CPJ called on Bulgarian authorities to stop all efforts to harass journalists Dimitar Stoyanov (left) and Atanas Tchobanov (right) on April 24, 2023. (Photo Credit: Atanas Tchobanov)

Bulgarian authorities allege investigative journalists conspired with criminals

Berlin, April 24, 2023—Bulgarian authorities must ensure that members of the press are not criminally investigated for their work and stop all efforts to harass journalists Dimitar Stoyanov and Atanas Tchobanov, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Monday.

In February, the Bureau of Investigative Reporting and Data news website, or BIRD, published a report on alleged connections among organized crime groups, law enforcement, and the country’s chief prosecutor.

On March 16, Chief Public Prosecutor Ivan Geshev said during a press conference that he believed journalists were conspiring with criminals, business owners, and politicians to plot against him and high-ranking officials at the Ministry of Internal Affairs, according to news reports, a statement by Geshev’s office, and Tchobanov, BIRD’s founder and director, who spoke to CPJ. 

During that conference, Geshev did not identify any journalists by name, but a screen behind him projected a list of names including Tchobanov and Stoyanov, a reporter at the outlet.

On April 13, the prosecutor’s office in Sofia, the capital, released transcripts and screenshots of text messages among several people, including a conversation between Stoyanov and a source, a person now in custody while under investigation for drug-related charges.

Tchobanov told CPJ that he believed authorities were retaliating against them for that February reporting and that projecting the journalist’s names and releasing Stoyanov’s conversations were an effort to pressure them to stop their investigations. 

“Bulgarian authorities should ensure that journalists are not swept up in criminal investigations and that members of the press can cover allegations of public corruption without fear that they will be targeted by law enforcement,” said Attila Mong, CPJ’s Europe representative. “Authorities should stop any efforts to harass or obstruct journalists Dimitar Stoyanov and Atanas Tchobanov and should allow the Bureau of Investigative Reporting and Data to work freely.”

The Association of European Journalists, an independent Bulgarian trade organization, issued a statement calling the release of those messages “an unscrupulous violation of the confidentiality of journalistic sources.”

The prosecutor’s office announced that it had started a pretrial investigation into an unidentified number of members of “an organized criminal group” who allegedly participated in influence peddling to “discredit and hinder” law enforcement and senior government officials. Those convicted face a prison sentence of up to six years.

Tchobanov told CPJ that he believed it was “unacceptable” for authorities to release Stoyanov’s messages and said he and Stoyanov denied the “absurd accusations” that they were working with criminal groups.

CPJ’s emails to the Sofia prosecutor’s office and the chief prosecutor did not receive any replies.