The editor of the Bulgarian investigative news website Bivol, Tchobanov learned on 2 August that he is the subject of an EIO that prosecutors in Sofia had sent to their counterparts in France. RSF supports the written request that his lawyers have sent to the French prosecutor’s office and French foreign ministry, asking them not to comply.
“The Bulgarian prosecutor’s office is trying to misuse a European cooperation mechanism to intimidate a renowned investigative journalist,” said Paul Coppin, the head of RSF’s legal unit. “We are concerned that this request could result in a violation of the confidentiality of sources and a violation of Atanas Tchobanov’s freedom of expression. For these reasons, we ask the French judicial authorities not to execute this order.”
Under article 694-31of the French code of criminal procedure, a judge can refuse to cooperate with an EIO from a judicial authority in another European Union member state if there are serious grounds for believing that the EIO is incompatible with European human rights law.
According to Tchobanov’s lawyers, complying with this Bulgarian request for cooperation would inevitably lead to a violation of his basic rights – rights that are protected by the European Convention on Human Rights and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, in particular, the right to the protection of the confidentiality of sources.
Tchobanov is currently under suspicion in Bulgaria of complicity in a leak from the Bulgarian tax department. But he does not know the nature of the investigations requested by the Bulgarian prosecutors, who just said they intended to ask the French judicial authorities to question him.
But the EIO could include a request to confiscate working documents and data storage devices from Tchobanov, as well as Bivol’s servers (which are located in France) – all of which are likely to contain confidential information about Bivol’s sources.
The Bulgarian authorities accuse Tchobanov of having a conversation with a hacker two weeks before the tax data leak and they claim that this is evidence of his complicity. Tchobanov denies this, pointing out that the leaked data was sent to several media outlets, including Bivol, and that Bivol did not publish the information because it was unable to verify it.
Bivol has been responsible for exposing many cases of corruption in Bulgaria, with the result that Tchobanov has been the target of many threats and judicial proceedings. He has also received many journalistic awards. This EIO is just that latest of many attempts by the Bulgarian authorities to silence him.
Bulgaria is ranked 111th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.