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Monday, October 16, 2023

Bulgaria Media Report Fresh Cases of Intimidation

The arrest of a critical journalist on what looks like specious grounds and the lawsuit filed against a respected media outlet highlight the continuing problems facing media freedom in the country.

Boyko Borissov, leader of Bulgaria’s GERB party, speaks at a press conference in Sofia, Bulgaria, 4 October 2022. Photo: EPA-EFE/VASSIL DONEV

Bulgarian journalists and online media face fresh instances of what media watchdogs describe as possible strategic lawsuits, or SLAPPs, and even arrests.

On March 15, media reported that the journalist and publisher Ivan Atanassov had been arrested on Tuesday for 24 hours following an anonymous claim that he was in possession of ancient coins and objects of cultural and historical values, without being registered as a private collector. 

Atanasov is the publisher of the regional website sakarnews.info, focused on the south-central town of Harmanli, and is also part of the team behind the anti-corruption online platform zaistinata.com (For the Truth), which includes Dimiter Petzov, who in 2020 was arrested for possession of drugs in what he described as an act of intimidation. 

In a statement, zaistinata.com wrote that a likely factor in Atanasov’s arrest were his articles critical of the work of the local administrations in Harmanli, Topolovgrad and Svilengrad – and that he was working on a story about potential voting fraud in favour of the GERB party, which has previously been associated with similar misdoings

“I guess I overdid it with the criticisms of GERB and the Ministry of Interior,” Atanassov told Sega.bg ironically on his release on Wednesday.  

GERB, headed by three-time PM Boyko Borissov, has not responded to this version of the events.

On March 8, the insurance company Lev Ins filed a lawsuit for 1 million leva (500,000 euros) in the Sofia City Court against the respected online media outlet Mediapool. ↗

The company felt offended by an article from journalist Tsvetelina Sokolova from September 27 that said Bulgarian drivers might lose their liability insurance in the European Green Card System when traveling internationally from January 1 2023, due to the big debts run up by Lev Ins.

The article included a statement by interim financial minister Rositsa Velkova who said: “There is a serious risk that our national office will be excluded from the Green Card system.”

On the same day, watchdog organisation Reporters Without Border described the lawsuit as “abusive”.

The Association for European Journalists – Bulgaria expressed support for Mediapool and demanded Lev Ins to withdraw the “shameful” case. ”It is absurd for a media outlet to be sued for quoting a minister’s speech by referring to an official transcript,” it said.

On March 14, AEJ-Bulgaria initiated a donation campaign for Mediapool which raised 5,000 euro in a day: “The significant amount that the defendant must provide in order to adequately participate in the case is probably one of the reasons why the insurance company filed such a large claim.”

The latest developments are part of a long line of acts of intimidation against critical journalists. Well-known journalist Slavi Angelov was assaulted by masked men in early 2020 ↗Early last year, several journalists and activists received threats ↗.

In 2021, BIRN looked in-depth into the problems of Bulgaria’s media landscape while the country is in a cycle of elections, which as of 2023, is ongoing.

In 2022, the World Press Freedom Index listed Bulgaria in 91st place, a slight improvement from 112nd position in the 2021 report. 

Anti-government protests between 2020-2021 were associated with several instances of physical violence against journalists from the authorities

“The few independent voices in Bulgaria work under constant pressure,” the most recent report by Reporters Without Borders says.It added: “Corruption, insufficient independence and low efficiency of the justice system make the state often toothless vis-a-vis press freedom violations. Independent media and investigative journalists are regularly victims of abusive procedures, or SLAPPs. [Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation]”.

BFIA Admin
BFIA Admin
The big boss.

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