Global Economics

Bulgarian Bloggers Meet Big Brother


A debate is raging in the blogosphere about the dangers to free speech in Bulgaria, a new member of the European Union

Michel Bozgounov is a prolific blogger whose site offers an mixed bag of technological advice, outdoor adventure and information about web pages he has developed.

But last year he deviated from computer help -- such as how to disable your "dialog box" -- and wisdom on saving the planet -- "ride a bike" -- and wound up having a brush with Bulgarian justice. It all began when he copied a message from the "Save Strandja" web page and called for people to protest the Supreme Administrative Courts ruling opening up the Strandja nature park to investors.

Bozgounov used his blog to promote the first of several "flash mobs," or civil protests against the decision affecting Bulgarias oldest natural preserve. Conservationists turned out to protest and blocked one of the biggest intersections in Sofia. Police arrested 35 demonstrators on the grounds that the protest was not announced and was not regarded as legal.

Bozgounov was summoned by the police and was told to restrain from promoting "illegal demonstrations." He then had to sign a "statement of warning" that his website would be monitored by the authorities, and was sent home. He was the only blogger summoned by the police, although many others also copied and posted the same message. "Bozgounov violated the social order and showed disrespect to society and was therefore warned," said a statement from the Interior Ministry.

"A pretty awful situation," the 31-year-old said in a recent interview at a Sofia café. "I realized that I cannot write freely anymore."

Bozgounovs trip to the police station and the subsequent warning has touched off a debate in the blogosphere and some of the mainstream media about freedom of speech in Bulgaria, a new European Union country where the police and justice authorities have faced criticism in the past for their occasional ham-handed approach to press and speech freedoms.

But the case also shows that Internet-based chroniclers are increasingly finding themselves at the center of conflicts that have traditionally been the turf of journalists and free-expression advocates. Besides the outcry over how Bozgounov was treated by the authorities, bloggers have been in the lead of protests against Bulgarias interpretation of a European data retention and privacy law.

"In 2007 the Bulgarian bloggers became a topic with their stand on protection of human rights and civic checks on the actions of the administration," said Nelly Ognyanova, head of the Bulgarian Institute for Legal Development and a blogger herself.

More than 40 bloggers participated in a recent meeting organized by Bogomil Shopov, where they hashed out ideas for the future of the Bulgarian blogosphere over drinks. With slogans such as "We are Bulgaria's real civil society" and "We influence the desision makers in the country," some of the bloggers discussed such low-tech ideas as publishing a book of their best postings and issuing joint statements on issues of mutual concern.

LATTER-DAY CITIZENS KANE

Reflecting a trend throughout the world, young Bulgarians have launched blogs intended to contribute to pluralism in the media. Bloggers like Bozgounov and Yovko Lambrev are popular among young people in Sofia, with their focus on pop cultural and technical issues, as well as commentary on politics and culture.

Still, bloggers have a limited audience among Bulgarias 7.5 million people. A recent survey showed that only 19 percent of households have Internet access, the lowest rate in the EU.

That has not stopped them for actively opposing Bulgarias new data retention law. Under an EU-wide directive adopted in 2006, Internet and communications providers must retain information -- such as the source and destination of electronic communications, and the type of device used -- for up to two years. The law is intended to establish what information service providers must give to the authorities in their investigations of major crimes. The Bulgairan text of the directive was issued by the State Agency for Information Technologies and Communications, known in Bulgarian as DAITS.

Nickolay Kiskinov, a blogger and legal expert in Internet and corporate law, says Bulgarias interpretation of the law is overly broad. The English text says that data should be available for the purpose of the "investigation, detection and prosecution of serious crime." In the Bulgarian text the the term "serious crime" is replaced only by "crimes." "The missing term gives the Interior Ministry much more power against Internet users," Kiskinov said.

On a cold winter day in February, 50 demonstrators, including Bozgounov, gathered in front of the DAITS building to demand changes in the law and declaring it an affront to civil rights. Bozgounov took out a marking pen and a sheet of paper. Using his wife Anis back as a desk, he wrote, "Stop Internet tapping," added a drawing of a sad face and taped the sheet to his jacket.

This time the protest was legal and at one point a DAITS representative came out to the street to invite a few of the demonstrators inside to discuss the issue. DAITS deputy chairman Dimitar Stanchev advised the bloggers to "keep on fighting" at European level.

Afterwards, Shopov, one of the demonstrators, said, "We wont stop here. We are now preparing a complaint against the directive and will send it to Brussels."

But not all Bulgarian bloggers aim so high.

Silvina Georgieva used her blog to complain about her Internet provider, Sellinet. A short while later Georgieva received a letter from the companys lawyer requesting her to stop posting negative comments, which the lawyer said harmed the companys image, and voluntarily delete the offensive comments. The letter claimed that Georgievas actions were in violation of law.

In a telephone interview, Desislava Kamenova, the Sellinet lawyer who wrote the letter, could not name the article of the law which was violated by the blogger. Kamenova finally aadmitted, "Well, if she does not want to delete the postings, there is nothing we can do."

The blogger was happy to hear it, even though she claims never to have felt really intimidated: "For a second I was afraid, but then I thought about it and realized it is just a posting."

Georgievas case illustrates the challenges faced by bloggers, usually part-time commentators without the legal resources of the media or human rights groups. "We have paper airplanes in our hands, but on the other side there are tanks," Velian Stajkov, one of the first Bulgarian bloggers, says of the challenges faced by his peers.

BAD PRESS

Bozgounovs summons to the police station came amid increasing criticism of the Bulgarian authorities over matters of free expression and media rights. Also last year, police threatened to prosecute two BBC journalists who set up an undercover snare for a reputed child trafficker, alleging that the television journalists were guilty of entrapment.

In 2006, the government apologized to several Bulgarian journalists after Interior Minister Rumen Petkov falsely accused them of collaborating with the communist-era secret police in the 1970s. Two years before that, a Romanian journalist was arrested for using a hidden camera at a Bulgarian-Romanian border crossing while he was investigating illegal cigarette trafficking between the two countries. He was found guilty of violating the law banning the use of a concealed device to record information, charges that a Bulgarian appellate court later dropped.

Also in 2004, another BBC reporter used a hidden camera to catch the chief of Bulgarias Olympic Committee saying he was open to negotiating a price for his vote for the host city of the 2012 Olympic Games. Prosecutors charged the journalist with entrapment, initiation of bribe-taking, and violating the law against concealed recording. The government later dropped the case amid a huge public outcry.

Bozgounov, whose mixed bag of blogs appears in both Bulgarian and English, described what happened last July in an entry titled "A Short Story: To Speak or Not?" "I felt involved as I care about the nature in my country, Bulgaria, and because this subject is important for me, too, I started to blog about it, using information from all around the blogosphere -- copying it & quoting it," he wrote.

"I never thought this could be something illegal -- many official media wrote about the [demonstrations] and numerous bloggers did it just like I did, many of them even used stronger language than me and aggressive words, which I dont like," he continued.

Since then Bozgounov has not written about his case, but has recently supported another cause -- this time opposition to development in the Rila Mountains, a popular tourist destination.


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