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Instead Of Protecting Investigative Journalists, The Bulgarian Authorities Are Going After Them

Journalists are regularly threatened in Bulgaria, including by the Prosecutor-General Ivan Geshev (pictured).
Journalists are regularly threatened in Bulgaria, including by the Prosecutor-General Ivan Geshev (pictured).

For Atanas Tchobanov, a leading Bulgarian investigative journalist, uncovering corruption in one of the most graft-ridden countries in the EU rarely brings rewards.

Instead of justice for the alleged perpetrators, it is often journalists like him who face retribution from those they expose.

"Normally, the findings of the investigative reporting should trigger legal actions, but in Bulgaria they more often trigger institutional retaliations against the journalists and their sources," Tchobanov told RFE/RL.

To prove his point, Tchobanov, 54, highlights a February report by the Bureau of Investigative Reporting and Data (BIRD), which he founded and now heads. BIRD published what it claimed were alleged links among organized crime groups, law enforcement, and the country's prosecutor-general.

The prosecutor-general, Ivan Geshev, however, went on the offensive on March 16, accusing journalists of conspiring with criminals, business owners, and politicians to plot against him and high-ranking officials at the Interior Ministry. On May 1, Geshev escaped what media described as a car bombing, although many in Bulgaria, including Tchobanov, questioned details of the incident and its timing.

Bulgaria is not top of any charts for journalism, but progress is being made, according to the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

In its 2023 Media Press Freedom Index, issued on May 3 to coincide with World Press Freedom Day, RSF said media freedom was "fragile and unstable" in one of the poorest countries of the European Union. However, Bulgaria's ranking jumped from 91 last year to 71 in the latest index.

Former Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov (file photo)
Former Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov (file photo)

According to RSF, some of that improvement comes down to the fact that for most of 2022 Bulgaria was ruled by the pro-Western government of Prime Minister Kiril Petkov, who came to power on a pledge to fight the country's rampant corruption. Petkov's government, however, collapsed in June 2022 after his administration lost a no-confidence vote in parliament that he blamed on Russia and his own country's powerful mafia. Tellingly, RSF said a unique problem pertaining to Bulgaria was the "inverted role of certain high-ranking prosecutors."

'Strategic Lawsuits'

Retribution often comes with journalists being sued . Bulgaria is one of several EU countries where abusive lawsuits -- so-called strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) -- are "becoming increasingly common," according to the Media Freedom Report 2023, which is the second annual report on the topic produced by the Civil Liberties Union for Europe.

These lawsuits, according to experts, are largely an attempt by wealthy individuals and companies to use the law to intimidate or silence investigative reporters and nongovernmental organizations.

In Bulgaria, Judge Svetlin Mihaylov sued journalist Boris Mitov -- now on staff in RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service -- after he wrote an article in 2018 alleging that the judge was a millionaire who had been involved in a number of scandals.

Journalists are also regularly threatened, including by the prosecutor-general himself. During his press conference in Sofia, Geshev, whose zeal and integrity has long been questioned by both Washington and Brussels, did not identify any journalists by name in the supposed plot against him, but a screen behind him projected a list of names, including that of Tchobanov and his colleague Dimitar Stoyanov, who also played a leading role in the February BIRD exposé.

That report delved into the infamous cryptoqueen Ruja Ignatova, who was head of the multimillion-dollar OneCoin scam and vanished after allegedly ripping off investors to the tune of $5 billion in 2017. The BIRD report, citing documents reportedly found in the possession of a murdered Bulgarian police official, indicated that Ignatova had been killed in 2018.

"The conclusion for us was pretty obvious: when you dare write about such dangerous guys and such a high-profile case as the Ignatova disappearance, you become the target yourself," said Tchobanov, who has now made Paris his home.

Then, on April 13, the authorities made public 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.

In comments accompanying its latest index, RSF referred specifically to this case. "Instead of protecting journalists and systematically prosecuting crimes against them, they pressure them, as shown by the recent case of Dimitar Stoyanov, in which the confidentiality of sources is threatened," RSF said.

That echoes earlier concerns from the Committee To Protect Journalists (CPJ).

"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, on April 24. "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 Bulgarian branch of the Association of European Journalists, an advocacy organization, issued a statement in April calling the release of those messages "an unscrupulous violation of the confidentiality of journalistic sources."

Atanas Tchobanov (file photo)
Atanas Tchobanov (file photo)

Tchobanov is no stranger to threats. He said officials at the U.S. Embassy in Sofia notified him on January 7, 2022, that they had been made aware of an "imminent threat of physical violence" against him.

"I had to wear a bulletproof jacket for a month, changing my itineraries, habits, and instructing my family to stay vigilant," explained Tchobanov.

Tchobanov told CPJ that he believed the threat was connected to his investigation for BIRD about contracts between a U.S. lobbyist and Delyan Peevski, a Bulgarian member of parliament, media owner, and former head of the country's intelligence services.

"I started calling the protagonists of my story for right-of-reply and a couple of days later got this notification call from the U.S. Embassy. This is the most dangerous stage of the investigation because the bad guys are alerted and will try to stop you," Tchobanov added.

Tensions Likely To Increase

With the supposed car bombing against Geshev just a few days ago, the tensions between the Prosecutor-General's Office and journalists are only likely to increase. Tchobanov, along with many others in Bulgaria, has said that some of the details of the attack don't appear to add up.

"Geshev claimed loudly a month and a half ago that he had been targeted by a group of oligarchs, criminals, and even journalists like me and my colleague Dimitar [Stoyanov] who conspired to remove him from office…. Then came the self-spoken prophecy with the roadside blast," he said.

Bulgarian police at the scene of an alleged bombing incident targeting Prosecutor-General Ivan Geshev in the Samokov area on May 1.
Bulgarian police at the scene of an alleged bombing incident targeting Prosecutor-General Ivan Geshev in the Samokov area on May 1.

"The explosion he faced in his heavy armored jeep is very strange if you compare the claims about the blast being the equivalent of '3 kilograms of TNT' and a 'fiery hell' with the images from the site of the blast, which look more like a modest fireworks explosion," Tchobanov said.

Dozens of state-employed public prosecutors on May 2 staged "silent protests" outside courthouses in towns and cities in what was described as a sign of support for Geshev. "It is inadmissible for anyone to think that the attack against Ivan Geshev was staged," said Siika Mileva, the spokeswoman for the prosecutor-general, at the protest in front of the courthouse in Sofia.

For Tchobanov, with the constant meddling of the political establishment, independent journalism is needed more than ever in Bulgaria. "[It is] what we call the deep state, a constellation of power players linked to the former communist secret services, doing business by syphoning public resources. There are very few independent media outlets in Bulgaria actually," he said.

Bulgarian public prosecutors and judicial officials hold a protest in Sofia on May 2 in response to an alleged assassination attempt on Prosecutor-General Ivan Geshev.
Bulgarian public prosecutors and judicial officials hold a protest in Sofia on May 2 in response to an alleged assassination attempt on Prosecutor-General Ivan Geshev.

Tchobanov's own journalistic journey happened almost by accident. "In 2004, I was helping a friend to design and publish a small newspaper, because he didn't have the needed computer skills," Tchobanov told RFE/RL.

Bitten by the journalism bug, Tchobanov quickly got into blogging and then investigative reporting. "I started working on investigative topics in 2010, first by digging into public registries and following the real estate transactions with valuable public land plots. Corrupt officials like to invest in real estate," he said.

In 2010, he was one of the cofounders of the Bulgarian investigative website, Bivol, also serving as its editor in chief. Later, he went on to head the BIRD organization.

Tchobanov has also cooperated with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, including working on several of its blockbuster exposé, including the Pandora Papers, the Azerbaijani Laundromat, and other reports.

Despite all the pitfalls, Tchobanov has no plans to abandon his trade. "I think that exposing corruption and the state-mafia nexus is making the world better and saves lives," he said. "Slowly, painfully, but changing things for the good."

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.

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