Sofia City Court has confirmed the Sofia Regional Court’s sentencing of Rossen Bossev, a journalist at Capital Weekly and member of the Executive Board of the Association of European Journalists in Bulgaria, AEJ-Bulgaria, to a fine of 1,000 BGN [500 euros] in a defamation case filed by Stoyan Mavrodiev, a former chairman of the Financial Supervision Commission, FSC, а government body in charge of ensuring the stability of the banking system, and current director of the Bulgarian Development Bank.
The defamation complaint is particularly demonstrative of the way in which state officials are able to use institutions as tools for pressure.
Even though the libel has not been proven in court, AEJ-Bulgaria is stunned to learn that Bossev has been sentenced for taking part in a television talk show during which he has tried to explain why FSC has imposed a significant fine to the publication he works for. However, the statements made by Bossev are based on facts which the plaintiff didn’t dispute in court.
Moreover, the judge-rapporteur appointed to this case, Petya Krancheva, has been the subject of a series of articles written by Bossev which have exposed a number of deficiencies in her work. All the stories have been published prior to the trial allocation.
Judge Krancheva refused to recuse herself in spite of the journalist’s request that she did so. This fact draws the objectivity of the court into serious question. What guarantee could exist of a fair trial, when the judge has been personally affected by the journalist’s previous work? How impartial could she be when reviewing a case against the journalist in question?
What also speaks to this bias is the manner in which Judge Krancheva ordered that Bossev be summoned—with a subpoena for major crimes and a search carried out by a group of armed judicial police officials at multiple addresses where the journalist does not reside, creating a sense of disproportionate measure.
The failure of Judge Kruncheva to recuse herself despite an apparent conflict of interest creates reasonable doubts about the fairness of the trial.
The case itself is demonstrative of an abuse of power. After Capital Weekly and Dnevnik, an online publication owned by the same media group as Capital Weekly, revealed Mavrodiev’s alleged links to a money-laundering scheme, the Financial Supervision Commission —which Mavrodiev directed at the time—issued a total of 80,000 euros in fines for a series of stories devoted to problems in the banking industry which the FSC labelled as market manipulation. The record fine, which is considerably higher than most of the fines the FSC imposed on companies in 2013, for example, equals the salaries of all journalists working for Capital Weekly.
These fines caused an uproar of reactions, both domestically and internationally, as well as backlash on the part of journalists and human rights advocates who saw the sanctions as attempt to limit freedom of speech in the country. The FSC’s decision was overturned in court, which demonstrates the immateriality of the sanctions. Following this failure to enforce fines for Capital and Dnevnik, Mavrodiev brought defamation complaints against three of their journalists based on allegations similar to those against Bossev. Two of these journalists have since been exonerated, but Bossev is being charged for his 2015 comments during a television talk show that “Stoyan Mavrodiev is using the FSC to repress Capital and Dnevnik” as well as that Mavrodiev’s actions followed a series of stories in Capital and Dnevnik about his alleged ties with organized crime figures.
At that time, AEJ-Bulgaria came out with a condemning statement, saying that the actions of the FSC were representative of an unprecedented attempt to censor media. Later a Bulgarian court refuted the above-mentioned accusation.
Today, we express strong support for our member Rossen Bossev and we maintain that such cases against journalists are unacceptable, especially when filed by government representatives and reviewed by judges whose impartiality can be called into question.
In the meantime, an online tabloid-style site has published the court’s decision even before the sentence has been made publicly available. This is the latest piece in an ongoing smear campaign, which has been trying to tarnish Bossev’s reputation over the years.
Alexander Kashumov, a lawyer and head of the legal programme of the Access to Information Program, a Sofia-based non-profit organization, promoting freedom of expression, sees the court’s decision as failing to address previous judgements, issued both by the Bulgarian Constitutional Court and the The European Court of Human Rights, ECHR.
“[The court] didn’t consider that the plaintiff is a public figure, responsible for the actions of the Commission which he directed at the time, that citizens have the right to comment on the actions of this commission in relation to his personality as well as the role of the media as a watchdog in a democratic society, the principles of freedom of expression and the right to criticize senior officials,” said Kashumov.
“It’s hard to come across decisions of Bulgarian courts, regardless of the level, where such reasoning and considerations are totally absent. The spirit of the sentence, which does not take into consideration any decision of the Constitutional Court or the ECHR, does not seem relevant to the time, place, and realm in which our modern society exists,” he added.
Such court rulings often times have a “chilling effect”* on the exercise of media freedom, as the ECHR has previously stated in its decisions.