Jourova promises action plan to protect independent journalism

Commission Vice President Vera Jourova during the conference 'Media Freedom in Bulgaria' on 12 October 2020. [Screenshot, EURACTIV Bulgaria]

The European Commission (EC) will present by the end of the year an action plan to protect independent journalism, Commission Vice President Věra Jourová announced on Monday (12 October) during the conference “Media Freedom in Bulgaria”, organised by EURACTIV Bulgaria.

The next European budget will set aside €61 million to support independent media and journalists, said Jourová, who is leading the Commission’s work on values and transparency, upholding the rule of law.

In her words, the Commission will focus its efforts on ensuring pluralism in the digital media market in the EU, as well as to develop mechanisms to protect journalists from the so-called SLAPP cases (strategic lawsuit against public participation).

A SLAPP is a lawsuit intended to censor, intimidate, and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defence until they abandon their criticism or opposition.

“The Commission cannot win the war to protect the independent media alone, but we will use all the tools at our disposal,” the vice-president said, adding that a number of pilot projects would be launched by the end of October, with practical assistance for investigative journalists to be offered by the European Center for Press and Media Freedom.

Jourová said the recently announced Commission reports covering the 27 EU members represent an objective assessment of the media situation in the EU.

For Bulgaria, the conclusions are that there is a lack of transparency of media ownership and the distribution of European money for advertising, which is the responsibility of the state. The Bulgarian media are under political influence, and there are alarming signals of attacks on journalists.

“We are financing a number of projects for those journalists who are threatened, including the creation of shelters for journalists,” Jourová said. She explained that European money for advertising must be distributed through legally conducted public procurement.

Pavel Szalai, the Reporters Without Borders’ EU and Balkans Coordinator, said that “Bulgaria is a concentrate of all the problems with press freedom that we find in the EU and the Balkans”.

He reminded that in 2019 Bulgaria signed the Partnership for Information and Democracy, which aims to promote freedom of expression globally. However, media freedom in Bulgaria continues to deteriorate, and the Bulgarian government has no will to improve the situation, Szalai said.

He added that the team of Reporters Without Borders met with Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov in 2019 and the organisation promised to present its proposals for improving the media environment.

In March, Reporters Without Borders sent Borissov a Roadmap for Media Policy in Bulgaria. They proposed setting up an independent national commission to improve media freedom, which would deal with the improvement of media legislation and also allocate state subsidies to the media.

Unfortunately, he said, there has been no reaction from the Bulgarian prime minister.

MEP Elena Yoncheva (S&D), who acted as a host of the conference, which was sponsored by the S&D group in the European Parliament, announced that she will work actively to create mechanisms at European level to support independent media.

“We have to act now, while there are still some free territories left,” Yoncheva said, recalling that 13 years ago, Bulgaria ranked 36th in the World Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders, while now it ranks 111th.

Bulgaria ‘black sheep of the EU’: World Press Freedom Index

Bulgaria has the lowest standards of press freedom in Europe and is ranked 111th globally in terms of press freedom for a third consecutive year in the Reporters Without Borders annual edition of the World Press Freedom index, which called the country “the black sheep of the EU”.

“If Bulgaria continues to decline at the same pace, in ten years it can really rank next to North Korea, which is now only 69 places away in the rankings,” she said

She called for measures to reveal the real ownership of the media, support for investigative journalism and special funding from the European budget in support of independent journalism, to be distributed by international organisations.

MEP Ramona Strugariu (“Renew Europe, Romania”) said that she was working on draft EU legislation to protect journalists. She joined the criticism that the directly available European funds are easily used by the governments’ propaganda machine – not only in Bulgaria.

Svetoslav Terziev, a columnist with the Sega newspaper, said that “Bulgaria is recognised as probably the most corrupt country in the EU and the media cannot be other than part of this process of corruption”.

Stoyana Georgieva, publisher and editor-in-chief of Mediapool.bg, said that Bulgarian media and Bulgarian business have one overarching problem – the rule of law. According to her, the Bulgarian media are hostages of state capture, of which they are at the same time a victim and an instrument.

Galya Prokopieva, executive director of Economedia, which publishes Capital and Dnevnik,  said there is a tendency for the destruction of journalism in Bulgaria, “which we must reverse”.  According to her, Bulgaria does not need to change legislation but simply to uphold the rule of law.

Investigative journalist Valia Ahchieva, who works for EURACTIV Bulgaria, proposed that a European pool for evidence-based investigative journalism be created, to work hand in hand with, and in support of, the Office of the European Public Prosecutor (EPPO). Ahchieva has made a series of investigative reports which she has flagged to the attention of EPPO.

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[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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