SOFIA -- As Bulgarian authorities investigate whether the rape and killing of Viktoria Marinova was a random crime or connected to her work as a reporter, the case has turned a spotlight on impediments to a free press in a country where journalists are often subjected to intimidation and threats.
Marinova's body was found in a park in the northern Bulgarian city of Ruse on October 6, and investigators have begun an intensive search for clues and a motive for the gruesome killing.
Police could not immediately cite a motive, but many feared the worst in a country that ranked 111th globally -- and last in the European Union -- in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index released last month by Reporters Without Borders.
Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov said evidence including DNA had been discovered at the crime scene and that "it is just a matter of time before the perpetrator is found."
"We are running out of live reporters to report on the dead ones," Drew Sullivan, editor and co-founder of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), warned of the danger to journalists.
"We at OCCRP are calling for an independent investigation/review by the EU of the rape, torture and murder of Bulgarian mother and journalist Victoria Marinova. Why do we keep leaving investigations to the very governments who the reporters are investigating when they are killed?" he added in a tweet.
'Dangerous To Be A Journalist'
Marinova was the third high-profile journalist to be killed in the EU in the past year, and the fourth since the start of 2017.
Working at the private TVN television, she had recently launched a current-events talk show called Detector. In the last episode, which aired on September 30, the show broadcast interviews with Dimitar Stoyanov from the investigative Bivol.bg website and Attila Biro from the Romanian RISE Project.
The two had been investigating alleged fraud with EU funds linked to big businessmen and politicians when they were detained by armed Bulgarian police for more than seven hours in mid-September as they followed up on a tip that crucial documents were being burned in a field outside the capital, Sofia.
It was unclear why the pair was detained, but the incident took place just a day after Bivol and RISE published the first part of their investigation alleging massive corruption in EU-funded projects in Bulgaria.
The investigation focused in part on records from GP Group, a Bulgarian infrastructure company. Journalists found that as much as 40 percent of EU funds were being siphoned away from infrastructure projects and used for illegal payments such as bribes.
"It's dangerous to be a journalist in Bulgaria and physical assault is just one of the threats," says Silvia Velikova, a senior journalist from Bulgarian National Radio who covers the judiciary and politics.
"Corrupt institutions can arrest you on an ID check, start criminal or tax investigations against you, scare you in interviews, or even have you fired. Faced with those options, journalists may decide not to ask tough questions," she adds.
In outlining its concerns for the climate journalists face in the Balkan country, Reporters Without Borders laid part of the blame on the government.
It said officials allocated EU funding to some media outlets with "a complete lack of transparency, in effect bribing them to go easy on the government in their reporting or refrain from covering certain problematic stories altogether."
"Threats and attacks against journalists have intensified in recent months," the September report noted in the index, which put Bulgaria almost 40 places below Greece, the bloc's second-worst ranking.
"It can prove dangerous to be a journalist in Bulgaria.