Sophia in’t Veld: "We are here to support you. We saw problems, but also a great determination of the Bulgarians to cope with the challenges. " Elena Yoncheva: "If we do not overcome corruption, we will continue to be a poor country with dependent media."
"The European Parliament is here and supports you. We have a long-term commitment and keep a close eye on events. We saw problems, but also a great determination of the Bulgarians to cope with the challenges. We will continue to have a dialogue and to work together. "
This is what the head of the delegation of the Committee on Civil Liberties of the European Parliament Sophia in’t Veld (Dutch MEP from the group "Renew Europe" in the EP) said during a press conference on September 24 in the "House of Europe" in Sofia. The delegation arrived in Bulgaria a day earlier with a mission to monitor how the rule of law and media freedom in particular are observed in our country. It reported at the press conference its findings during the meetings it held here.
The 23-member delegation included a total of 7 MEPs. Apart from Sophia in’t Veld, the others were Elena Yoncheva (S&D, Bulgaria), Clare Daly (Left, Ireland), Vladimir Bilcik (EPP, Slovakia), AnnalisaTardino (ID, Italy), Patryk Jaki (EQF, Poland) and Sergey Lagodinsky (Greens / ESA, Germany). The other 16 members of the EU delegation were experts who also work for the European Parliament.
The work agenda of the delegation, which arrived in Bulgaria on September 23rd after a two-day visit to Slovakia, included meetings with civil society organizations, media representatives, as well as with President Rumen Radev, Vice President Iliana Yotova, caretaker Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Boyko Rashkov, Deputy Prime Minister for European Funding Management Atanas Pekanov, caretaker Minister of Justice Yanaki Stoilov, caretaker Minister of Culture Velislav Minekov, Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshev and Ombudsman Diana Kovacheva.
At the press conference in the House of Europe, which was also broadcast online, the delegation was represented by Sophia in’t Veld, Elena Yoncheva and Sergey Lagodinsky.
The main presentation was made by Sophia in’t Veld, who pointed out that the delegation's attention was focused on topics such as respect for the rule of law, media freedom, democracy and fundamental rights, including the independence of the judiciary and the prosecution system from the executive branch, the separation of powers, the fight against corruption.
Sophia in’t Veld emphasized: "The EP delegation saw a country experiencing difficult times, but which is also in transition. Effective and fair law enforcement, especially in the fight against corruption, remains one of the most pressing issues in Bulgaria. Prosecuting high-level corruption is still problematic. The delegation is also concerned about the cases of police brutality in the summer of 2020, which have not yet been properly investigated. The challenge of the accountability and criminal responsibility of the Prosecutor General has not been overcome and needs to be put in the context of broader judicial reforms as soon as the political situation allows. "
Sophia in’t Veld also highlighted the issue of media freedom and pluralism, stressing that "the worrying situation continues" in this area. According to the MEP, "the authorities must step up their efforts to improve the working environment and safety of journalists" and "ensure the protection and independence of journalists at all times".
The delegation was concerned about the "high degree of concentration of media ownership and the lack of transparency in the distribution of EU funding and public funding". A request for "appropriate monitoring and implementation" was made.
Concerns were also expressed about the "fundamental rights situation in Bulgaria" citng information received about the use of hate speech and discrimination against Roma, LGBTI + individuals and persons belonging to other minority groups, as well as concerns on violence, including domestic violence ”.
Sophia in’t Veld said: "We take into account the limited powers of the caretaker government to deal with the many challenges, but we are encouraged by its commitment to use the tools at its disposal effectively. At the same time, we call on the European Commission to step up the monitoring and audit of EU funding, including under the Mechanism for Recovery and Sustainability. The Group for the Monitoring of Democracy, the Rule of Law and Fundamental Rights in the European Parliament will continue to monitor developments in Bulgaria closely in the future and is confident that Bulgarian society has sufficient will to find solutions. "
Sophia in’t Veld also answered questions from the media, which were asked both by journalists present in the hall and online.
One of the questions focused on the details of the delegation's meeting with Prosecutor General Ivan Geshev. The MEP said that the guests were surprised how Geshev answered their question about the progress of the investigation into the notorious leaked photos of ex-Prime Minister Boyko Borissov next to a nightstand full of bundles of banknotes and gold bars. Geshev replied: "We do not know at what stage of the judicial process is the case”. This lack of information, as well as the right of the Prosecutor General to suspend proceedings, led the delegation to conclude that "the situation is too serious".
Sophia in’t Veld pointed out: "Corruption and freedom of the media are extremely important issues for us and they come first. This problem does not concern Bulgaria only, but it seems to me that there is too much impunity for corruption here. Sometimes there is no investigation, and when there is, it does not lead to anything, and this is a bad signal for Bulgarian citizens. "
The MEP also expressed dissatisfaction with the way the European Commission has monitored Bulgaria so far: "On paper, everything looks good, but the EC has superficially carried out its inspections and therefore the European Parliament called on the Commission to strengthen them."
Sophia in’t Veld was also asked about some meetings held by the delegation with the leadership of certain media, such as the Bulgarian National Television, and why it failed to meet with core professional organizations such as the 127-year-old Union of Bulgarian Journalists, a member of the International Federation of journalists and the European Federation of Journalists.
Sophia in’t Veld responded that the interest of the delegation in BNT was prompted by "a number of controversies and allegations of unequal coverage", which were rejected as untrue by the director general of the public television. It was yet to be established "which allegations are true and which are not", but once it is known how many people trust BNT, "there should not be even a shadow of doubt", the MEP said.
As for the missed opportunities for meetings with important organizations in Bulgaria, she pointed out that the program of the delegation in Bulgaria was very limited in time, everything had to fit in just two days and different points of view were sought. MEPs are open to communication with all journalists’ organizations, including online, she said.
Asked how the EP could thwart attempts to destroy independent media, Sophia in’t Veld said in this regard attention should also be paid to the issues of media ownership, financial independence and political interference, and pressure from oligarchs. "I cannot say that there is a unique strategy to kill the independent media. Critical media are needed to hold the government accountable, politically or economically. When some people go too far in their attempts to undermine media independence by trying to eliminate critical voices, independent media usually manage to oppose this as well. But at some point, the critical media forces may not be enough - and I think we are at this stage”, said the head of the European delegation.
The question to her was clarified and focused specifically on the use of court cases as a means of suppression of independent media.
Sophia in’t Veld replied:
"The SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) approach is one of the tools used to silence journalists. We work on legislation at EU level. There is a broad consensus in the EP on SLAPP legislation. There is resistance from national governments, but we will still push for passing such legislation. I hear the signals well - it is clear that if smaller publications or independent journalists cannot make a living through their work, they will be pushed out of the market by the media mastodons. The issue is not necessarily in funding, but in media competition too. There are countries where the situation is much healthier. The big issue is media ownership and transparency. Influential people use their media ownership as a tool to protect their business. The issue of state advertising should not be used as a tool to push out critical journalists. "
In her summary, Sophia in’t Veld also emphasized:
"If you list all the problems that have been addressed here - corruption, freedom of the media, threats to pluralism, police violence, discrimination, you may be discouraged. But there is also reason for optimism. I see that there is a determination to change. There are really good and reliable people who want to work for the positive development of society. Let me give Slovakia as an example. Investigative journalists were killed there. The financial interest there was as great as here in Bulgaria. There was talk of huge corruption, fraud and international criminality. But we see that Malta and Slovakia, where we have been, are on track to overcome their problems. This is a long and difficult road. But it works. Recently, the special prosecutor in Slovakia was imprisoned for 14 years. No one would have believed that three and a half years ago. But it happened. Opposition to reforms is very strong from those who have a personal interest, from the dark forces. But I see how people are encouraged when they see that institutions are sustainable. Yes, the situation in Bulgaria is difficult. But I am also sure that there is a will for the institutions to grow stronger and more stable. The only time we are absolutely sure we are losing is when we lose hope. I think there is reason for hope. "
MEP Elena Yoncheva who also took part in the press conference, stressing the optimistic view. According to her, "the most important thing is that we managed to turn the eyes of MEPs in Brussels to Bulgaria." She reminded: "Only two years ago, when I became an MEP and said that there was a systemic problem in Bulgaria, that there was mafia, that the situation with media freedom was critical, almost no one paid attention. It is extremely important for me that today my fellow MEPs are no longer just talking about the problems in Bulgaria, but we are all determined that concrete measures must be taken. "
Yoncheva stressed: "The monitoring group was in Malta and Slovakia because prominent journalists were killed there - Daphne Caruana Galicia and Jan Kuciak. In Bulgaria, journalism itself has been systematically killed. This has been the case for the last 10 years and more. In 2007 we shared the same place with France in terms of media freedom, and today we are not even close to the European countries, today we are somewhere between Brazil and Malaysia. We all know what the reason is, what the method is, what the political pressure is. This is summarized not only by Reporters Without Borders and their index of media freedom, but you can also read these findings in the reports of the Council of Europe, and also of the European Commission in its report on the rule of law for 2021. it cannot be denied, although there have been attempts. This is already visible, it is being discussed. And our task - of the Monitoring Group - is not to make an investigation, but to establish the facts, to provoke a debate in Bulgaria and the EU and to help take such legislative measures which can help Bulgaria.”
Yoncheva also pointed out that the EP is working to provide funds for investigative journalism, for legislative changes to ensure the independence of the source and its security, for transparent European funding for the media. "One of the big problems in Bulgaria is that for the last 10 years the EU funds under the various communication programs were not distributed transparently and thus dependent media were created, which became service personnel, PR-agencies of the government itself. We should not allow this, regardless of who is in power, "said Yoncheva.
She also singled out corruption as another major problem in Bulgaria. "If Bulgaria does not cope with it, it will continue to be a poor country with dependent media," Yoncheva said, adding: "That is why we are here - to help stop corrupt practices. We have high hopes that this is possible. We met with government officials, with the president. And we believe that Bulgaria has taken the right path. Whether we will be able to endure to the end, time will tell. "
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