Defenders of democratic values, human rights and the environment are still under strong pressure in Bulgaria and Russia

Civil society organizations and activists defending democratic values, human rights and environment in Bulgaria and Russia continue to be exposed to strong online pressure and hate speech in the media and internet. However, independent and democratic journalists and media outlets have the power to help activists to overcome this problem by reporting on their work and covering cases of repression against them. It was concluded at the online round table with representatives of civil society organizations from Bulgaria and Russia on the topic “From Russia to the EU? Media and online pressure against the defenders of human rights and the environment in Bulgaria”. The discussion, organized by the BlueLink Foundation, took place on November 10, 2021 as part of the events dedicated to the 10th anniversary of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum.

Online hate speech, defamation campaigns in the media and the dissemination of information through fake social media profiles are just some of the examples of online pressure against human rights defenders and environmental activists in Russia and worryingly many countries in the European Union, told Bulgarian and Russian activists during the discussion. Moreover, online harassment and hate speech can easily become a threat to physical safety, the participants warned.

In the last few years, more and more civil society organizations in Bulgaria have been demonized in the media, confirmed Nikoleta Daskalova from the Media Democracy Foundation. She presented summary data from several expert studies on hate speech and pressure on civil society activists conducted by the foundation. The Internet is a major medium for spreading an intolerant language against civil society, but online hatred can easily turn into physical violence, Daskalova concluded.

There are some intersections in the media coverage of civil society in Russia and Bulgaria, but there are very big differences in the attitude of the media to civil society organizations in the two countries, said researcher Fabio Telarico. He presented the results of an in-depth analysis, prepared within the framework of an internship program at BlueLink, on the question of whether the negative attitude of some media towards human rights defenders and environmental activists in Bulgaria is the result of Russian propaganda. “Even if Bulgarian editors wanted to copy their Russian counterparts, their efforts would fail; no matter how much they imitate Russian rhetoric, they cannot fully distort reality”, Telarico added.

Current political processes make the media less democratic and more repressive towards civil society, but this trend may be reversed. The solidarity of independent journalists with activists is an opportunity to counter pressure on civil society organizations, said Anna Sharogradskaya, director of the Institute for Regional Press in Russia. Access to legal aid for activists, as well as research into trends and reasons for growing pressure on civil society, are possible countermeasures, concluded Anna Sevortyan, executive director of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum.

Ways to deal with the pressure often lead to less publicity, work in closed groups and a lack of capacity development for organizations, Russian activists shared their experience. However, it is extremely important to find a balance between personal security and possibility to speak up with democratic messages, commented a Bulgarian activist.

The online discussion was part of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum 10th Anniversary programme. The Forum aims to develop co-operation between civil society organizations in Russia and the EU as well as to stimulate active civic participation in the EU-Russia dialogue. At the moment the Forum consists of 185 organizations from Russia and the EU member states.

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