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Bulgaria turns GDPR into media censorship instrument

Tsvetan Tsvetanov, the number 2 in GERB, is the head of the Internal affairs committee in the Bulgarian Parliament [Dnevnik]

The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) entered in force last May with the purpose of stopping the abuse with the citizens’ private data by business. GDPR is one of the big achievements of the Juncker Commission, it has been acclaimed internationally and positioned the EU as a leader in the field of internet privacy. But, according to an expression in Bulgarian, the political class in this country reads GDPR “as the devil reads the Evangel”. Georgi Gotev has the story.

Without any votes against, the Bulgarian parliament Internal affairs committee on 16 January passed amendments to the national Data Protection Law, allegedly inspired by GDPR, but in reality aiming at silencing media. The amendments open the door for a state body – the Commission for protection of personal data – to scrutinise publications under 10 criteria [page 8 of this document], the obvious aim being to discourage journalists or editors from mentioning any names in critical publications.

Among the criteria are the presumed influence of such publications on the person’s reputation, the circumstances under which the data published about a given person have become known to the journalist, the importance of the disclosure of personal data for the coverage of an issue of public interest, and other texts the interpretation of which can only be subjective.

The Commission for protection of personal data can impose fines of 4% of the annual turnover of the “guilty” media only if it finds that a publication has encroached into the personal space of the person cited, whatever this may mean. A series of such fines could wreck any Bulgarian media.

Right defenders denounced the changes to the legislation as tantamount to media censorship in breach of the Constitution.  The NGO “Access to Information” waged battles with the competent Internal affairs committee of the Parliament before the vote, but found no support among MPs: only one lawmaker from the opposition BSP abstained during the vote.

Lawyer Alexander Kashamov from Access to Information Programme said this was the only GDPR-inspired legislation in the EU, which introduces such a wide menu of possibilities to limit the journalistic expression. He reminded that the GDPR regulation specifically states it is not infringing to the freedom of information and expression.

We can only imagine how would reporting in Bulgaria look like when the law will be passed. Most probably no one will dare to mention names of graft suspects, especially when the state machinery would be eager to silence the disclosures. And it’s not surprising that the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and the Movement of Rights and Freedoms (DPS) are not against. BSP hopes to accede to power, while DPS is always on power positions, even when officially it is in opposition.

In Romania too, the authorities misuse EU legislation to require journalists to reveal their sources. RISE Project, an award-winning investigative journalism outlet in Romania, was recently ordered by the Romanian Data Protection Authority to reveal its sources under the threat of a fine of up to €20 million based on the EU’s GDPR directive. [More]

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