Kovesi will succeed only if media freedom is kept alive

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Bulgarian photoreporters put their cameras on the floor in protest against the arrest of one of their colleagues who took photos of a manifestation against the nomination of Ivan Geshev for prosecutor general. [Dnevnik]

Laura Codruta Kovesi, Romania’s former chief anti-corruption prosecutor, is expected to be approved as the new head of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office. Iveta Cherneva argues that the lack of media freedom in countries like Bulgaria will make it exceptionally difficult for Kovesi to uncover crimes involving EU funding.

Iveta Cherneva is an author in the spheres of security, politics, human rights and sustainability.

When the news hit that Laura Kovesi was to become the EU’s top prosecutor, anti-corruption activists across Europe applauded loudly. One could hear the applause also in Bulgaria – a small EU country facing issues with EU funds misappropriation and theft, as well as freedom of the press – a place where Kovesi’s work is much needed.

Defined institutionally, Kovesi’s office has “the competence to investigate, prosecute and bring to judgment crimes against the EU budget, such as fraud, corruption or serious cross-border VAT fraud”. In other words, the EU’s top prosecutor is tasked with the tough job of going after crimes involving EU money.

Bringing to justice crimes related to EU funds is almost impossible without leads on the groundwork often done by a functioning free media and investigative journalism that uncovers suspect deals and contracts. It is journalists that sometimes lead the way.

Often media investigations chart a course for criminal investigations and the media is a key ally in uncovering crimes involving EU funds. This is particularly true of a service that will operate from EU headquarters and rely on leads and allies on the ground.

And Bulgaria gives a clear illustration of why Kovesi’s job could prove to be especially tough. The country ranks 111th in the world in terms of media freedom, according to Reporters without Borders.

To illustrate the situation, one should look no further than the current scandal involving the nomination of Bulgaria’s own chief prosecutor and the simultaneous firing of a seasoned journalist who has been critical of the only candidate for the top prosecutor post.

As reported by Reuters, the national radio journalist Silvia Velikova was fired for allegedly being critical of the work of the deputy chief prosecutor Ivan Geshev, who has been nominated to become Bulgaria’s next chief prosecutor in October this year.

The journalist’s sacking caused protests that gathered Bulgarian journalists, while the capital Sofia saw thousands of protesters marching in the streets against Geshev’s nomination.

Phone calls made by four unnamed individuals to the Director of the National Radio allegedly asked for the journalist critical of Geshev to be fired, or at least to be silenced until Geshev’s election as chief prosecutor.

The journalist was subsequently fired. And while she has been reinstated to her post – after Prime Minister Boyko Borissov spoke in her defence – the suspicion remains that shady dealings continue to play a significant role in the firings and hirings of journalists in Bulgaria.

As the protests and the process surrounding the appointment of Bulgaria’s chief prosecutor are still unfolding, the scandal has gained momentum. In Bulgaria, a persistent complaint is that journalists who ask uncomfortable questions can be removed in a heartbeat, after so much as a phone call.

Sometimes, they face severe intimidation as in the case of Genka Shikerova, whose car was set on fire not once but twice, in 2013 and 2014.

The media across Europe has a key role to play in supporting the work of the new EU prosecutor. As long as journalists in countries like Bulgaria lack the freedom to do their jobs, crimes involving EU funding will go uncovered.

If Laura Kovesi wants to succeed in her new job, she will have to take context into account and recognise that in Bulgaria and other EU states, many journalists are often not allowed to do their jobs and ask the hard questions.

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