During the state of emergency, followed by the Coronavirus crisis, Members of Bulgarian parliament from VMRO introduced a new bill suggesting amendments regarding the possibility for the state to be able to censor all web pages, which contain “untrue information about a psychical or judicial person”. The bill was presented on 19th March 2020. The Association of European Journalists – Bulgaria alarms that it is an unconstitutional attempt to impose censorship. The legislative changes were suggested with amendments in the Radio and Television Act and the Criminal Code, during the state of emergency announced by the Bulgarian government from 13th March to 13th April 2020.
The bill would allow the Council for Electronic Media (CEM) – the national state regulator to “announce websites which disseminate misinformation on the internet”, publishing its decision on the Council’s website, after which the websites would have 3 days to remove the articles. If they fail to do so, the website could be removed and “all persons providing public electronic communications networks and/or services” will be obliged to do so. They would be obligated to act through a decision by the chairperson of the Sofia District Court (SDC), who would be petitioned by the CEM. The chairperson or their representative, would have 72 hours to make a decision, which would again be exclusively published on the CEM’s website. No criteria are defined about what would constitute misinformation and the definition, which the bill suggests, differs from the one, provided by the European commission.
Another suggested amendment would require any supplier of media services, who plans to disseminate them through the internet, to register with the CEM. CEM would have 14 days to decide whether the petitioner would be allowed to have a website or not. The Council can deny a registration.
The MPs suggest also a prison penalty of three years for anyone who through speech, print or other mass media, through digital information systems or in another way, disseminates untrue information. The Bulgarian constitution forbids censorship and defines explicitly the cases in which restrictions can be imposed and the legal procedure to be followed. The suggested bill does not allow for due process, giving the chairperson of the SDC functions to issue administrative legislation.
The suggested registration of websites with CEM is in breach of the current Law for radio and television and the DIRECTIVE (EU) 2018/1808 OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL of 14 November 2018 amending Directive 2010/13/EU on the coordination of certain provisions laid down by law, regulation or administrative action in Member States concerning the provision of audiovisual media services (Audiovisual Media Services Directive) in view of changing market realities. The suggested registration is not only dangerous but also superfluous, as under the current legislation, media providers are responsible for the content of their publications and function as such only with a license from CEM.
The suggested prison penalties for distributing untruthful information through electronic information systems or in another way, basically constitutes criminalization of lying, where the state, through the prosecution, can determine what is lie and what is truth.
The Association of European journalists – Bulgaria identifies misinformation as a very serious problem. The European commission is working towards dealing with it by adopting a definition and a single European approach. The Bulgarian state should also work on this problem, but in accordance with the Constitution and the international standards, and mostly in accordance with the freedom of speech, freedom of information and media freedom. In moments of crisis, panic, fear and hysteria take over. Fighting them, however, should not be at the expense of empowering the state and its representatives with repressive, extreme, contrary to the Constitution and fundamental democratic principles instruments, which could very easily turn the state into tyranny.