The international Association of European Journalists is urgently concerned about the questionable conduct of legal proceedings in a court case against Bulgarian media owner and businessman Ivo Prokopiev. The case relates to the privatisation of a state-owned power distribution company in 2011 and could lead to a criminal conviction and to Mr Prokopiev being sentenced to a prison sentence on unsound and tenuous grounds.
The AEJ considers that the consequences of the verdict in this case could be severely damaging for media freedom in Bulgaria. Despite the fact that trial is not directly related to Mr Prokopiev’s Economedia group, which includes Capital Weekly and Dnevnik.bg, there are serious concerns that a major reason for bringing charges against Mr Prokopiev is the investigative work and critical stance of those media towards the government. The media outlets are known as some of the country’s most significant sources of independent and high-quality journalism. It is vital that due legal process is properly followed to allay any suspicions of an arbitrary political motivation for the prosecution of Mr Prokopiev, who is known as a critic of the Bulgarian government.
The new concerns arise because on Saturday 20th June the Specialized Criminal Court in Sofia suddenly announced a curtailment of the court’s proceedings, including a decision to exclude testimony from three defence witnesses and to move to the closing statements by lawyers. The hearing was prolonged until midnight and lasted around 14 hours. It is now expected that verdicts in the cases involving Mr Prokopiev and several other defendants will already be decided next Sunday, on June 28th. The prosecution has called for a jail sentence of between three and about 10 years for his alleged role in the sale of shares in the electricity distribution company at an unexpectedly low price. Prosecutors made known that they also want the immediate arrest of Mr Prokopiev, if convicted. Two former government ministers also face charges which can carry long jail sentences.
Mr Prokopiev’s defence lawyer, Daniela Dokovska, stated in court that the accusation against her client was related only to public statements that he made as a member of a consultative public body. She insisted that the National Council for Tripartite Cooperation was a place for expressing opinions, and Mr Prokopiev like other members of the Council had the legal right to express his opinions freely.
The Association of European Journalists and its branch in Bulgaria, AEJ-Bulgaria, are watching the progress of the legal proceedings with serious concern, as an important test case for the necessary separation of Bulgaria’s judicial authorities from politics and for the protection of free, independent and diverse news media in Bulgaria.