Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has condemned as “judicial harassment” a recent court ruling in Bulgaria, where two journalists and a website were found guilty of defamation for articles published in 2018.
The Sofia City Court (SCC) found that Boris Mitov, now journalists for the Bulgarian service of the RFE/RL, and Stoyana Georgieva, had caused physical and mental agony to former SCC chairman Svetlin Mihailov, and ordered him and the website Published articles that four years ago to pay damages amounting to 60,000 Bulgarian Lev ($34,659).
In 2018, Mitov was covering Mikhailov’s bid to become the head of the SCC, Bulgaria’s largest district court, for the news website MediaPool. At the time, Georgieva was the editor-in-chief of Mediapool.
Four of those articles were examined by the court, and Judge Daniela Popova ruled on December 21 that they contained allegations of defamation against “… [Mihailov],
Lawyers for Mitov and Georgieva argued that the articles in question contained information about Mikhailov, including questions about his large wealth and assets, which appeared at that time and in other publications since then.
In her decision, Popova did not specify what she found “obscene, obscene and slanderous” from the articles in question.
Popova ordered two journalists and MediaPool to pay Mikhailov 20,000 levs ($11,553).
“This false decision could set a dangerous precedent for press freedom in Bulgaria,” said Pavol Szalai, head of the RSF’s EU and Balkans desk, in a statement issued on 14 January. The order to pay may have a chilling effect on the media covering matters of public interest.”
“We urge the Sofia Appeal Court to reverse this decision. At the same time, we call on the government to adopt concrete provisions so that abusive lawsuits do not muzzle the freedom of the press in Bulgaria.”
Reporters Without Borders noted that Popova handled the case only two months before issuing her final verdict, replacing another judge who had been dealing with it for nearly a year.
The media watchdog group said, their decision makes no mention of the fact that the plaintiff is a public figure and, moreover, was a former chairman of the court.
RFE/RL President Jamie Fly called the court’s decision “outrageous” and said it was meant to intimidate some of Bulgaria’s best investigative journalists into reporting publicly known facts.
“The public has a right to accountability, and such intimidation tactics will not prevent RFE/RL from informing its audience about issues of public interest,” Fly said in a statement.
Two journalists and MediaPool’s lawyers have appealed against the decision.