Web site editor beaten with hammers in Sofia

New York, September 23, 2008The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns Monday’s brutal attack on Ognian Stefanov, editor of the investigative news Web site Frognews, in Bulgaria. The editor and his family had recently received anonymous phone calls warning Stefanov to stop his journalism or face consequences, Stefanov’s deputy, Aleksandar Ivanov, told CPJ. The site publishes investigations into the activities of public officials and particularly those in the state security services.

Stefanov is hospitalized in critical condition, with broken arms and legs, a brain concussion, and severe blood loss; he is unconscious, Ivanov told CPJ. According to the Bulgarian Web site News, prosecutors are investigating the case as an attempted murder.

Stefanov, 54, was leaving a restaurant called Kiparisite in Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia, at around 11 p.m. on Monday, when he was approached by four men in black clothes and hats. The men reportedly asked the journalist if he was Ognian Stefanov; when he confirmed his identity, they started beating him with hammers, according to multiple local press reports. The Bulgarian Interior Ministry issued a statement saying witness accounts could not confirm the exchange. The statement also denied a report that said the attackers had introduced themselves as police officers. Ivanov has not regained consciousness since the incident.

“We are appalled that an investigative reporter in a European Union member state should be bludgeoned into silence by black-clad attackers wielding hammers,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova. “Bulgaria cannot let such barbarism stand. The authorities must act immediately to bring also those behind this vicious assault on Ognian Stefanov to justice. Anything less would show that this fledgling democracy has still not shaken off its crime-plagued past.”

Stefanov’s name was recently linked with the now-shuttered Internet site Opasnite (The Dangerous)–which existed for only two months this summer and was dedicated to covering high-level corruption and compromising information about the personal lives of public officials, including President Georgi Parvanov. The site particularly scrutinized the inner workings of Bulgaria’s security services and quickly gained the attention of Bulgaria’s State Agency for National Security (DANS), according to press reports and CPJ sources. The articles on Opasnite ran anonymously.

In early September, Opasnite stopped working after DANS launched an investigation into who published, edited, and maintained the site. Though Stefanov publicly denied being behind Opasnite, he co-wrote a September 3 opinion piece in Frognews, titled “Freedom in Boots.” The article criticized the closure of Opasnite and reported pressure by DANS on an unnamed Frognews journalist and his family. The article said that security agents had arrested and interrogated the journalist for seven hours without a lawyer. “We have a feeling that someone is doing everything possible to stuff shut the holes, through which any unpleasant information that concerns state wrongdoings may leak,” the article said. “And this is being done instead of working to prevent the wrongdoings themselves. The special services should follow up and investigate the compromising information that the media have managed to dig out; not persecute the journalists who publish it or their sources.”

This is the second serious attack on a journalist in Bulgaria this year. On April 7, two unidentified assailants shot and killed popular writer Georgi Stoev, author of a series of books on the origins and rise of Bulgaria’s criminal underworld since the fall of communism in 1989. The murder remains unsolved.

In recent years, Bulgaria has seen a resurgence of violent attacks on reporters that marred the turbulent transitional period of the early 1990s. On April 6, 2006, an explosion rocked the Sofia apartment of Vasil Ivanov, an investigative reporter with Nova Televiziya (New Television). Ivanov had just authored a two-part series on inmate abuse in a Sofia prison. Ivanov was not at home when the 2-pound (about 1 kilogram) bomb detonated; his family survived the attack. The perpetrators are at large.