, Viktoria Marinova, a Bulgarian journalist, presenter and administrative director of the local TV channel TVN was found dead in the town of Ruse. According to Bulgarian authorities, Marinova was raped, beaten and strangled. Marinova's last broadcast was an interview with Romanian journalist Attila Biro and Bulgarian journalist Dimitar Stoyanovfrom the Bivol.bg website, who were working on a story regarding allegations of fraud involving the misuse of EU funds by Bulgarian businessmen and politicians. The two, who were carrying out the investigation for the global investigative reporting platform Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), had been detained in September 2018 as they were investigating the affair which is known as #GPGate.

The Committee to Protect Journalists expressed concern over the "barbaric murder of journalist Viktoria Marinova" and called on the authorities to "carry out an exhaustive inquiry and bring to justice those responsible". Strong demands for an investigation into the murder of Victoria Marinova were made by EU leaders and the UN, with the UNESCO’s Director-General stating:

“…the use of sexual and physical abuse to silence a woman journalist, is an outrage against the dignity and basic human rights of every woman.”

In a matter of days, police arrested a man in Germany who they claimed was responsible for Marinova's rape and murder. At the time, the Bulgarian authorities said there was "no evidence to suggest the attack was linked to Ms Marinova's work". However, suspicions remain about the timing of her murder, with the BBC reporting a possible "political dimension" to the crime. In a lengthy interview on 8th November 2018, veteran investigative journalist Atanas Tchobanov, who led the #GPGate investigation, cast serious doubt on the authorities' version of events:

"I don’t trust their version about a supposed random sexual crime – by a Roma minority guy, who was drunk, who was under the influence of drugs and who himself says that he can’t remember what exactly happened. A very convenient story, which can be manipulated at the will of the authorities. I don’t see what the motives for his actions are...Because on the other side we have seen a streak of events related to the very serious investigative work we did on corruption and fraud with European funds for hundreds of million euros – GPGate. And we were threatened about this work in the weeks before Viktoria Marinova’s murder. She was one of the very few in Bulgaria who spoke about this issue, connecting very powerful people to the alleged network of fraud."

There has also been wider public mistrust of the local investigation into Marinova’s murder, with nearly 70,000 people signing a petition calling for an independent investigation into the case.

The #GPGate investigation has revealed links between the scandal and businessman Valentin Zlatev, the CEO of Lukoil Bulgaria and a friend of Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov. Bivol, the investigative journalism platform which broke the #GPGate story say they will continue their investigation and expect to publish another update soon.

The murder of the Marinova is the third murder of an investigative journalist recorded within the EU over the last two years. Jan Kuciak was killed in February 2018 in Slovakia, and Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed in Malta in 2017.

Peaceful Assembly

On 2nd October 2018, mothers of children living with disabilities took to the streets under the slogan “The System is Killing Them”. The protestors called for strengthened legislation and a better welfare system for people living with disabilities. Although they have been demanding protection of their rights for several months, this protest was triggered by the fact that the draft legislation on people with disabilities was returned for discussion, instead of being presented to parliament for approval. According to media reports, following the protests, Prime Minister Borrisov promised to increase the 2019 budget to address the issue. 

In related developments, on 22nd October 2018, several demonstrations took place in different cities in Bulgaria calling for the resignation of Bulgaria's Deputy Prime Minister Valeri Simeonov over a comment he made regarding the protest by mothers of children with disabilities, calling them "shrill women with supposedly ill children”. In Sofia, mothers and their supporters rallied in front of the Council of Ministers building. Following weeks of protests, on 16th November 2018 Reuters news agency reported that Simeonov had resigned.

Association

On 15th November 2018, the United Nations Human Rights Committee presented its fourth periodic report concerning measures taken by Bulgaria to implement the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Regarding the freedom of association, the report expressed concern about the refusal of the state to register associations representing national minorities with "political" objectives. However, the Committee also acknowledged that the amended Commercial Register and the Register for Non-Profit Legal Entities Act 2018 "intend to overcome this practice".

Association

People in Bulgaria are free to form, register and operate civil society organisations without interference in order to promote a range of causes, including promoting human rights and combatting corruption. The European refugee crisis has brought into sharp focus the value of civil society organisations, some of which have closely monitored the situation and provided front-line humanitarian relief to refugees in Bulgaria.

People in Bulgaria are free to form, register and operate civil society organisations without interference in order to promote a range of causes, including promoting human rights and combatting corruption. The European refugee crisis has brought into sharp focus the value of civil society organisations, some of which have closely monitored the situation and provided front-line humanitarian relief to refugees in Bulgaria. A law introduced in 2000 regulates the registration and operation of associations and foundations. Amendments to the law passed a first reading in parliament in 2016. These changes would reduce multiple registrations, and move the responsibility for registration from judicial to administrative authority. Some within civil society have however expressed concern that amendments proposed after the first reading could impose ‘illegitimate control’ over CSOs.

Peaceful Assembly

Between 2013 and 2015, Bulgarians took to the streets on numerous occasions to exercise their right to peaceful assembly. At times, protests lasted for up to 100 days and involved tens of thousands of participants.

Between 2013 and 2015, Bulgarians took to the streets on numerous occasions to exercise their right to peaceful assembly. At times, protests lasted for up to 100 days and involved tens of thousands of participants. Anti-government protests continued during 2015, though on a smaller scale. While some protests included stone throwing and the use of excessive force by police, most were peaceful and well-policed. Article 43(1) of the constitution provides that all ‘citizens’ are free to assemble peacefully and unarmed, a wording which, ostensibly, does not extend this right to non-Bulgarians. In practice, Bulgarians must notify the authorities 48 hours in advance of a public gathering, while spontaneous peaceful assemblies do not have legal protection under the law.

Expression

Although citizens benefit from strong free speech protections under Bulgarian law, declining respect for media freedom, amidst a shrinking pool of ownership and the interference of individuals with substantial economic and political influence, has raised concerns. Worryingly, physical attacks on journalists and interference with the operations of private media are on the rise.

Although citizens benefit from strong free speech protections under Bulgarian law, declining respect for media freedom, amidst a shrinking pool of ownership and the interference of individuals with substantial economic and political influence, has raised concerns. Worryingly, physical attacks on journalists and interference with the operations of private media are on the rise. These dynamics are reflected in Bulgaria’s ranking on the World Press Freedom Index, which has fallen dramatically from 35th in 2006 to 106th in 2015. Criminal defamation is retained in Bulgaria’s laws, although the offence no longer carries a prison sentence. Fines are however higher when the target of the defamation is a public official, in contravention of established principles of European and international human rights law. Access to the Internet and social media is not restricted in Bulgaria, but, according to the International Telecommunications Union, almost half of the population were not using the Internet in 2014. While Bulgaria does have an access to information law, there have been some attempts to circumvent the law on grounds of national security.