The Committee to Protect Journalists, an international press freedom organization, has written to the Bulgarian Prime Minister, and top EU leaders, expressing concern that Bulgarian journalists investigating a huge corruption case have been harassed, warning they are at risk of retaliation for their reporting.
The CPJ letter concerns the harassment of journalists at the independent news website Bivol, specialised in exposing corruption and organised crime in Bulgaria. Its chief editor, Atanas Chobanov, lives in France, but even there, he has been visited by people sent to intimidate him.
Chobanov told EurActiv that his team is in the process of investigating “probably the largest single theft of EU funds”, specifically, of a transfer of €18.9 million of EU money via a shell company from Romania to Cyprus, where this money has disappeared.
According to the Romanian anticorruption prosecutors DNA, this took place with accomplices from Fibank, also known as the First Investment Bank.
The case concerns in-kind humanitarian assistance (cooking oil, wheat and rice) to poor households in Romania, run by the Romanian agency for payments for agriculture (APIA) and financed by EU funds. The EU tender was won by a company in Bulgaria, the Viem Corporation, to which Fibank offered the necessary banking guarantees.
Viem is related to Ivan Tanev, former Minister of Agriculture of Bulgaria, who is sought by Interpol for tax fraud and money laundering.
APIA transferred the funding, but Fibank says the money hasn’t arrived in the accounts of the Bulgarian company. Romanian investigative journalists from the RISE project, and their Bulgarian colleagues from Bivol, both part of the investigative network OCCRP, found that the money actually landed in a Cyprus account.
The journalists have been able to convince Viem’s purported owner, Valeri Petrov, to help with the investigation. Petrov told the journalists he was taken to the bank to sign documents, and that the seals of the firm he is supposed to be in charge of have been kept in the bank’s offices.
Petrov also said that a Fibank employee had contacted him so that he could issue them procuration letters. Petrov also said that he had given the same explanations to the Bulgarian authorities, and to OLAF, the EU anti-corruption office.
Dimitar Stoyanov, a Bivol journalist, took Petrov to the bank, where he requested access to his accounts. He was refused, but ever since, Stoyanov has been followed, and his home has been searched, which he has reported to the police.
CPJ turned to Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, informing him of the harassment.
“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,” CPJ writes in its letter to Borissov, copies of which are sent to the heads of all EU institutions, including to Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.
Chobanov told EurActiv that he and his colleagues are troubled that Romanian prosecutors arrested the Romanian accomplices for this theft, but there were no signs that their Bulgarian counterparts had any intention of investigating the matter.
Indeed, a Romanian court produced a sentence last October, ordering the arrest of three Romanian nationals in the case.
“We suspect the investigation in Bulgaria is biased by political interference, related to the fact, that the oligarch and MP Delyan Peevski’s business is credited by Fibank,” Chobanov said.
Peevski is a shady power-broker and media owner, who was about to be appointed head of the Bulgarian State Agency for National Security (DANS) by the minority government of Plamen Oresharski, in 2013. The move led to big protests, and the resignation of Oresharski’s cabinet.
Fibank denies involvement in the alleged misappropriation of funds. Ivailo Alexandrov, director of corporate communications, has said that Fibank has filed reports 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, adding that the investigation was into a corporate client, not the bank itself.
Following the publication of this article, Nathalie Vandystadt, European Commission spokesperson for Digital Single Market, stated that media freedom, pluralism and the protection of journalists “are at the very base of a free and democratic society. Media freedom and pluralism of the media are enshrined in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights (Article 11).”
“The Commission stands for these values and is supporting them through different initiatives and when legally justified in the scope of its competences. Legislation related to media lies mainly with member states.
“Regarding the investigations, the Commission is aware of the case and is cooperating with OLAF. We cannot comment on ongoing investigations”, Vandystadt said, indirectly contradicting the narrative by Fibank according to which the case was closed.