Journalists are staging protests in defense of their right to work freely after days of tensions between ruling parties’ politicians and the media.

The protest is set to take place in front of the Council of Ministers’ building in Sofia during a regular government meeting scheduled for Wednesday morning.

Organized by the Bulgarian section of the Association of European Journalists, it urges journalists and citizens to gather in defence of journalists’ right to ask critical questions and demand answers from those in power.

“We are not afraid that our chairs may remain empty and we will not give in to the pressure to ask empty, comfortable questions,” the organisers said.

The rally was prompted by Deputy Prime Minister Valeri Simenov’s recent accusations that Bulgaria’s main electronic media – private broadcasters NOVA TV and BTV, as well as public television and radio – had been leading a “massive smear campaign” against him.

He referred to the way in which media covered his suggestion on Friday that TV host Victor Nikolaev could lose his job for asking uncomfortable questions.

Simeonov was not the only one to suggest that NOVA TV’s journalist might be ousted. Earlier on Friday Anton Todorov, an MP from Bulgaria’s leading center-right GERB party, hinted that Nikolaev could share the fate of his former co-host, Anna Tsolova, who recently resigned amid speculation that she might have been pushed out over her journalist work.

“You are using very strong words and they might cost you your bread [livelihood]. They already cost the bread of your colleague – she had taken a certain direction, and as far as I can see, her chair is missing now,” GERB MP Todorov warned Nikolaev.

Following a wave of outrage, Todorov filed his resignation from parliament on Monday.

However, Simeonov denied claims that he publicly pressured Nikolaev on air.

He labeled the media coverage of the case “ugly lies” and “Stalinist-style stigmatisation” and gave those making the claims 24 hour hours to apologise. He did not receive any apologies.

On Monday the deputy prime minister told Bulgarian International Television that he would take the four outlets to court.

Simeonov’s ultimatum to the media has sparked massive criticism from the Bulgarian media community, the opposition and even his coalition partners from GERB and the Patriotic Front who have distanced themselves from his statements.

The Board of Bulgarian National Radio said on Monday that it has no reason to apologise for “fulfilling its duties as a public media” and confirmed it stands behind its journalists.

The Union of Bulgarian journalists called Simeonov’s move to demand apologies from the media “cynicism” and an attempt at “an assault on media freedom.”

The author is a member of the Association of European Journalists-Bulgaria.

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