ECHR (European Court of Human Rights): the ban in Bulgaria on campaigning in a foreign language during an election campaign violates the freedom of expression.

On May 2, 2023, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) issued its decision in the case of Mestan v. Bulgaria brought by the former leader of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, Lyutvi Mestan. On May 5, 2013, he delivered a 7-minute speech in Turkish language in the village of Yablanovo, Kotlenska Municipality, during the campaign for parliamentary elections, which took place one week later. Six other politicians also participated in the event, one of whom was a district mayor from Istanbul, Turkey, who also delivered a speech in Turkish. According to the 2011 census, 98% of the population in Yablanovo identified themselves as ethnic Turks.

A representative of GERB (Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria) present at the pre-election event lodged a complaint with the District Election Commission - Sliven, alleging that several participants had spoken in Turkish. The Commission issued an act for an administrative violation against Mestan and the mayor of Yablanovo, based on which the regional governor imposed a fine of 2,000 leva for violating Article 133, paragraph 2 of the 2011 Election Code. According to this provision, "the pre-election campaign is conducted in Bulgarian language." Mr. Mestan appealed the decision of the regional governor to the District Court of Kotlenska, which confirmed the violation but reduced the fine to 500 leva. After further appeal of this decision, it was upheld by the Administrative Court - Sliven. This decision is final.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) establishes a violation of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (right to freedom of expression).

According to the Court, an absolute ban on using unofficial languages under the threat of administrative sanctions is not compatible with the fundamental values of a democratic society, which include freedom of expression. The Court emphasizes that the language used by the applicant in this case is both his mother tongue and the language of the minority population to which he is addressing. Free elections are inconceivable without the free dissemination of political opinions and information, the Court points out. The right of an individual to communicate their political ideas and the right of others to receive such information would be meaningless if the ability to express these opinions and ideas freely is hindered by the threat of administrative sanctions.

In this case, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) examines the regulatory frameworks of 37 member states of the Council of Europe and finds that only in Ukraine and Bulgaria there is an absolute ban for candidates to speak in a language other than the official one during public election meetings. The Court also notes that this provision of the Electoral Code has been repeatedly criticized by the Advisory Committee of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, the Venice Commission, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), who consider that it deprives minorities of the opportunity to promote their effective participation in the elections.

The decision of the ECHR requires a reform of the Bulgarian legislation. The provision of Article 181, paragraph 2 of the current Electoral Code is the same as the one in the repealed Electoral Code of 2011. Since 2016, this is the fourth decision of the ECHR related to discrepancies in the Bulgarian electoral legislation with international human rights law. Despite numerous amendments to the law that have been made in the last few years, the Bulgarian parliament has neglected its obligations to carry out the necessary legislative reforms.

In the case, the ECHR awarded the applicant 1200 euros in compensation and 3200 euros for legal costs. The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee provided legal assistance to the applicant both at the national level and before the European Court of Human Rights.