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Concern over growing restrictions on press freedom

(IPI/IFEX) - Vienna, 18 April 2011 - The Vienna-based South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO), an affiliate of the International Press Institute (IPI), expressed concern that the latest Penal Code amendments adopted by the Bulgarian parliament could affect press freedom.

On 13 April 2011, the parliament adopted changes to the Penal Code and introduced possible incarceration, from one to four years, for journalists and writers who instigate hatred, discrimination or violence. While the previous law covered only racial discrimination, the current one specifies additional forms of discrimination, based on ethnicity, race, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, marital and social status, and disability. The amendments encompass all media: print, broadcast and online. Bulgarian laws do not define the concept of discrimination.

Ognian Zlatev, Director of the Sofia-based Media Development Center, told SEEMO that the amendments related to discrimination could mean an attempt to impose controls on media and the internet. He believes the hasty adoption of these amendments, without prior public discussion, might be a result of the forthcoming elections. He considers the new amendments a violation on media freedom.

Ivan Dikov, editor-in-chief of the Bulgarian English-language daily Novinite, was surprised by the prompt amendment adoption. He thinks that they can do more harm than good. Dikov admits that discriminatory and hate speech are present in the Bulgarian media, especially in the online fora, but he does not think that the amendments would change the situation. "They might act as a backlash," he told SEEMO, "and be perceived as imposed by western NGOs. How the new provision will be interpreted by the courts is of vital importance."

SEEMO condemns hate speech and discrimination. However, the organisation is also concerned with the prospect of journalists being jailed and how the courts might interpret possible allegations of discrimination. Experience shows that court rulings in this area could be abused. As a result, journalists could resort to self-censorship. SEEMO advocates for journalists to apply self-regulation as a tool to control and prevent discriminatory rhetoric.

In a separate development related to press freedom, the parliament adopted a set of amendments related to the freedom of access to Bulgaria's Business (Trade) Registry. Prior to these amendments, access to both the registry's data bases - the one containing the company's profile and the second containing information on contracts, protocols and shareholder's decisions - was unrestricted to all citizens.

As of 2012, the second data base will be available upon a written request by owners of an e-signature. The logs will be monitored. Full access will be provided only to the Court, investigators, personal data operators, lawyers, public notaries, law enforcement officers, legal advisors, and tax agents. As SEEMO stated in its letter of 1 March 2011, unrestricted public access to databases containing company activities have been an essential journalistic tool in uncovering corruption and irregularities. Under the new provisions, journalists will have no free access to a very important source of information, previously used to uncover corruption and irregularities in companies.

SEEMO Secretary General Oliver Vujovic said: "I call on the Bulgarian authorities to do their utmost to respect press freedom, and hope that the new amendments will not be used to promote censorship or prevent journalists from writing about issues which are in the public interest."

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