Bulgaria has established an unenviable reputation as a media freedom wasteland according to many international rankings, with 112-th place in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranking becoming a favorite citation of foreign correspondents. A number of court cases and decisions from the last couple of months, however, attest that these low rankings are richly deserved.
The most recent case is that of former judge Svetlin Mihaylov who successfully sued the independent news website Mediapool.bg for the staggering sum of 34,000 euro in a defamation lawsuit. A month earlier, investigative website Bivol got summoned to court by the Eurohold investment group over another defamation lawsuit, where the damages sought are a record 500,000 euro. And lest we forget the ongoing series of defamation cases against Capital Weekly's own financial editor Nickolay Stoyanov. Let's examine them one by one:
When citing public information is considered defamation
The most recent case of Mr Mihailov vs. Mediapool.bg is a textbook example of a SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) case. The story goes like this: in February 2018, then-Mediapool journalist Boris Mitov, who is currently part of the team of RSF/RL in Sofia, published a series of articles linked to the bid of Judge Mihaylov to get reelected as head of Sofia City Court.
There is nothing particularly novel or shocking in these articles - Mr Mitov merely reminds the public of the scandalous reputation of Judge Mihaylov established during the 2004-2009 period, when he presided over the court, accumulating over 500,000 euro in declared personal fortune. This, in turn, led to judge Konstantin Penchev, then member of the Supreme Judicial Council, to describe Mr Mihaylov's first term in office as "scandalous" and "catastrophic," which Mr Mitov recalled in one of his pieces.
Despite that, Judge Daniela Popova, who ruled on the case, held that "all of the expressions used in the articles by their author in relation to Mihaylov contain a negative opinion of the applicant, expressed through the use of offensive expressions," ultimately claiming that the infamous judge "suffered a number of non-pecuniary damages, including deterioration to his physical and mental condition". She completely ignored the fact that Mr Mitov was not giving his own opinion - he had rather cited other high-ranking members of the judiciary and journalistic investigations.
The case prompted a wave of reactions, including from the RSF/RL central European bureau, the Association of European Journalists - Bulgaria (AEJ) and the RSF itself. "This gag-verdict could set a dangerous precedent for press freedom in Bulgaria," Pavol Szalai, the head of RSF's European Union and Balkans desk wrote in a statement. The disproportionate 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," he added.
Media freedom aside, the verdict is symptomatic of the problems of Bulgaria's judiciary. Judge Popova got the case allocated to her only two months before issuing the final ruling, replacing another judge who had been dealing with the case for nearly a year. The reasoning of the verdict was largely absurd. And most importantly - in July 2021, Ms Popova was elected president of the Bulgarian Judges Association (BAS), an "alternative" union of judges that has been defending the status-quo in the judiciary and has been co-launched by Judge Mihaylov himself.
The decision of the court has already been contested at the second instant as well as in Strasbourg.
Eurohold taking Bivol by the horns
Just a month before the Mihaylov vs. Mediapool.bg verdict, an even larger defamation suit was launched, this time by the Eurohold investment company, which sought a staggering 500,000 euro in damages from investigative website Bivol.bg (translated as "bull").
The consortium, most famous for its purchase of Czech energy company CEZ's Bulgarian assets, was criticized for its fundraising methods by the media, and launched the lawsuit seeking record-high damages for Bulgarian standards. During a European Parliament-sponsored meeting, Bivol's lawyer Alexander Kashumov said that such a penalty would create "conditions of censorship" that are a complete violation of the "European standards on freedom of expression."
In an open letter to AEJ-Bulgaria, Eurohold claimed that they took the case to court because Bivol never gave the company a right to reply to what Eurohold calls "defamatory statements and insulting qualifications" in the media publications, and never called them to ask for the company's comment before publication.
Nevertheless, the staggering amount that Eurohold sued for threatens the very existence of the donation-funded media. Also, instead of complaining to the country's Media Ethics Commission, the company immediately opted for a court lawsuit designed to intimidate journalists and drag them into costly legal disputes.
The ongoing SLAPPs against Capital
Lastly, the list would be incomplete without the May 2021 series of defamation cases raised by the ex-director of the Bulgarian Development Bank (BDB) Stoyan Mavrodiev and Cypriot Michael Tymvios for two articles investigating links between them and their potential role in a "golden passport" scheme for foreigners to obtain Bulgarian (and thus European) passports.
They were written a few months earlier by Capital Weekly's finance editor Nickolay Stoyanov and on this occasion neither Mr Mavrodiev, nor Mr Tymvios could complain that they were not approached for a comment before publication. However, Mr Mavrodiev has a long and ugly history with Capital Weekly and has not spoken to the newspaper in years, but instead prefers to "communicate" through fines and court cases.
All of these cases serve as a reminder that, despite the change of governments and the supposed shake-up of the political and judicial system that ought to accompany it, Bulgaria remains a difficult place to work as a journalist. It will take many years and legal precedents for this to change.