RSF regards the judicial investigation as a crude attempt to intimidate the journalists and deter them from continuing their reporting.
The investigation against Assen Yordanov and Atanas Tchobanov, who work for the investigative news website Bivol, was launched on the basis of a report supposedly issued by BOETS, an anti-corruption NGO, accusing them of buying real estate properties years ago at well below the market price.
BOETS denies issuing the report and has filed a complaint for identity usurpation. Yordanov and Tchobanov told RSF that there are no grounds for the claims and have published notarized documents showing that the purchase of their modest properties was above board. Yordanov was nonetheless questioned by the police general directorate on 13 June.
This trumped-up investigation against Yordanov and Tchobanov seems to have been prompted by the series of revelations they began publishing in Bivol in March showing that that senior members or associates of Prime Minister Boyko Borisov’s ruling GERB party had acquired luxury real estate properties at well below their market value.
Those implicated in this so-called “Apartment Gate” scandal include prosecutor-general Tzatsarov, who was reported to have bought a home near the city of Peshtera for a very low price.
“We are concerned about this new use of completely fabricated accusations with the aim of silencing investigative journalists and we call on the prosecutor’s office to explain what motivated this investigation,” said Pauline Adès-Mével, the head of RSF’s European Union and Balkans desk.
“What with trumped-up drug charges in Russia and trumped-up corruption complaints in Bulgaria, how far are press freedom’s enemies prepared to go in order to silence investigative journalists?”
The state’s attempts to harass journalists and crush them economically are all the more disturbing for being coordinated with oligarch Delyan Peevski’s pro-government media such as the daily Trud, which published an anonymous article at the start of June detailing the fabricated allegations against Yordanov and Tchobanov.
The examples of harassment are growing. Rossen Bossev, a reporter for the Bulgarian business weekly Capital Weekly, was convicted on 21 May of criminally defaming the former head of Bulgaria’s Financial Supervision Commission.
RSF is also disturbed by the case of Hristo Geshov, an investigative reporter for the Zov News website, who was abducted by unidentified men in May and not released until the website had removed his story about an allegedly illegal water supply system in the town of Troyan, where he lives.
According to a recent European Commission report, Bulgaria has failed to make any significant progress in combatting corruption during the past decade. It is ranked 111th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.