The European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) as part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) condemns the violence used by police officers on journalists and media workers covering protests in Bulgaria’s capital city, Sofia. We call for swift and effective investigations to ensure the perpetrators are held to account, as well as meaningful commitments to protect media freedom for all.
On 2 September 2020, people took to the street to protest against corruption and abuses of power, calling for the resignation of the government led by Boyko Borissov and of the country’s recently instated Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshev. As seen in a number of other countries in Europe in 2020, the police used increasingly militarised tactics against the protestors. According to numerous reports, police officers used excessive force against several journalists and media workers covering the protests.
Late in the evening, freelance journalist Dimitar Kenarov was dragged across the pavement, detained and kicked in the face and head by police officers, who also damaged his camera, which subsequently disappeared. Despite repeatedly identifying himself as a journalist and displaying a clearly visible “PRESS” sign on his mask, Kenarov says that he was kept handcuffed on the ground for hours before being taken to the Fifth Police Department in Sofia, where he was handed a warning and then released. Kenarov was not served with a detention order and was denied access to a lawyer. Furthermore, The Association for European Journalists in Bulgaria reported that police officers also assaulted Nikolay Doychinov, a photojournalist for Agence France-Presse, in the back with batons, damaging his camera.
Beyond explicit acts of violence, police officers also failed to identify and respond proportionately, and in line with international standards, towards journalists covering the protests. BlueLink reports that earlier in the day, the police and gendarmerie indiscriminately used pepper spray and other gas against protesters and journalists from various media outlets, including national network bTV’s reporters Kanna Racheva, Gabriela Naplatanova and Nikoleta Hadzhiyska, cameraman Borislav Mavrov and photographer Ladislav Tsvetkov. Racheva and other members of the team were taken to a nearby ambulance to receive medical attention. Another TV reporter from the Bulgarian National Television, Nikolay Minkov, was reportedly pepper sprayed. After he fainted, he was evacuated by an ambulance to the nearby hospital. All recovered and were reporting again from the streets the next day.
Journalists and media workers play a vital function when covering public protests, by ensuring independent scrutiny is afforded to all movements and reinforcing the importance of the fundamental right to protest and free assembly. ECPMF calls on the Bulgarian authorities to thoroughly and transparently investigate all reported cases of excessive use of force against journalists and bring those behind acts of violence to justice. This is of significant importance as it demonstrates that no one, including police officers, are beyond the rule of law. Furthermore, these incidents show the need for clear training and guidelines for all police officers, irrespective of rank or seniority, to respect and protect media freedom and allow journalists and media workers to safely cover demonstrations.