Two investigative journalists, one from Bulgaria and one from Romania, were arrested in Bulgaria on the evening of September 13 while tracking down the destruction of documents allegedly proving top-level corruption related to the distribution of EU funds.
Dimitar Stoyanov, a reporter working for Bulgarian investigative news outlet Bivol.bg, confirmed to bne IntelliNews that he and Attila Biro, an investigative journalist with the Rise Project Romania site, had received a tipoff about the destruction of documents allegedly proving high-level corruption in the distribution of EU funds.
The two journalists travelled to an area southwest of the Bulgarian capital Sofia on September 13 after alerting the police to the burning of shredded documents. However, when they reached the location, they were detained by the police while taking photos and were held for over 4 hours in a field without being allowed to make a phone call. They were then taken to a police station and released.
“They took our phones, they held us without having any ground, we were not breaching any law,” Stoyanov told bne IntelliNews over the phone.
Stoyanov and Biro were working on a joint project aiming to reveal top-level corruption in distribution of EU funds. The specific case they were investigating is related to the involvement of consultancy firms linked to large construction companies in alleged large-scale frauds concerning the funds in Bulgaria.
"The revelations involve projects under the Regional Development Program (RDP), the Operational Programs and the Energy Efficiency Program," an article published by Bivol.bg a few days earlier says.
It claims fraudulent bills were created in parallel with legitimate ones, allowing the companies to make extra claims for materials and labour.
According to the publication, based on data Bivol.bg obtained, between November 2013 and February 2015, the consultancy revenues of the group of five companies totalled BGN7.2mn (€3.7mn), and commission fees paid reached BGN4mn.
According to Bivol.bg's publication, the media has documents proving that GP Group — one of the biggest construction companies in Bulgaria — was involved in the scheme. The destroyed documents allegedly were from the company's office. In a statement on September 14 GP Group denied being involved in any corruption schemes and said it has not destroyed documents.
The investigation is part of the IJ4EU funded project “Exposing fraud in EU-funded projects in Romania and Bulgaria” by Bivol.bg and RISE Romania.
Bulgaria’s interior ministry confirmed the detention in a statement on its website late on September 14. The police said in a statement that they had received information from a journalist about the planned burning of documents, and that they had arrested the two journalists along with a lawyer and then released them. The interior ministry did not reply to an email from bne IntelliNews asking what was the reason for the detention.
The following day, the head of the unit fighting organised crime, Ivaylo Spiridonov, said that the policemen had arrested the two journalists because they did not know who they were. The policemen, according to Spiridonov, were on a secret mission.
Spiridonov also claimed that the two journalists had no reason to be at the site.
"What business do these journalists have on the location, as they have provided information to us already? Are the Bulgarian security services working or the journalists," he said, and added that the whole situation was "a movie with a lousy scenario”.
However, Stoyanov said that he and Biro immediately showed their press cards to the police.
According to Stoyanov, he and Biro were released only after an intervention by the Romanian consul in Bulgaria.
“The whole event shows the complete lack of dialogue within the police or is an attempt to restrain our work. In both cases [officials] must be punished,” Stoyanov said. He added that he most likely will appeal the arrest.
Bulgaria has for long time been criticised for the lack of media freedom and for the pressure on journalists who are attempting to oppose those in power. In April, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked Bulgaria lowest in the EU terms of media freedom in its 2018 report.
The Bulgarian unit of the Association of European Journalists (AEJ) also said that the arrest showed disturbing deficits in the system of the interior ministry.
"Although according to the official information of the Ministry of Internal Affairs the journalists have not been arrested, but only taken for inquiry and identification, the actions of the law enforcement services leave doubts for state arbitrariness and attempt for limiting the media freedom," the AEJ said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Bulgaria’s ombudsman Maya Manolova also issued a statement that the arrest of the two journalists violated their human rights.
The Bulgarian unit of the AEJ stressed that “journalists serve the public interest and any restraint on them must be very seriously motivated, otherwise this is limitation of freedom of speech”.