Bulgaria is a constitutional republic governed by a freely elected unicameral National Assembly. A coalition government headed by a prime minister leads the country. National Assembly elections were held in 2017, and the Central Election Commission did not report any major election irregularities. International observers considered the National Assembly elections and the 2016 presidential election generally free and fair but noted some deficiencies.
The Ministry of Interior is responsible for law enforcement, migration, and border enforcement. The State Agency for National Security, which reports to the Prime Minister’s Office, is responsible for investigating corruption and organized crime, among other responsibilities. The army is responsible for external security but also can assist with border security. The National Protective Service is responsible for the security of dignitaries and answers to the president. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.
Significant human rights issues included: problems with the independence of the judiciary; restrictions on free expression and the press, including violence and threats of violence against journalists, censorship, and corporate and political pressure on media; acts of corruption; crimes involving violence or threats of violence against Roma; and crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons.
Authorities took steps to prosecute and punish officials who committed human rights abuses, but government actions were insufficient, and impunity was a problem.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. Concerns persisted, however, that corporate and political pressure, combined with the growing and nontransparent concentration of media ownership and distribution networks, as well as government regulation of resources and support for media, gravely damaged media pluralism. In October the secretary general of Reporters Without Borders described the media situation as “worse than ever.” He said that the country was “embroiled in an extremely serious media civil war,” and expressed concern about harassment of journalists, political manipulation of media, and a collapse of professional standards in the media.
According to the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, there was a persistent deterioration in the freedom of expression and a collapse of professional and ethical standards supporting a high-quality media environment. In a public statement in September, the NGO outlined “continued trends of increased control of major media by the government, especially before the past [European Parliament] and forthcoming [local] elections.” According to Transparency International Bulgaria, media ownership “is often unclear” and many media outlets “are financially dependent on state advertising, which may color their reporting and affect any criticism they may otherwise provide of government authorities.”
The International Research and Exchanges Board’s 2019 Media Sustainability Index identified an increase in the country in crimes against media professionals, verbal attacks against journalists by government officials, and a lack of transparency in the ownership of online media contributing to the distribution of fake news and propaganda.
Freedom of Expression: The law provides for one to four years’ imprisonment for use of and incitement to “hate speech.” The law defines hate speech as instigation of hatred, discrimination, or violence based on race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, marital or social status, or disability. NGOs alleged that the presence of nationalist parties in the government “empowered” supporters to use hate speech regularly.
Individuals generally criticized the government without official reprisal. In August the prosecutor general and his deputies requested from the Supreme Judicial Council a decision on whether media publishing “false information” or “manipulative allegations” about prosecutors should be prosecuted. In response, the Supreme Judicial Council’s Prosecutorial College called on the public and the media to be more tolerant and responsible when commenting on the nomination for a new prosecutor general.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: The media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. Laws restricting “hate speech” also applied to print media. Reporters Without Borders’ 2019 World Press Freedom Index reported widespread “corruption and collusion between media, politicians and oligarchs,” “judicial harassment of independent media,” as well as increased “threats against reporters.” Domestic and international organizations criticized both print and electronic media for editorial bias, lack of transparency in their financing and ownership, and susceptibility to political influence and economic incentives.
Violence and Harassment: In February investigative journalist Hristo Geshov complained that he received anonymous threats after he released a video of his initial investigation of an illegal water supply business in Troyan. In May, two unidentified persons abducted Geshov and held him captive overnight until he agreed to take down his zovnews.com story on the case. As of September there was no further information on law enforcement action to identify the abductors.
In August the specialized prosecution service accused online news provider Mediapool of vandalism and desecrating the memory of a deceased magistrate. The service condemned Mediapool for publishing a story covering the 72-hour arrest of a man who had written obscenities on the magistrate’s obituary posted inside the courthouse.
In September photojournalist Veselin Borishev spent a night in jail after police arrested him for taking pictures of them during a protest. The Interior Ministry issued an official apology and opened an internal investigation into the case.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Journalists continued to report editorial prohibitions on covering specific persons and topics, and the imposition of political points of view by corporate leaders. According to the international NGO Association of European Journalists, self-censorship was widespread, especially in the smaller regional media.
In June, NetInfo executive director and minority shareholder Hristo Hristov complained of pressure and “increased interference in the editorial policies” of online news providers Gong, Vesti, and Dariknews from the new majority shareholders, brothers Kiril and Georgi Domuschiev. The NetInfo board of directors subsequently removed Hristov from his CEO position.
Human rights lawyers expressed concerns that changes in the Personal Data Protection Act passed in January present the government with opportunities to muzzle free speech, as they empower authorities to fine media and journalists in cases when “freedom of speech does not prevail over the right of a target of journalistic investigation to remain outside the focus of public attention.” According to the Association of European Journalists, the new legislation could force journalists to self-censor.
The Association of European Journalists protested the removal on September 12 of long-time anchor Sylvia Velikova from her rule-of-law-focused morning program on Bulgarian National Radio, attributing it to Velikova’s opposition to the nomination of Ivan Geshev as sole candidate for the next prosecutor general. Following protests, Velikova was reinstated.
Libel/Slander Laws: Libel is illegal and punishable by a fine of 3,000 to 15,000 levs ($1,680 to $8,400) and public censure. In June the Sofia City Court imposed a 1,000 lev ($560) fine on Economedia journalist Rosen Bosev in a libel lawsuit filed by the former head of the Financial Supervision Commission, Stoyan Mavrodiev, who was offended by Bosev’s statement on television that Mavrodiev had repressed Economedia’s Dnevnik and Capital publications. The Association of European Journalists protested the court decision, accusing Judge Petya Krancheva of “settling a score” with Bosev, who had written critical articles about her.
In January the Sofia City Court ruled against Sofia regional governor Ilian Todorov’s libel appeal against freelance journalist Ivo Indjev, who posted a series of articles online in which he called Todorov a “xenophobe,” “anti-Semite,” “pro-Nazi nationalist,” and “Kremlin marionette,” among other things. The court’s decision confirmed the trial court’s “not guilty” verdict and made the argument that “as a public person occupying a high-level government position, the claimant should possess a higher threshold of tolerance to criticism.”
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution and law provide for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government mostly respected these rights.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
f. Protection of Refugees
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Human rights organizations continued to report widespread “pushbacks,” violence, robbery, and humiliating practices against migrants and asylum seekers along the border with Turkey. In August media publications citing “internal sources” from the European border control agency FRONTEX alleged that border police had “chased migrants with dogs, beaten them, and forced them back across the border.” The interior minister denied the allegations, claiming that border guards “use force only when the situation demands it, such as in cases of aggression against them.”
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern.
Refoulement: Human rights organizations criticized the government for deporting Turkish citizens back to Turkey where they would face imprisonment due to their political activity. In July, for example, the Sofia Administrative Court approved the extradition of Ilhan Karabag, a Turkish citizen of Kurdish origin, who had spent three years in a reception center as an asylum seeker. The NGO Bordermonitoring reported the presence of a representative of the Turkish diplomatic mission at the court hearings and protested, asserting the presence of the representative was an attempt to pressure the court.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for protecting refugees. The president may grant asylum to persons who are persecuted for their belief or activities advocating for internationally recognized rights and freedoms. Asylum seekers and refugees who cross the border irregularly are subject to detention.
Freedom of Movement: The law restricts asylum seekers’ movement to the administrative region in which the reception center where they have been accommodated is located. The restriction is valid until the asylum procedure is completed.
Access to Basic Services: The refugee integration ordinance authorizes mayors to sign integration agreements with persons who have refugee status, specifying the services they will receive–housing, education, language training, health services, professional qualification, and job search assistance–as well as the obligations of the responsible institutions. NGOs claimed the government made inconsistent efforts to integrate refugees. According to the Asylum Information Database country report published in March, “no integration activities are planned, funded or available to the general population of recognized refugees or subsidiary protection holders.” According to the State Agency for Refugees, as of October, four refugee families totaling 27 persons had signed integration agreements, and two more families were negotiating agreements with municipal authorities.
In June the State Agency for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration inaugurated a safety zone for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children at the Voenna Rampa reception center to provide 24-hour care and specialized services in an environment adapted to their needs.
Durable Solutions: The government accepted refugees for resettlement, offered naturalization to refugees residing on its territory, and assisted in their voluntary return to their homes. As of November the country had accepted 67 relocated refugees and was in the process of interviewing another 26.
Temporary Protection: The Council of Ministers may provide temporary protection in case of mass influx of foreign nationals driven by an armed conflict, civil war, violence, or large-scale human rights violations in their country of origin, as determined by the Council of the European Union. The government also provided humanitarian protection to individuals who may not qualify as refugees and provided it to 208 persons as of September.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The constitution and law provide citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
While the law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, the government did not implement the law effectively, and officials in all branches of government reportedly engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. During the year there were reports of government corruption, including bribery, conflict of interest, elaborate embezzlement schemes, procurement violations, and influence trading.
In March the European Commission’s annual European Semester Report identified corruption as a major obstacle to investment and noted that the “fight against corruption remains a challenge,” insisting that “authorities need to show a stable record of effectively investigating and prosecuting high-level corruption cases, including [those] involving politicians.” In its October report, the European Commission acknowledged the country’s anticorruption reform efforts but noted that its “positive effects… remain to be seen” since “very few final convictions have been adopted and enforced in cases involving high-level corruption.”
Corruption: In January Transparency International Bulgaria stated there had been no significant progress in the country’s anticorruption efforts. In March the Sega newspaper reported it had obtained official Justice Ministry information that only nine persons sentenced on petty corruption-related crimes served actual prison time. In April Standart reported that the prosecutor general stated at a national security council meeting that there were ongoing corruption investigations against 140 high-level government officials, including members of the National Assembly, ministers, deputy ministers, mayors, heads of agencies, and tax and customs officials, and that they had resulted in 39 indictments.
On April 15, the Specialized Criminal Court sentenced the former mayor of Sofia’s Mladost district, Desislava Ivancheva, to 20 years in prison, a 20,000 lev ($11,200) fine, property confiscation, and a ban on holding high-level public office for 20 years. Ivancheva’s former deputy, Bilyana Patrova, received 15 years in prison, a 15,000 lev ($8,400) fine, property confiscation, and a ban on holding high-level public office for 15 years. Another former Mladost district mayor, Petko Dyulgerov, received 12 years in prison, a 12,000 lev ($6,720) fine, and property confiscation. According to the prosecution, Ivancheva solicited a 500,000-euro ($550,000) bribe from an investor in construction projects, with Dyulgerov serving as an intermediary and Petrova acting as an accomplice.
In April the Constitutional Court abolished changes to the code on administrative procedure that had increased fees for second appeals by a factor of 14 for individuals and 70 for organizations. The court’s decision was based on petitions by the president, the ombudsman, and 53 National Assembly members who shared the opinion of NGOs that asserted the amendments imposed severe restrictions on access to administrative justice and restricted the ability to challenge the legality of acts by the public administration.
Financial Disclosure: The law mandates that government officials make annual public declarations of their assets and income as well as any circumstances in which they could face accusations of using their position for personal gain. The Commission for Combating Corruption and Forfeiture of Illicit Assets verified and monitored disclosures for all officials except magistrates, whose declarations were monitored by the Supreme Judicial Council’s inspectorate. High-level public officials and magistrates who fail to submit a financial disclosure declaration can incur fines of up to 3,000 levs ($1,680), and up to 6,000 levs ($3,360) for a repeat violation. The provision was enforced during the year. In March the commission reported identifying omissions or discrepancies in more than 10 percent of the annual declarations, attributing it to the new procedures and the lack of an information campaign.
In June the Commission for Combating Corruption and Forfeiture of Illicit Assets exonerated seven senior political figures, including the head of the Supreme Cassation Court, the minister of justice, and the ruling GERB party’s deputy chairman and National Assembly member, of conflict of interest allegations. The NGO Anticorruption Fund released a report alleging that those officials had acquired luxury real estate property at below-market value, but the commission concluded they had not used their official status to acquire the property.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
A variety of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Human rights observers reported uneven levels of cooperation from national and local government officials. Some political parties, civic movements, and media outlets advocated closing certain NGOs because they obtained funding from foreign donors.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The ombudsman is an independent constitutional body elected by the national assembly with a five-year mandate. The ombudsman reviews individuals’ complaints against the government for violations of rights or freedoms. The ombudsman can request information from authorities, act as an intermediary in resolving disputes, make proposals to end existing practices, refer information to the prosecution service, and request the Constitutional Court to abolish legal provisions as unconstitutional.
The Commission for Protection against Discrimination is an independent specialized agency for preventing and protecting against discrimination and ensuring equal opportunity.
A National Assembly permanent committee covers religious denominations and human rights.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law provides for the right of workers to form and join independent labor unions, bargain collectively, and conduct legal strikes. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination, provides for workers to receive up to six months’ salary as compensation for illegal dismissal, and provides for the right of the employee to demand reinstatement for such dismissal. Workers alleging discrimination based on union affiliation can file complaints with the Commission for Protection Against Discrimination. According to the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions, despite the constitutional recognition of the right of association, the law did not provide for it, which prevented parties to a dispute from seeking redress in administrative court.
There are some limitations on these rights. The law prohibits Interior Ministry judicial system unions from membership in national union federations. When employers and labor unions reach a collective agreement at the sector level, they must obtain the agreement of the minister of labor to extend it to cover all enterprises in the sector. The law prohibits most public servants from engaging in collective bargaining. The law also prohibits employees of the Ministries of Defense and Interior, the State Agency for Intelligence, the National Protection Service, the courts, and prosecutorial and investigative authorities from striking. Those employees are able to take the government to court to provide due process in protecting their rights.
The law gives the right to strike to other public service employees, except for senior public servants, such as directors and chief secretaries. The law also limits the ability of transport workers to organize their administrative activities and formulate their programs. Labor unions stated that the legal limitations on the right to strike and the lack of criminal liability for employers who abuse their workers’ right of association are contrary to the constitution.
Authorities did not always respect freedom of association and the right to bargain collectively. Labor unions continued to report cases of employer obstruction, harassment, and intimidation of employees, including relocation, firing, and demotion of union leaders and members. Labor unions also alleged that some employers obstructed negotiations or refused to bargain in good faith or adhere to agreements. According to labor unions, health-care employers did not adhere to the 2018 collective bargaining agreement, which provides minimum salary rates. In August the Acibadem City Clinic, Tokuda Hospital in Sofia, fired nurse Maya Ilieva, a union leader at the hospital, who led a series of protests complaining of low pay and difficult working conditions. According to Ilieva, the union federation colluded with hospital management, refusing to support her against her dismissal.
The government did not effectively enforce the labor law, and penalties were generally insufficient to deter violations. The law does not effectively protect against interference by employers in labor union activities. In its annual labor rights report issued in April, the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Bulgaria stated that authorities often covered up violations of the right of association and presented them as labor disputes.
Judicial and administrative procedures were adequate in settling claims. The Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Bulgaria reported that employers broke the law and eroded the value of collective bargaining by letting nonunion members take advantage of the provisions in the collective agreement.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
There were some reports of families or criminal organizations subjecting children to forced work (see section 7.c.). According to the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, “children and adults with disabilities are forced into street begging and petty theft.” As of October authorities registered 56 cases of trafficking in persons for the purpose of labor exploitation, noting a significant increase from 2017. NGOs claimed government mechanisms for identifying victims among at-risk groups, such as asylum seekers, were not sufficiently robust.
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
Employment of children without a work permit is a criminal offense. Penalties were generally sufficient to deter violations, but children living in vulnerable situations, particularly Romani children, were exposed to harmful and exploitative work in the informal economy, mainly in agriculture, tourism, retail, and domestic work.
The law sets the minimum age for employment at 16 and the minimum age for dangerous work at 18. The government considered occupations hazardous for children if they are beyond their physical or psychological abilities, expose them to harmful agents or radiation, have a harmful effect on their health, take place in conditions of extreme temperature, noise, or vibration, or expose children to hazards that they cannot comprehend or avoid due to their incomplete physical or psychological development. To employ children younger than 18, employers must obtain a work permit from the government’s General Labor Inspectorate. Employers can hire children younger than 16 with special permits for light work that is not risky or harmful to the child’s development and does not interfere with the child’s education or training. The General Labor Inspectorate was generally effective in inspecting working conditions at companies seeking and holding child work permits and applying sanctions regarding child labor in the formal sector. The inspectorate reported a 62 percent increase in legal child employment, mainly due to a lack of better-qualified workers and an increase in job openings in the tourist industry. In 2018 the inspectorate uncovered 116 cases of child employment without prior permission.
The government continued programs to eliminate the worst forms of child labor, mounted educational campaigns, and intervened to protect, withdraw, rehabilitate, and reintegrate children engaged in the worst forms of child labor.
NGOs continued to report the exploitation of children in certain industries (particularly small family-owned shops, textile production, restaurants, construction businesses, and periodical sales) and by organized crime (notably for prostitution, pickpocketing, and the distribution of narcotics).
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
The law prohibits discrimination in employment and occupation with regard to nationality, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, race, color, age, social origin, language, political and religious beliefs, membership in labor unions and civil society organizations, family and marital status, and mental or physical disabilities. Although the government usually effectively enforced these laws, discrimination in employment and occupation occurred across all sectors of the economy with respect to gender, sexual orientation, disability, and minority status. According to the Commission for Protection against Discrimination, the majority of discrimination complaints received during the year related to employment, predominantly concerning persons with disabilities. The commission cited cases in which employers changed their attitude towards an employee with a disability, resorting to workplace harassment, pushing the employee to quit, and intentionally creating mobility obstacles.
The government funded programs to encourage employers to overcome stereotypes and prejudice when hiring members of disadvantaged groups such as persons with disabilities.
The law requires the Interior Ministry, the State Agency for National Security, and the State Agency for Technical Operations to allot 1 percent of their public administration positions to persons with disabilities. Enforcement was poor, however, and the agencies were not motivated to hire persons with disabilities, citing inaccessible infrastructure, lack of sufficient funding for modifying workplaces, and poor qualifications by the applicants. The Center for Independent Living and other NGOs criticized the system of evaluating persons with disabilities based on the degree of their lost ability to work, which effectively prevented many persons with disabilities who were able to work from having a job.
The law requires equal pay for equal work. In July the Council of Ministers reported that men received 13.6 percent more pay than women for work in the same position. According to the Commission for Protection Against Discrimination, there were twice as many men as women with well-paid jobs and women were more frequently subjected to workplace discrimination than men. As a result of the gender pay gap, according to the National Social Security Institute, women received 38 percent lower pensions.
Workplace discrimination against minorities continued to be a problem. Locating work was more difficult for Roma due to general public mistrust, coupled with the Roma’s low average level of education. According to the National Statistical Institute, 68.3 percent of Roma lived in poverty, compared with 31.6 percent of Turks and 15.6 percent of ethnic Bulgarians.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The national minimum wage was lower than the government’s official poverty line. In November the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Bulgaria reported that 72.5 percent of households lived below the poverty line.
In 2018 the General Labor Inspectorate reported that the cases of unpaid wages declined by 1 percent, compared with the previous year. According to the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Bulgaria, the small decline reflected the ineffectiveness of 2018 changes in the law that gave the General Labor Inspectorate authority to initiate bankruptcy proceedings against employers who owed more than two months’ wages to at least one-third of their employees for three years.
The law prohibits excessive compulsory overtime. The law prohibits overtime work for children younger than 18 and for pregnant women. Persons with disabilities, women with children younger than six, and persons undertaking continuing education may work overtime at the employer’s request if the employee provides written consent. The Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Bulgaria stated that employers increasingly “disrespected employees’ working hours and free time” and criticized the law’s provision for calculating accumulated working time, noting that it gave employers a way to abuse overtime requirements and thus to hire fewer workers.
A national labor safety program, with standards established by law, provides employees the right to healthy and nonhazardous working conditions.
The Ministry of Labor and Social Policy is responsible for enforcing both the minimum wage and the standard work week. The General Labor Inspectorate had a sufficient number of inspectors to enforce wage and hour laws, and penalties were generally sufficient to deter violations.
Each year the government adopts a program that outlines its goals and priorities for occupational safety and health. The General Labor Inspectorate, which had 28 regional offices, is responsible for monitoring and enforcing occupational safety and health requirements. Of the violations identified by the inspectorate, less than 50 percent involved safety and health requirements. According to the labor inspectorate, its activity over the past several years had increased compliance, with 97 percent of inspected companies in compliance with occupational safety and health requirements, demonstrating that penalties were sufficient to deter violations.
Legal protections and government inspections did not cover informal workers in the gray-market economy, which, according to the International Labor Organization, involved 15.9 percent of the country’s workforce. The government, employer organizations, and labor unions agreed that the gray economy had continued to shrink over the previous four years. In June the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Bulgaria called for legal protections for whistleblowers providing information about employers that evade paying taxes and social security.
Conditions in sectors such as construction, mining, chemicals, and transportation continued to pose risks for workers. The number of work-related accidents registered in the first six months of the year decreased by almost 10 percent over the same period the previous year. Land transportation violations were the most common causes of occupational accidents. The government strictly enforced the law requiring companies to conduct occupational health and safety risk assessments and to adopt measures to eliminate or reduce any identified risks. Approximately 95 percent of the companies inspected in 2018 had such risk assessments, and 98 percent of them had programs for elimination of the identified risks.
There were 33 work-related deaths as of July, mainly in the construction and transportation sectors.