Amendments to Bulgaria’s criminal code can threaten media freedom, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatović, said today.

The changes, adopted by Parliament last week, introduced the possibility for prison sentences of one to four years for journalists convicted of instigating hatred, discrimination or violence based on race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, marital or social status, or disability.

“It is very important to find effective ways to address hate speech without endangering free expression, and to ensure that legitimate criticism can be expressed,” Mijatović wrote in a letter to Foreign Minister Nickolay Evtimov Mladenov. “Imprisoning journalists for their reports is excessive and violates international standards on free expression.”

Mijatović stressed that though governments have a legitimate need to fight discrimination and violence, criminalization of speech should be restricted to intentional incitements to violence. She also said she regretted that the amendments had been adopted without public debate or the involvement of relevant media organizations.

“The OSCE participating States, including Bulgaria, have affirmed that everyone has the right to hold opinions and receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority. If journalists fear imprisonment for their reports, it can lead to self-censorship and hinder media pluralism,” Mijatović said.

She also noted that the law did not provide clear definitions of some terms, such as “discrimination”, making it difficult to interpret and opening ways to differing interpretations of the law.