CPJ calls on Bulgaria's prime minister to ensure safety of Bivol journalists

November 16, 2015 3:21 PM ET

November 16, 2015

His Excellency Boyko Borissov
Prime Minister of the Republic of Bulgaria
Sofia, Bulgaria sq. 1,
NDK Administrative building, fl.17.

Via facsimile: +359 2 490 09 51
Via email: [email protected]
Via the Embassy of the Republic of Bulgaria in Washington, D.C.

Dear Prime Minister Borissov,

The Committee to Protect Journalists, an international press freedom organization, is writing to alert you to the harassment of journalists at the independent news website Bivol. In recent weeks a reporter has been followed and his home was broken into, and the website’s journalists have been warned they are at risk of retaliation for their reporting.

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Dimitar Stoyanov, a Sofia-based reporter investigating the misappropriation of EU food aid funds, has filed a police report claiming he is being followed. In an account reported by Bivol on November 6, the journalist said he was tailed by three people on October 30 after a reporting trip to the First Investment Bank. The European Anti-Fraud Office, OLAF, is investigating the disappearance of €26 million (US$28 million) in aid, according to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, of which Bivol is a partner. Bivol alleges that the bank is involved in the disappearance of the funds.

Stoyanov filed a second police report a couple of days later, after a break-in at his home in Sofia, Assen Yordanov, the founder of Bivol, told CPJ.

Ivailo Alexandrov, director of corporate communications at First Investment Bank, told CPJ in an email that the bank has filed reports about the alleged misappropriation of funds with Bulgaria’s State Agency for National Security, the prosecutor’s office, Romania’s anti-corruption agency, and the European Anti-Fraud Office as early as 2013. “The respective institutions are actively following up on our signals at the moment,” Alexandrov said. The director said the investigation was into a corporate client, not the bank.

Alexandrov denied the bank was involved in Stoyanov being followed. “As a financial institution we do not undertake such actions. As we understand, the competent organs are following up on these reports and we trust the truth will be revealed,” he said.

Yordanov told CPJ that someone who cannot be named for safety reasons overheard government officials conspiring to take action against Bivol. “We are taking the threat seriously,” Yordanov told CPJ. Yordanov believes the plot is linked to a November 3 article in Bivol that was based on recordings of conversations that were leaked anonymously to BalkanLeaks, a partner site to WikiLeaks. The article accused magistrates of corruption.

These acts of intimidation are taking place against the backdrop of a series of stories in other media outlets critical of Bivol, Yordanov, and the website’s Paris-based reporter and editor, Atanas Tchobanov.

In the past few weeks, the daily newspapers Monitor and Telegraf, the weekly Politika, and Kanal 3 television station have published or aired more than 20 negative articles about Bivol. The outlets are part of the Balkan Media Company and New Bulgarian Media Group, owned by Bulgarian politician Delyan Peevski and his mother, Irena Krasteva. Popular outlets reported to have links to Peevski, including the daily Trud and the website Blitz, alsoappear to be part of the harassment campaign.

Bivol was founded by Yordanov, a recipient of the Prize for the Freedom and Future of the Media given by the Sparkasse Leipzig’s Media Foundation. Its stories, which are backed by documentation, have prompted international investigations into alleged wrongdoing. Bivol is also the Bulgarian partner of WikiLeaks, the website known for obtaining and publicizing sensitive information from anonymous sources.

The attacks against Bivol describe its journalists as “profit seekers” who make up stories to blackmail politicians and extort money.

The website’s journalists told CPJ they are being harassed. On October 10, a Kanal 3 crew showed up unannounced at the Paris rental apartment where Tchobanov lives. “They came to my home on a day I was traveling, to film my rented apartment and harass my family,” Tchobanov, who had publicly announced his travel plans, told CPJ. “If they had called ahead of time, I would have made an appointment with them, but they never tried to get in touch with me.”

Kanal 3’s program director, Iva Stoyanova, said on air that the station was repeating the methods Bivol used when it tried to interview a Bulgarian businesswoman in connection with the alleged disappearance of EU food aid funds. Stoyanova said Kanal 3 was investigating “the people who term themselves the guardians of justice and independent journalism.”

According to Bivol’s investigations, Peevski, who is a deputy in Bulgaria’s parliament, is implicated in high-level corruption around the 2011 privatization of Bulgaria’s biggest tobacco manufacturer Bulgartabac; the 2014 bankruptcy of one of the country’s biggest lenders, the Corporate Commercial Bank; and the disappearance of the EU funds--all cases that Bivol has investigated and reported on. Peevski has not commented on Bivol’s investigations. CPJ’s attempts to reach Peevski through the New Bulgarian Media Group, phone calls, and emails sent via the press department of his party, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, were unsuccessful.

Yordanov told CPJ he has received threats in relation to his work in the past. In December 2007 he was beaten in front of his home in Burgas by assailants armed with knives and clubs. At the time, Yordanov was investigating corruption in real estate. No one has been brought to justice yet for the attack.
 
Your Excellency, as an international organization that defends press freedom, we ask that you use the authority of your office to ensure that the threats against Bivol are fully investigated and to guarantee the safety of its journalists. We call on you to ensure that the surveillance and break-in at the home of Stoyanov are investigated.

We also call on you to affirm the importance of independent, investigative journalism to Bulgaria’s democratic society, and to emphasize the primary role of the media as public watchdog.

Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter. We await your response.

Sincerely,


Joel Simon
CPJ Executive Director

CC
Rosen Plevneliev, President of the Republic of Bulgaria
Elena Poptodorova, Ambassador of Bulgaria to the United States
Martina Strong, Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Bulgaria
Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission
Frans Timmermans, First Vice President of the European Commission
Federica Mogherini, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy
Donald Tusk, President of the European Council
Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament
Stavros Lambrinidis, EU Special Representative for Human Rights
Günther Oettinger, European Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society
Elmar Brok, Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, European Parliament
Elena Valenciano, Chairwoman of the European Parliament Subcommittee on Human Rights
David Kaye, U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression
Dunja Mijatović, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media
Nils Muižnieks, Commissioner for Human Rights, Council of Europe

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