Sofia District Court (Bjoertvedt, CC BY-SA 4.0)
Bulgaria: Investigative journalists hit by smears and lawsuits after corruption revelations

ECPMF

02 May 2023

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Ahead of World Press Freedom Day on May 3, the undersigned partners of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) today raise the alarm about a latest wave of legal pressure exerted against two of Bulgaria’s leading investigative media platforms, BIRD.bg and Bivol.bg, over their recent revelations about alleged crime and corruption.

In recent weeks, journalists from both media have faced attacks and pressure on multiple fronts: a barrage of vexatious defamation lawsuits filed by the associate of a suspected organised crime boss, the deliberate revelation of journalistic source by the Sofia prosecutor’s office, and a discreditation campaign by Bulgaria’s Attorney General Ivan Geshev.

 

The pressure stems from multiple articles, published separately by the two platforms throughout 2022 and 2023, involving alleged corruption at the border between Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece involving food imports, and separate reports about the alleged bribery of police in the cover-up of a high-profile murder.

 

Both media’s investigations centre on suspected organised crime boss Christophoros Amanatidis, who allegedly monopolized control over the food imports and truck parking at the EU’s biggest external border crossing, depriving the Bulgarian state of tax revenue. An additional article revealed how Amanatidis also allegedly bribed police to cover up the murder of wanted crypto fraudster Ruja Ignatova in November 2018.

 

In response, an associate of Amanatidis, Razmig Chakaryan, filed two lawsuits against BIRD journalist Dimitar Stoyanov and three against BIRD editor-in-chief Atanas Tchobanov. A sixth lawsuit was filed against Nikolay Marchenko from Bivol.bg. All six lawsuits are understood to have been filed at the Sofia District Court and each demanded BGN 10,000 (5,130 euros) for alleged defamation and “moral damage”. All lawsuits were brought against the individual journalists, rather than their media outlets.

 

These lawsuits against BIRD and Bivol are the latest in a wave of SLAPPs targeting watchdog journalism in recent years. BIRD and its journalists are currently facing 10 lawsuits, while Bivol and its reporters are facing four. Both media are partners of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP).

 

In a further development, on 7 April 2023 the Sofia City Prosecutor’s Office published a transcript and screenshots of private chat conversations between Stoyanov and one of his sources, who is currently detained on drug-related charges. This was linked to a story that BIRD published on 17 February, which reported that a document found in the safe of a murdered police chief revealed that Amanatidis had bribed the head of the homicide department at the Bulgarian National Police and others to leak sensitive information to him and cover up his criminal activities.

 

Publication of the conversation came after a press conference held by the Prosecutor’s Office on 16 March 2023, during which Attorney General Ivan Geshev described reporting by journalists as part of an alleged plot to incriminate him and the high-ranking magistrates and police officers. While Geshev did not identify the journalists directly, a screen behind him projected the names of Tchobanov and Stoyanov.

 

Our organisations are deeply concerned by these interconnected attacks on investigative journalists in Bulgaria. While the full details about the lawsuits has not yet been confirmed, our assessment and that of local media associations is that they clearly represent retaliatory and vexatious legal actions intended to pressure legitimate watchdog reporting. These lawsuits display many of the characteristics of Strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs). Our organisations stand ready to provide advice and legal support to all three journalists to help fight these lawsuits.

 

Moreover, the decision by the Sofia City Prosecutor’s Office to publish screenshots of a journalist’s private communications with a source is an unprecedented and deeply alarming violation of source confidentiality. Even if the chats are part of an ongoing criminal probe, the Prosecutor’s Office has a clear responsibility, in line with Bulgarian and European law, not to arbitrarily reveal the journalists’ source, let alone publicly publish screenshots of their conversation. In the course of their investigations, it is standard practice for journalists to communicate with multiple sources if the information they can provide is of public interest.

 

Attempts by the Attorney General to try and discredit the work of Stoyanov and Tchobanov, both respected investigative journalists, are also highly problematic and should be ceased immediately. We are concerned that the allegations launched against both journalists appear to be aimed at muddying the serious revelations published by the media outlet. In the context of Bulgaria’s already weak landscape for press freedom, these pressures have a clear intimidatory effect on media freedom.

 

Concerningly, this case is yet another example of the many threats that journalists probing crime and corruption in Bulgaria regularly face in carrying out their public service mission. Ahead of World Press Freedom Day on May 3, our organisations express our solidarity with BIRD.bg and Bivol.bg and their journalists. We have reported these cases to the Council of Europe’s platform for the safety of journalists and Mapping Media Freedom, and will alert relevant European bodies about this case. We will continue to monitor the situation closely and will respond to additional attempts to pressure or silence investigative journalism in Bulgaria.

Signed

  • ARTICLE 19 Europe
  • Balkan Free Media Initiative (BFMI)
  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • Free Press Unlimited (FPU)
  • OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)

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