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Bulgaria Minister urged to drop defamation lawsuit

ECPMF

24 April 2024

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The Media Freedom Rapid Response consortium partners criticise the criminal defamation lawsuit filed by Interior Minister Kalin Stoyanov against investigative journalists Atanas Chobanov and Dimitar Stoyanov of the Bureau for Investigative Reporting and Data (BIRD). The undersigned organisations believe that the lawsuit is designed to silence legitimate investigative reporting and should be immediately withdrawn.

 

The legal action stems from the journalists’ reporting on a property deal which allegedly connected the current Minister of Interior to Martin Bozhanov, an individual known as ‘the Notary’, who was murdered earlier this year following extensive allegations of corruption against him. Kalin Stoyanov has denied the connection.

 

The Minister is seeking 65.000 Bulgarian lev (33.300 euros) in damages, claiming that the reporting crossed the boundaries of freedom of speech and harmed his dignity and authority.

 

Why legal action against BIRD threatens investigative journalism

The Association of European Journalists – Bulgaria (AEJ) “is convinced that the lawsuit bears the characteristics of a SLAPP”. This comes amid a worrying trend of using vexatious lawsuits, often known as Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation (SLAPPs), to suppress investigative journalism in Bulgaria and elsewhere.

 

The undersigned organisations believe that Minister Stoyanov’s lawsuit is an attempt to restrict legitimate media scrutiny and the public’s right to information. It also threatens to obstruct efforts to combat corruption in Bulgaria and ensure transparency within government institutions.

 

The MFRR consortium emphasises that in a democracy, public officials must expect greater levels of scrutiny, a principle reinforced by judgments of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). 

 

Moreover, Minister Stoyanov’s objection to the use of anonymous sources by BIRD in his claim disregards the essential need to safeguard informants’ anonymity, especially in cases involving risks to their safety. No pressure should be placed on the journalists to expose their sources, whose protection is also guaranteed by the case law of the ECtHR. 

 

Calling for lawsuit’s withdrawal and legislative reform

The undersigned organisations demand the withdrawal of charges against BIRD journalists.

 

Additionally, we call on the government to accelerate legislative reform to protect journalists against all kinds of vexatious lawsuits. This should include providing for early dismissal of evidently vexatious lawsuits, the provision of costs and other compensation to the victims of SLAPPs. In particular, we urge the government to use the transposition of the European Union’s new Anti-SLAPP Directive as an opportunity to ensure the new protections apply to domestic cases as well as cross-border cases. 

 

We express full solidarity with BIRD and reiterate our commitment to defending press freedom in Bulgaria. We will continue to raise awareness and uphold the integrity of journalism in the country.

 

Signed:

International Press Institute (IPI)

European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)

European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)

Free Press Unlimited

OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)

This statement was coordinated as part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and candidate countries.

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