Bulgaria: Local and international freedom of expression networks turn up the heat
By FD for APCNews
MONTREAL, CANADA, 22 May 2007
Amendments to Bulgaria’s Access to Public Information Act were passed by the National Assembly at the first reading. Many of the proposed changes breach established international standards on the right to information and appear specifically designed to hinder access to public records.
“It is particularly discouraging to see these changes to the Access to Information Act passed quietly by parliament, without any major opposition. It leaves us with a bitter taste about the commitment of all Bulgarian political parties to transparency and access to information,” says Pavel Antonov from the Bulgarian civil society group Bluelink.
A major freedom of expression campaign launched by Bulgarian groups started several months back, before the amendments even reached the national assembly. The amendments were proposed on February 28, 2007. On March 8 2007 a joint statement by non governmental organisations (NGOs) was presented to the parliamentary commision on civil society and media. So far, the statement is supported online by 1,077 NGOs and individuals locally. Now, Bluelink’s follow-up actions are meant to increase in intensity.
Pavel Antonov, from APC’s member in Bulgaria, Bluelink, says that his group is thinking of approaching the Aarhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice on Environmental Matters (http://www.unece.org/env/pp/) to put their national assembly under pressure as early as this week.
Milena Bokova who runs Bluelink’s activities from Sofia has been in talks with Bulgaria’s Access to Information Programme and is expected to turn up the volume in what looks like a fierce fight for the freedom of information and right to privacy.
Apart from Aarhus and the national assembly, Bluelink will contact European Union (EU) institutions monitoring Bulgaria’s compliance with EU law.
International networks reacting to the news
A letter, drafted by the freedom of expression organisation ARTICLE 19, was sent to legislators on Monday May 21, says that organisation.
The letter calls on members of the Bulgarian National Assembly not to pass proposed amendments which would substantially weaken the national system for access to information was endorsed by 68 organisations and individuals from around the world.
The following concerns were highlighted in the letter sent by the London-based civil society group ARTICLE 19:
o Requesters would be required to prove a legal interest in the information they wish to access.
o Public bodies would no longer be required to provide partial access when only some of the information in a requested document is confidential.
o The time limit for responding to requests would effectively be doubled, going from 14 calendar days to 20 working days.
o The rule limiting fees charged to actual costs would be replaced by one allowing any fee "not considerably exceeding actual costs".
ARTICLE 19 calls on Bulgarian legislators to ensure that Bulgaria respects its international and constitutional obligations by refusing to pass the proposed amendments into law.
Bluelink is already working on an e-mail campaign, set to target government and political party leaders, as well as media and the EU institutions. APC members around the world will take part in the upcoming actions in a show of solidarity with Bulgarian information rights activists.