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Bulgaria public radio chief sacked in free speech row

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Sofia (AFP)

Bulgaria's media watchdog sacked the chief of Bulgarian National Radio on Thursday in a free speech row that saw the station briefly taken off the air.

The five-member Council for Electronic Media voted unanimously to oust BNR chief Svetoslav Kostov over last month's unprecedented outage saying it represented "a grave violation of the media law".

The law requires the public broadcaster to remain on air at all times so that it can inform the population about natural disasters, security and other threats.

The watchdog also lambasted Kostov, who has headed the radio since late June, for temporarily suspending from broadcasting prominent anchor Silviya Velikova and taking her off her judiciary beat a day before the outage.

Kostov accused Velikova -- an outspoken critic of the single nominee to become Bulgaria's chief prosecutor -- of urging people to take part in protests against the candidate. Velikova has denied the accusations.

In a wave of solidarity, Velikova's colleagues refused to substitute her on air, leading the radio to announce that programming would be suspended for five hours on September 13 for "technical maintenance".

Protests by journalists outside the radio station and the intervention of Prime Minister Boyko Borisov led to Velikova's reinstatement.

Subsequent enquiries by the watchdog meanwhile showed no technical grounds for the outage.

Bulgaria ranks 111th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2018 World Press Freedom Index. The sacking of several prominent journalists working for public and private media, including some whose work exposed corruption, raised eyebrows over the past year.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the Bulgaria branch of the Association of European Journalists have issued numerous statements to support Velikova.

"This attempt to 'gag' a journalist... illustrates the lack of independence of Bulgaria's public broadcasting and the control that certain politicians exercise over its editorial line," said RSF's spokesperson Pauline Ades-Mevel.

Protests against the nomination of Ivan Geshev as new chief prosecutor have meanwhile continued ahead of his expected appointment on October 24.

Civil society groups have criticised the lack of choice in the nomination procedure, as well as Geshev's perceived lack of professionalism and independence from the government.

Bulgaria's judiciary has been repeatedly criticised by the European Commission for its lack of independence and failure to put corrupt politicians behind bars since the country joined the European Union in 2007.

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