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Part Two: Defending online free speech and environmental rights in Bulgaria

Milena BokovaIn Part One of this article, I outlined recent threats to the Bulgarian environment and the vibrant web-led protest movement that developed in response. In this article I speak to Milena Bokova, BlueLink Information Network executive director, who talks about the intimidation against her colleague, blogger Michel Bozgounov, the threats to the freedom of online expression in her country, and the Bluelink Freenet Campaign:

Sami: Why did the General Directorate for Combat against Organized Crime target Michel Bozgounov for blogging about the Strandja issue even though other Bulgarian bloggers were doing the same thing? And can you explain why this has been treated as “Organized Crime”?

Milena: This is a big mystery. So far the Bulgarian police authorities didn't give a relevant explanation on these questions. We can only make a guess. One of the reasons might be the fact that Michel is an average citizen without any political, financial or other protection. The other might be the fact that he is a BlueLink employee – a network that gives an alternative opinion and in some cases contradicts to the governmental one (like for instance a campaigning site BeleNE against the construction of a second NPP in Bulgaria). It might be an attempt to deafen our voice. Or it might be a random selection, we don't really know.

Sami: Does this investigation against your colleague Michel Bozgounov set a bad precedent for politicians to control what you can and cannot blog about?

Milena: It definitely does. The problem is that all these reflects on them badly. The case became really very visible in Bulgaria with its absurdness. The police absolutely has no right do tell people what they can and can not blog about. It is in violation of the Bulgarian Constitution guaranteeing freedom of expression.

Sami: What was the role of the Internet in general and the blogsphere in particular in organizing the flash-mobs and the environmental protests that some like to describe as “the largest since those against the Socialist government in 1997″?

Milena: The main tool for organizing flash-mobs was through discussion mailing lists (many of which BlueLink maintains and provides to users to communicate between each other). The organizers used these tools as a fast and direct way to reach many people at their private e-mail addresses. They also used SMS-s through the mobile operators. At most of the flash-mobs there was a ban on publicizing it until one or two hours before the events, in order to guarantee that authorities will not have enough time to prevent the events. Actually the blogsphere was mostly covering the flash-mobs after they really happened, not prior the events. There was one specially created site for publishing information about the upcoming flash-mobs (http://savestrandja.ludost.net/). The information there was usually published about 2-3 hours prior to each flash-mob.

I wouldn't say that these environmental protests are the largest since those against the Socialist government in 1997 – it is pretty much exaggerated, since the biggest protest gathered not more then 2000 people and it was not a flash-mob, but one that was previously announced at the municipality. But this is not the most important thing. The most important is that a very little group of people managed to make such a great impact on the media, government and the whole population of Bulgaria.

Sami: Do you think that the Strandja Mountain Nature Park is now safe and that the Bulgarian internet community has achieved its goal in protecting Strandja Nature Park?

Milena: I am afraid that it is just temporarily safe. Unfortunately the Parliament took a decision in changing the law for protected areas in a way which many jurists define as judicially inconsistent and might be attacked in court. Also jurists say that other Bulgarian parks are not protected either. But this is not the main issue here. Many of the laws in Bulgaria are quite good and strong and they envisage measures for nature protection. The problem is the implementation of the laws. There comes the authorities’ corruption, there are the doors ‘gray’ business uses to avoid the law and to benefit from it unpunished.

Sami: From an environmental e-network created and run by green activists, we are witnessing, with the launch of the Freenet Campaign, how the BlueLink network is becoming involved in defending online freedom of expression. What is the reason for the switch and what are your future plans regarding this issue?

Milena: Actually it is not a switch at all. BlueLink, apart from being an environmental network, works on the field of information and communication policy since its establishment. We are a part of the international movement contributing to the WSIS process and lately to Internet Governance Forum. We even created a special portal ‘Bulgarian ICT policy monitor‘ . The issue of freedom of expression on the internet is something that we have been working on establishing it in Bulgaria since 1998. BlueLink is the Bulgarian member of the Association for Progressive Communication (apc.org) through which network we are able to connect with like minded people from all around the world.

Sami: Did the Bulgarian blogsphere and the environmental web-led movement get any support from other European communities or blogspheres? Does the dissemination of the information about the Strandzha issue via video and photo sharing sites like Youtube and Flickr helped somehow in attracting the attention of mainstream and/or citizen media outside the country?

Milena: The EU and world communities of blogsphere started to support us just after BlueLink started the FreeNet campaign. I have no info for any support before that. The dissemination of information about the Strandja and other environmental cases in Bulgaria via video and photo sharing sites helped a lot in attracting the attention of the Bulgarian mainstream media. So far we have no info on interest expressed from foreign media

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