The work of a journalist has never been easy in Bulgaria but as of 21 May, it became even harder.
On that day the Sofia City Court convicted Rossen Bossev, a journalist at Capital Weekly, of defamation and imposed a fine of 1000 levs (500 euro) on him. The sentence is final and cannot be appealed. The charges were brought by the ex-chairman of the Financial Supervision Commission (FSC) and current CEO of state-owned Bulgarian Development Bank Stoyan Mavrodiev. The court fined Mr Bossev for two statements he made during a TV interview in January 2015, which Mr Mavrodiev deemed defamatory to his good name: "Stoyan Mavrodiev is using the FSC to repress Capital Weekly and Dnevnik".
"Mr Mavrodiev has been associated with a money laundering scheme that Evelin Banev faces trial for [Banev was later convicted for executing financial operations with funds acquired through the trafficking of narcotic substances - editor's note]. Through his actions, he (Mavrodiev) facilitated the laundering of a sum of money acquired through drug trafficking."
The court did not dispute that, in 2015, FSC imposed a record 123 fines on Economedia topping 250 000 euro in total, most of which was later overruled. The FSC started its punitive campaign after Capital Weekly and Dnevnik [Economedia's two largest publications - editor's note] began to ask questions about the regulatory inaction of the Bulgarian National Bank and the FSC during the collapse and subsequent bankruptcy of Corporate Commercial Bank (Corpbank) in 2014.
Neither did the court dispute the fact that Mr Mavrodiev, in his capacity as legal adviser, had registered the offshore companies later used by Mr Banev to launder money. Under the compliance rules of his own company, Mr Mavrodiev had to report any suspicious activity involving those companies. He never did.
In its reasoning, the court accepted that no punitive actions had been taken against Economedia because the 2015 fines had been imposed not by Mr Mavrodiev himself, but by his deputy in FSC (who now works together with Mr Mavrodiev in the Bulgarian Development Bank). Furthermore, the court accepted that Mr Mavrodiev could not have been involved in the laundering of Banev's drug money, because ... Mr Mavrodiev had never been convicted of such a crime. However, the court acquitted Rossen Bossev for his statement that Stoyan Mavrodiev had been a "legal consultant in a scheme for laundering drug money" made in the very same TV program.
In practice, the Sofia City Court has effectively decided that inferring conclusions based on facts are a criminal act. In addition, by the court's logic, a public official's actions can't be criticised unless that official is found guilty.
It seems that the case was intended to intimidate Rossen Bossev and set an example for other journalists. The mere fact that libel charges were investigated and tried in a criminal case, rather than in an ordinary civil law procedure, says a lot about the court's intentions.
How is that possible?
Presiding Judge Petya Krancheva potentially has a keen interest in fining Mr Bossev, because she featured unfavourably in many articles published by Capital Weekly in the period 2010-2015 and authored mostly by him. Despite the doubts of bias, Judge Krancheva did not see fit to recuse herself, claiming that she had never read Mr Bossev's articles. Judge Krancheva's verdict completely ignores the defence's arguments. It also overlooks the fact that high-ranking officials should expect to face deeper public scrutiny and criticism.
The legal proceedings against the Capital Weekly reporter were the last of three lawsuits brought by Stoyan Mavrodiev against other journalists from the newspaper who had made public statements similar to those of Mr Bossev. The other two cases, reviewed by different judges, ended with acquittals.
The verdict imposed on Mr Bossev is yet another indictment of Bulgaria's declining media freedom. The country ranks last of all EU Member States in the Reporters without Borders (RSF) 2018 World Press Freedom index because of widespread "corruption and collusion between media, politicians, and oligarchs". The U.S. Department of State's 2018 Country Report on Human Rights raises concerns "that corporate and political pressure, combined with the growing and nontransparent concentration of media ownership and distribution networks, as well as government regulation of resources and support for the media, gravely damaged media pluralism".