Bulgaria: Alarming SLAPP cases endanger fragile media freedom
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns the judicial harassment of two Bulgarian investigative journalists and calls on Bulgaria’s new government to pass legislation that protects the media against gag suits.
Just before Christmas, Sofia City Court ordered Stoyana Georgieva, editor of the independent news website Mediapool, and Boris Mitov, one of the former site’s reporters, to pay the exorbitant sum of 67,000 leva (34,000 euros) in damages for “defamatory allegations” in four articles in February 2018 about the court’s then president Svetlin Mihailov, who was running for another term at the time. However, the lawyers of the accused pointed out that the articles simply referred to Mihailov’s sizable personal fortune and to some of his more controversial rulings, which had already been the subject of several investigative reports in the media, which were well known to the general public, and which had never been denied. The defence thus appealed the Court decision.
There are also reasons for questioning the impartiality of the judge in charge of the case, Daniela Popova, who took it over only two months before issuing her final ruling, replacing another judge who had been dealing with the case for nearly a year. Her decision, which seems to have been rendered in haste, makes no mention of the fact that the plaintiff is a public figure and was, moreover, the court’s former president. It does not specify which parts of the articles she regarded as “indecent, vulgar and cynical” and refrains from any comment on the defence’s objections, which she systematically rejected during the hearings. It has also emerged that, in July 2021, Popova was elected president of the Bulgarian Judges Association (BAS), a pro-government organisation of which Mihailov is also a member. These disturbing facts suggest that the plaintiff’s personal interests may have been preferred over the Mediapool journalists’ freedom of expression.
“This gag-verdict could set a dangerous precedent for press freedom in Bulgaria,” said Pavol Szalai, the head of RSF’s European Union and Balkans desk. The disproportionate amount of damages that the journalists have been ordered to pay could have a chilling effect on media covering matters of public interest. We urge the Sofia appeal court to overturn this decision. At the same time, we call on the government to adopt concrete provisions so that abusive lawsuits can no longer muzzle press freedom in Bulgaria.”
Earlier in December, a defamation suit was brought by the investment company Eurohold against the investigative news site Bivol, which had published several stories about its controversial fundraising methods, particularly when it concluded an agreement with a large Bulgarian electricity distribution company. The case is only in its early stages, but the staggering amount of damages sought – the equivalent of 500,000 euros – would pose an existential threat to this media if the suit succeeded. Bivol’s lawyer Alexander Kashumov says this is an unprecedented sum in comparison to Bulgarian standards and creates “conditions of censorship” that are a complete violation of the “European standards on freedom of expression”.
RSF calls on Bulgaria’s new ruling coalition to counteract the frequent use of SLAPPs (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation), which are designed to limit freedom of expression by dragging media outlets or individuals into costly legal proceedings they can rarely afford. The new government should adopt the specific recommendations proposed by RSF in March 2021 to protect press freedom in Bulgaria. They include encouraging citizens, businessmen and public authorities to submit their complaints to the country’s Media Ethics Commission, so as to create an effective alternative to defamation suits often intended to intimidate journalists. RSF also urges the government to promote the adoption of strong national and European legislation to complement these recommendations in order to protect journalists against SLAPPs.
Bulgaria is ranked 112th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2021 World Press Freedom Index, the lowest position of any EU member state.