October 17, 2019 / 12:20 PM / a month ago

Bulgaria regulator sacks state radio chief in free speech row

SOFIA (Reuters) - Bulgaria’s broadcast regulator sacked the chief of the country’s public radio, BNR, on Thursday for taking its news channel off the air for hours last month in a row with a popular presenter known for her coverage of the graft-prone judicial system.

All five members of the Council for Electronic Media voted to oust Svetoslav Kostov three months after they appointed him as BNR’s general director, saying he has violated grossly the right of the Bulgarians to be informed.

The “radio silence” and the attempt to take anchor and reporter Silvia Velikova off air have prompted journalists’ protests and drawn criticism from media and human rights groups in a country with the worst ranking on press freedom in the 28-nation European Union.

“What even a martial law cannot achieve happened under the management of Svetoslav Kostov with the national radio. Its most popular news channel was put off air,” Ivelina Dimitrova, a member of the regulatory council, said.

BNR’s management had argued that the Horizont news channel, the country’s most trusted news outlet, was off the air for five hours on Sept. 13 for “technical maintenance”.

Kostov, who had refused to resign, has denied he made any attempt to censor journalists or that he had been under any political pressure to take Velikova off air. On Thursday, he said he would appeal against the regulator’s decision in court.

An investigation by prosecutors showed such “maintenance” was not needed.

Staff at BNR, have said the roots of the outage lay in Kostov’s attempt to “silence” Velikova for her criticism of the only nominee to become Bulgaria’s next chief prosecutor.Velikova was reinstated after intervention by Prime Minister Boyko Borissov following a public outcry that included a protest by dozens of BNR colleagues in support of media freedom.

Bulgaria’s Association of European Journalists spoke of a “coup against journalistic professionalism”.

The European Broadcasting Union, the world’s leading alliance of public service media, called on the Bulgarian authorities to protect the independence of public media and said journalists must be able to work free from fear of persecution and political pressure.

Reporting by Tsvetelia Tsolova; Editing by Alex Richardson and Alison Williams

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