Bulgaria Faces Criticism Over New Crime Bill
Critics Say Criminal Code Bill Restricts Human Rights
By Sean Carney
The Wall Street Journal
The Bulgarian government is working on a controversial law that critics say limits freedom of the press and assembly in a European Union country shaken by persistent social unrest, legislation that mimics steps taken by Russia and Ukraine.
The Criminal Code Bill, which is being debated by lawmakers in Sofia after the cabinet approved it last week, would hand the police discretionary powers "to prevent crime and public disorder in certain public places."
It would curtail civil servants from criticizing government policies and from participating in protests, and it would encourage people to anonymously report petty thefts and other acts of public disorder. The bill would also threaten employees of nongovernmental organizations with jail if their activities were found to be serving a foreign country or foreign entity.
A clause in the bill to criminalize the taking of photographs of people without their written consent was dropped after a public outcry.
Critics say the legislation will weaken democracy in Bulgaria. Its conservative government collapsed in February 2013 amid nationwide rallies against corruption and poor living standards, yet the interim cabinet and ensuing popularly elected Socialist-led coalition have failed to quell the discontent. Daily, though dwindling, protests continue in the capital city.
"Definitely [these] changes are not intended to strengthen democracy, but to restrict it and to replace the democratic right to exchange information with a kind of censorship. There is a very clear trend," said Alexander Kashumov, head legal adviser to the Access to Information Program, a civil-rights NGO in Sofia, referring to the new crime bill.
Mr. Kashumov said that the bill's controversial elements run contrary to the EU convention on human rights, namely to the guarantees of freedom of expression.
EU representatives weren't available to comment, but Bulgaria's justice ministry denied that the bill restricts freedom of speech.
"The Ministry of Justice will not comment on political assessments of the document. We are confident that the new draft criminal code in its current form is a professional and expert opinion of leading Bulgarian lawyers," the ministry said.
New limits on the freedom of the press and assembly have emerged in some countries in Europe's former communist East. Russia enacted tough antiprotest laws when President Vladimir Putin started his third term in office in 2012, while Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych enacted antiprotest laws after thousands of people began protesting against his decision late last year to opt for closer ties with Moscow instead of signing an association agreement with the EU.
"The EU doesn't have the strength, leadership or leverage to push democratic reforms," said Amanda Paul, a policy analyst at the European Policy Centre in Belgium.