Bulgaria regulator acts to oust state radio chief in free speech row

SOFIA (Reuters) - Bulgaria’s broadcast regulator launched action on Wednesday to sack the chief of Bulgarian National Radio for briefly taking it off the air in a row with a popular presenter known for her coverage of the graft-prone judicial system.

Protesters take part in a demonstration against the only nomination for a new chief prosecutor in Sofia, Bulgaria, October 8, 2019. REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov

The Council for Electronic Media described the outage at the state-run broadcaster as a “gross violation of the law” and said that BNR general director Svetoslav Kostov, who refused to quit after a Sept. 27 CEM meeting on the matter, had five days to appeal.

BNR took its Horizont news channel off the air for five hours on Sept. 13 for what management called “technical maintenance”.

Investigators said they found no grounds for such “maintenance” and staff at BNR said the roots of the outage lay in Kostov’s attempts to fire respected Horizont anchor and reporter Silvia Velikova over her outspoken criticism of the nominee to become the next chief public prosecutor.

BNR management said Velikova had violated her contract by urging listeners while on air to join a street protest against the appointment of Ivan Geshev as prosecutor.

Velikova was then suspended but many journalists and others saw the move against Velikova as politically motivated and, when none of her colleagues agreed to replace her, BNR took Horizont off the air for five hours.

Velikova was reinstated after intervention by Prime Minister Boyko Borissov following a public outcry that included a protest by dozens of BNR colleagues in support of media freedom.

Velikova’s case drew criticism from human rights groups and the Bulgarian branch of the Association of European Journalists, which spoke of a “coup against journalistic professionalism” in a country with the worst ranking on press freedom in the 28-nation European Union.

The issue has also crystallized the frustration of many Bulgarians with what they see as a corrupt and opaque political elite and an ineffective judiciary, both often criticized by the EU’s executive commission.

Several protest rallies against Geshev’s appointment have been held with critics calling him a government placeman symbolizing dysfunction in the judiciary. He was the only nominee for the post and critics said there should have a varied field of candidates. Geshev has not commented publicly.

Bulgaria ranked 111th out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders world press freedom index this year - even below countries in the Western Balkans that are not yet EU members.

(This story removes clause in paragraph 4 that erroneously said the government had nominated a candidate to become chief prosecutor)

Reporting by Angel Krasimirov; Editing by Mark Heinrich