While a recent global report on press freedom in 139 countries ranked Bulgaria 38th, many of the country's journalists complain that the lack of a coherent judicial framework has been seriously hampering their work. Meanwhile, feeling about the press amongst the public at large still shows a basic lack of trust in the nation's print media, which is dominated by the capital, Sofia, and a couple of major tabloids.
The report, published just last week by the French NGO, Reporters sans Frontieres (RSF), is the first of its kind from the internationally-renowned organisation and ranks Bulgaria above several of its East and Central European counterparts. The Czech Republic occupied 41st place, Bosnia-Herzegovina 43rd, Romania 45th, Ukraine 112th and Russia 121st. The US, historically a staunch advocate in promoting freedom of the press, ranked poorly at 17th.
The report, covering the period September 2001-October 2002, looked at issues such as the murder or arrest of journalists, censorship, the existence of state or corporate-based monopolies, the active persecution of press law offences, and the implementation of repressive regulation directed against the media.
While 38th still indicates substantial problems, it also indicates how far Bulgaria has come since the end of the Cold War. For most of the 1990s, the media pushed for a less restricted environment, culminating in January 2000 with the government of former Prime Minister Ivan Kostov agreeing to reduce the excessive fines that had previously been levied on journalists found to be breaking libel laws.
However, due to the archaic and at times Byzantine nature of Bulgaria's current judicial system - a point of contention continually highlighted by visiting officials from the IMF and the World Bank - the legal code's loose interpretation of what constitutes "truly libellous" remains a contentious issue.
When asked by OBG to describe the greatest obstacle members of the Bulgarian press still face, Dimitar Sotirov, the Executive Director of the Bulgarian media advocacy group, Bulgarian Media Coalition (BMC), said it was the lack of a standardised legal system outlining the rights and responsibilities of the press.
"I'm embarrassed by the fact that our government has not made more of an effort to create a standardised legal code that goes a lot further in protecting the interests and personal welfare of Bulgarian journalists," he said.
Meanwhile, Bulgarian journalists are still subject to exorbitant libel fines, ranging from BNG5000 - 15,000 (USD2500-7500). In a country where the World Bank estimates average annual income at USD1650, this is more than simply a slap on the wrist.
The regional dimensions of Bulgaria's media market also have an impact on the libel issue, due to widely varying circulation rates. Two Sofia tabloids, Trud and 24 Chasa, have 35% and 25% respective shares of the local newspaper market and are owned by the German media conglomerate, Westdeutsche Allegemeine Zeitung (WAZ), which controls around 35% of the Bulgarian newspaper market overall. As a result, they possess an abundance of working capital and a team of legal advisors to successfully fight off pesky libel charges. On the other hand, journalists writing for rural-based, provincial publications operate on shoe-string budgets and in working conditions that Sotirov described as "primitive" and "unprofessional". Inevitably, these regional papers lack sufficient financial means to effectively challenge the charges of libel that are sometimes laid against them by powerful individuals or corporations.
At July's annual conference of the BMC, which included members of the Association of Bulgarian Broadcasters (ABBRO), the Centre for Independent Journalism, and the Union of Bulgarian Journalists (UBJ), the Chief Secretary of the Ministry of the Interior, General Boyko Borissov, also acknowledged that Bulgarian journalists, particularly those working in remote rural areas, often work in dangerous conditions.
This acknowledgement was itself something of a breakthrough. Sotirov points to police figures which show that in the past two years, 10 cases of assault against journalists have been filed by members of the Bulgarian press. He also added that because of the ever-present fear of targeted retribution, a large number of assault cases simply go unreported.
However, while the RSF report was widely acknowledged to be accurate by Bulgarian journalists, the editor of one of Sofia's most influential dailies told OBG that the report neglected to mention some other serious problems. These were "the lack of trust that the general population still harbours towards the press and a freedom of the press that is compromised at every turn by the powers-that-be."
In its continued efforts to present itself as a credible future member of the European Union, the Bulgarian authorities have strived to improve the economic climate. Many now feel that improving the media climate is also vital for the country as it moves to take its place among the Union's membership in 2007.