Freedom House: Corruption is still the Main Issue in Bulgaria

Politics | April 21, 2022, Thursday // 10:02
Bulgaria: Freedom House: Corruption is still the Main Issue in Bulgaria @New Europe

Bulgaria is classified as a "free" country in the latest Freedom House report on democracy and freedoms around the world.

Bulgaria has 79 points out of 100, one point more than last year (78). According to the rating for political rights, Bulgaria has 33 points out of 40 possible, and according to the rating for civil liberties - 40 out of 60 possible.

Freedom House assesses people's access to political rights and civil liberties through its annual Freedom of the World report. Individual freedoms - from the right to vote to freedom of expression and equality before the law - can be affected by state or non-state actors. "Freedom in the World" consists of numerical assessments and descriptive texts for each country and selected group of territories. The 2022 edition covers events in 195 countries and 15 territories from 1 January 2021 to 31 December 2021.

According to the report, our country continues to fight political corruption and organized crime.

"Although the media sector remains pluralistic, the media are facing increasing pressure to provide government-friendly coverage. Journalists sometimes face threats or violence at work. Ethnic minorities, especially the Roma, are discriminated against. Despite the lack of funds and other obstacles, civil society groups are active and influential,” is said in the document. "Following the November elections, the newly formed coalition government of the four 'protest parties' announced a common platform focused on fighting corruption and judicial reform."

In general, according to the report, Bulgarians are free to make independent political choices. However, limited public funding and unrestricted private funding of political parties make parties vulnerable to the undue influence of private donors. Well-known businessmen dominate major political parties and influence party platforms and political decisions. The problem of business influence is exacerbated by the lack of transparency in the law on campaign finance.

Discriminatory practices

Members of far-right nationalist parties use hate speech against Roma, ethnic Turks, Jews, Muslims, migrants and refugees, among other groups, especially during elections. Women are underrepresented in parliament, and the inclusion of women's issues in politics is generally lacking. The so-called oligarchs are influencing the vote in smaller municipalities, and in the context of marginalization in particular, they have decreased since the adoption in May 2021 of electoral reforms requiring electronic voting.

Ethnic minorities, especially the Roma, face discrimination in employment, health, education and housing, although the government and NGOs run a number of programs designed to improve their social integration. Authorities periodically demolish illegally built or irregular housing - mostly in Roma-populated areas - without providing alternative shelter.

COVID-19-related closure measures have prevented many Roma from gaining access to basic services in 2020 and 2021; The Roma minority has also been subject to disproportionately severe pandemic restrictions throughout 2020. Human rights observers at home and abroad have expressed serious concerns that COVID-19 has exacerbated racism against Roma in Bulgaria.

Migrants and asylum seekers reportedly faced various forms of ill-treatment by Bulgarian authorities, including beatings and extortion.

Discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is illegal, but societal prejudices against LGBT + persist. Violence against LGBT + is significantly less reported in Bulgaria and largely goes unnoticed by the authorities. Several politicians and prosecutors have said they plan to propose legislation that would allow homophobic attacks to be prosecuted as hate crimes.

The Gender Equality Act, adopted in 2016, aimed to promote equal opportunities for women, but discrimination in employment continues: women are hired less often and receive lower pay than men.

Policy control

Elected representatives of the executive and the legislature are generally able to define and implement policies without undue interference from outside or non-elected actors. However, in the last few years, "oligarch" politicians have had an increasing influence on policy-making.

Fight against corruption

Anti-corruption laws are not adequately enforced, including in cases that are widely known, which contributes to a culture of impunity. The country continues to be subject to long-term monitoring by the EU's Co-operation and Verification Mechanism, whose annual reports call for new legislative efforts to fight corruption.

The judiciary is ineffective in dealing with high-level corruption cases; in a 2021 report published by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the prosecution was criticized for its continued failure to investigate and prosecute corruption cases.

The legal and regulatory framework generally supports property rights and private business, although in practice property rights are not always respected and corruption continues to hamper business and investment. The gray economy of undeclared economic activity is estimated at over 20% of the country's economy. Attempts to break into businesses, including with the alleged assistance of state institutions and the prosecutor's office, are on the rise and are among the reasons for anti-corruption protests in 2020-21.

Transparency

Although there are laws in Bulgaria designed to ensure that the government operates transparently, they are only partially implemented. Although transparency in the work of parliament, cabinet and municipal bodies has increased significantly in recent years, public access to information on the budgets and expenditures of various state agencies is sometimes insufficient or inaccessible.

Civil liberties

The constitution protects freedom of expression, including for the press, but journalists face threats and pressure from private owners or public media management. Although the media sector remains pluralistic, many media outlets are dependent on the state's financial contribution (through advertising), which in practice leads to pressure to publish government-friendly material. Media ownership remains opaque.

Religious freedom

Religious freedom is generally respected, but members of minorities in the predominantly Orthodox Christian country report harassment and discrimination, and some local authorities have banned religious activities by certain groups. The 2016 law, which imposes fines for wearing face-covering clothing in public places, has been widely passed as targeting Muslims.

Academic freedom

Academic freedom is generally respected in practice.

"In April 2021, a professor was fired for criticizing Prime Minister Borissov's pre-election visit to the university on social media as politically motivated; he was reinstated after public discontent”, the report said.

Freedom of expression

Freedom of expression is guaranteed by the constitution. However, Bulgaria's Penal Code allows for legal covert surveillance of citizens in a wide range of cases; there has been a growing concern in recent years that the authorities are abusing these surveillance laws to monitor citizens who criticize the government.

“In July 2021, the then interim Minister of the Interior Boyko Rashkov testified that in 2020 the prosecutor's office had illegally wiretapped anti-government protesters. His testimony was confirmed in September by leaked police documents, which showed that the government had secretly wiretapped about 1,000 people involved in the protests,” the report said.

In 2021, it became clear that in 2020, the government had ordered illegal covert surveillance of about 1,000 protesters.

NGO freedom

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operate freely and have some influence, although they lack funding, often rely on foreign donors, and sometimes face hostility from politicians and interest groups.

Rule of law

The judiciary in Bulgaria benefits from legal and institutional reforms related to EU membership and is generally considered independent, but still prone to politicization. Despite significant legislation that formally guarantees the independence of the judiciary, members and governing bodies of the judiciary often act in accordance with the ruling majority.

Bulgarian legal observers report that, in practice, a two-thirds majority requirement in parliament to appoint SJC members has allowed political parties - including minority parties such as the Movement for Rights and Freedoms - to exert undue influence over the selection and appointment of top magistrates in the country.

Tensions between the Prosecutor General's Office and some courts have risen in recent years, with high-ranking prosecutors verbally attacking the Supreme Court of Cassation (SCC), its court rulings and its chairman. The SJC, on the side of prosecutors, has launched disciplinary proceedings against critical judges who are widely seen as politically motivated.

The constitutional right to a fair trial is not always respected. Police have been accused of misconduct, including arbitrary arrests and failure to inform suspects of their rights. Public confidence in the justice system is low due to its known vulnerability to political and external pressures.

The long seven-year term of office of the Prosecutor General and the lack of effective accountability mechanisms have long been noted as major problems for the prosecution, weakening the country's fair trial and the rule of law. In July 2020, the Constitutional Court ruled that any prosecutor could initiate an investigation into the activities of the Prosecutor General; however, the Prosecutor General's strong position, both in terms of career advancement and within the SJC, de facto precludes such investigations. In this way, the most powerful figure in the judiciary is left without effective mechanisms to control his actions.

Violence

Although the population faces few acute threats to physical security, police brutality, including the ill-treatment of suspects in custody, remains a problem. Overcrowding and violence plague many Bulgarian prisons. Organized crime is still a major problem, and dozens of alleged contract killings have been unsolved since the 1990s. A September 2021 report found that during the 2020 anti-government protests, authorities committed serious violations of civil rights, including disproportionate use of force by police.

Domestic violence remains a problem. People who have experienced domestic violence and non-governmental organizations dealing with gender-based violence argue that public authorities are often ineffective in providing protection and prosecuting when violence is reported.

Human Trafficking

Roma and other ethnic minorities are particularly vulnerable to trafficking in human beings for sexual and labor exploitation. Although the government continues to step up its efforts to combat human trafficking, provide shelter for victims and punish perpetrators, these measures are not commensurate with the scale of the problem and in practice the penalties remain light.

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