JUNE 14, 2016
Jehovah’s Witnesses in Bulgaria have won a significant victory that upholds free speech but protects individuals and organizations against religious discrimination. Bulgaria’s Commission for Protection Against Discrimination found that the Bulgarian cable television channel SKAT TV and two of its journalists deliberately spread false information about Jehovah’s Witnesses and encouraged violence against them. The Commission concluded that SKAT TV’s behavior “cannot be excused.”
Broadcasts Incite Religious Hatred and Violence
Bulgarian television stations periodically broadcast programs containing slanderous statements about Jehovah’s Witnesses. In particular, journalists from SKAT TV have systematically slandered the Witnesses and misled viewers to believe that the Witnesses are guilty of terrible crimes. These programs have been broadcast nationwide and posted on the Internet.
The programs have also incited violence and hatred against the Witnesses. In one broadcast in May 2011, SKAT TV justified a violent attack on Jehovah’s Witnesses and their Kingdom Hall (house of worship) in the city of Burgas. The Witnesses had gathered for their annual commemoration of Jesus’ death when a mob broke into the hall and viciously beat several in attendance. Five Witnesses were taken to the hospital for their injuries. The SKAT TV program encouraged similar attacks, and subsequent broadcasts even asserted that the Witnesses deserved to be attacked. *
After the broadcasts, the Witnesses suffered numerous acts of violence, and many of their Kingdom Halls were vandalized. In some regions, local municipalities even enacted bylaws to restrict the activity of the Witnesses.
Commission Penalizes Legal and Ethical Violations
In February 2012, Jehovah’s Witnesses filed a complaint with the Commission concerning six SKAT TV television programs broadcast in 2010 and 2011. The Witnesses argued that SKAT TV had used grossly biased language and that the wide dissemination of these broadcasts amounted to harassment and hate speech. They also argued that they had suffered discrimination as a result of the broadcasts.
On January 25, 2016, the Commission unanimously decided in favor of the Witnesses, finding that SKAT TV and two of its journalists had harassed Jehovah’s Witnesses with false and unsubstantiated allegations. The Commission recognized that the six programs were acts of religious discrimination against Jehovah’s Witnesses and showed a flagrant disregard for the standards of professional journalism.
In imposing penalties, the Commission stated that “all members of this religious denomination have been subjected to unwanted and unlawful behavior, which completely meets the definition of harassment.” After explaining that the right to freedom of expression is not absolute but is subject to restrictions that prevent hostility, the Commission noted that “the behavior of the defendants in this case cannot be excused.”
The Commission concluded that the false statements made against Jehovah’s Witnesses were particularly serious. It also took exception to the refusal of SKAT TV and its journalists to take responsibility for their actions and acknowledge their error. To emphasize the gravity of the violations, the Commission therefore ordered them to pay a fine that is heavier than usual.
Commendable Response Remedies a Wrong
The Witnesses commend the Commission for taking a stand against slanderous and biased journalism. Moreover, since Jehovah’s Witnesses face similar issues with some other media outlets in Bulgaria, this decision serves as a resounding warning to them not to repeat false accusations and hate speech.
“No one wants false statements broadcast about them, and we are no exception,” states Krassimir Velev, a spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses in Bulgaria. “Since the Bulgarian public have heard the negative propaganda, it is important that they hear the truth about Jehovah’s Witnesses, and we are pleased that the Commission has taken steps to set the matter straight.”
^ par. 5 On July 8, 2015, SKAT TV again broadcast the video of the deplorable assault on the Witnesses on April 17, 2011, continuing its scheme of stereotyping and inciting hatred against Jehovah’s Witnesses.