The difficulties faced by journalists trying to uncover corruption in Bulgaria were back in the spotlight recently after the the police detained two journalists while they were carrying out an investigation into corruption and European funds.
The journalists, Dimitar Stoyanov from the Bulgarian investigative portal Bivol and his Romanian colleague Attila Biro from the RISE Project, had been gathering information for a series of investigations that point to the misappropriation and corruption related to the use of European structural funds in Bulgaria, especially those intended for the modernisation of the country’s infrastructure.
The arrest of the two journalists, which took place on 13 September, came following the publication on Bivol of the first installment of a series of journalistic investigations called “#GPGate”. Thanks to a series of documents obtained by the editorial staff, Bivol denounced the existence of a network of consulting companies, linked to large construction companies (including a central role played by the GP Group) involved in “directing” public procurement tenders towards particular candidates resulting in conflicts of interests and corrupt practices.
In addition to distorting the tenders, illegitimate revenues were obtained by the winning companies through false invoices, use of poor quality construction materials and the insufficient implementation of standards. The share of funds lost to the so-called “corruption tax” according to Bivol reaches 30-40 percent of the total.
Following the publication, Stoyanov and Biro received new confidential information. According to one of the reports, documents and computers from the offices of the GP Group were collected in a hurry to be transported to a village in the area of Radomir, about 50 kilometers from the capital Sofia, to be burned and destroyed.
The journalists first informed the police, and then went directly to the place indicated by the source. Upon arriving Stoyanov and Biro identified a series of black bags, full of documents. After starting to photograph them, however, the two were stopped by a police patrol stationed nearby.
Although they immediately identified themselves as journalists, Stoyanov and Biro were handcuffed for about an hour. Later they were transported to the Pernik police station, where only many hours later they were allowed to use their phones. The Romanian consul in Bulgaria ultimately intervened to secure their release in the early hours of the following morning.
In the days after the incident, the International Press Institute (IPI) sent a petition to the Bulgarian prime minister Boyko Borisov, signed by organisations active in the defense of press freedom, in which they denounced the “lack of sensitivity on the part of the authorities for the work of journalists. The reactions of top officials to this case so far also indicate a missed opportunity for the government to show its strong support of investigative journalism”.
During a televised confrontation with Stoyanov, aired on the TV channel Btv in the days following the incident, the head of the anti-mafia directorate (GDBOP) Ivaylo Spiridonov, however, defended the police actions. “We must not apologise to anyone. We have acted against them as we do with any Bulgarian citizen. Colleagues did not know who they had stopped during the police action”. This assertion was contested by Stoyanov: “I do not know what they’re reasons were, incompetence or otherwise, but the fact is that the police prevented us from collecting important evidence, which the authorities do not seem interested in acquiring”.
Bivol’s investigation has brought to the forefront not only the problems related to press freedom in Bulgaria, but also raised serious questions about the use of European structural funds, which have been a driving force for the economic development in the country.