Freedom of expression
The freedom of expression, also referred to as the freedom of speech, is one of the most important civil liberties. It guarantees the right of each individual to publicly express their opinion and views without interference, pressure, or punishment. This allows for the free exchange of ideas, opinions, and information; thus, the freedom of expression encourages members of a society to form their own personal opinion on subjects of societal importance. In this way it contributes to societal debate and supports the development of free and independent media, an informed public, and the transparent functioning of the country.
The freedom of expression includes almost also methods of expressing oneself, regardless of the content or tone. It covers all of the following:
- Spaces—public and private
- Goals—political, artistic, commercial, etc.
- Forms—words, pictures, sounds
- Media - movies, comics, radio, television and social networks
The restriction and violation of the freedom of expression by the authorities is known as censure, but it may be applied only for very serious reasons. Criticism of someone’s public speech or viewpoint, for example, is not considered censure, nor is the refusal by private entities to provide a forum for views that they do not share. Only the court may determine whether a given form of expression merits protection or does not, since the freedom of expression is wide-ranging, but not absolute. For example, the European Court of Human Rights constitutes that speech invoking hatred, discrimination, and violence (“hate speech” or “hostile speech”) can be censored and that this speech does not merit protection as a freedom of expression. This is because one person’s right to expression cannot be used to infringe on the rights of another person.
Hate speech, however, has firmly entrenched itself in the public discourse in Bulgaria through the media, which often indiscriminately provides a forum for racist, xenophobic, and homophobic views and antiminority activists. For years, there has been a tendency to allow, approve, and even praise speech that seeds hate or incites people to violence against some of our society’s most vulnerable groups. The Bulgarian authorities are failing to investigate hate crimes promptly and effectively; our country was even sued by the ECHR in 2021 because the Bulgarian courts refused to sanction Volen Siderov for his political statements, publications, and books containing hate speech against the Roma and Jewish community.
Media freedom and access to information also fall under the umbrella of freedom of expression. In addition to being able to freely receive and share all information that may be of interest, every Bulgarian individual is guaranteed through the Access to Public Information Act (APIA) the right to access public information owned by institutions.
The media, for their part, have the crucial task of informing the public and providing a reputable platform for public debate, empowerment, and reflection, which places on them an additional burden of responsibility. As a result, they receive extra rights and protection when carrying out these duties. For example, journalistic sources of information enjoy special protection when they help to gather and report information of public interest.
The current outlook
The current outlook
In Bulgaria, however, there is a vast disparity between theory and practice—media freedom in our country has been in a precarious state for years, and numerous Bulgarian and international organizations tasked with surveilling it have even warned of its continued decline. Reasons for this include a years-long process of consolidation of the media in the hands of a small cohort of individuals, high levels of corruption, and murky financing of certain medias in exchange for favorable treatment by the authorities. These are the observations of the international organization “Reporters Without Borders,” which for the last decade has placed Bulgaria between 100th and 113th place on the World Press Freedom Index (out of 180 countries surveyed). Bulgaria received the lowest and most worrying result out of all the EU countries until 2021, when the change in power gave the international organization hope that positive change would also extend to the realm of media independence. In 2021, Bulgaria ranked 92nd on the world ranking of media independence.
When it comes to freedom of expression, BHC strives to:
- Achieve a clear and up-to-date understanding of the full range of problems concerning the freedom of expression in Bulgaria. In-depth investigation of the problems and raising awareness and attention on this issue;
- Improve the media environment in Bulgaria and the freedom of the media. Eliminate the political and economic pressure on journalists;
- Recognize the danger that hate speech represents for Bulgarian society and prosecute it. Build public intolerance to this type of speech.
BHC was part of a large coalition of public organizations and medias that successfully fought to close the insult and defamation prisons in Bulgaria—civil society’s greatest success in the realm of freedom of expression during 2002. No less important are our longtime efforts in protecting the independence and public service mission of Bulgarian media and the safety of Bulgarian journalists. We achieve these goals through public advocacy, position statements, open letters to Bulgarian and international organizations, publications, and interviews on the subject. In the past year, BHC, in cooperation with the Association of European Journalists in Bulgaria, participated in the preparation and distribution of the report of The Civil Liberties Union for Europe (Liberties) on media freedom.