Smear Campaign in Bulgaria and Romania Against OCCRP Journalists and Partners

Published: 05 May 2023

Microphone RazorwireInvestigative journalists have been facing increased pressure and harassment in their work. (Photo: NDLA, License)

By Vinicius Madureira

Several outlets in Bulgaria and Romania have launched a smear campaign against reporters from OCCRP and its partners, claiming they were involved in a plot to kill Bulgaria’s Chief Prosecutor, Ivan Geshev.

In April, Geshev accused reporter Dimitar Stoyanov from the Bureau for Investigative Reporting and Data (BIRD) of plotting against him and other high-ranking police officers. This happened after the outlet published an investigation alleging that officials had covered up a murder.

On Monday, Geshev was the target of a failed bomb attack near Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. The deputy-chief prosecutor Borislav Sarafov said Geshev was traveling with his family. Geshev said that his children were very scared.

By Tuesday, several outlets in the country and neighboring Romania cited unnamed sources saying that Stoyanov, Atanas Tchobanov, and Attila Biro from Romania, all three working with OCCRP, had been involved in the bomb attack.

“OCCRP categorically rejects these silly claims from a highly politicized prosecutor who has been a major barrier to reform,” publisher Drew Sullivan tweeted.

He called the bomb attack “theater designed to mislead and recapture the state for organized crime.”

OCCRP co-founder Paul Radu has also voiced his support for the journalists, calling the whole affair an “attempt to criminalize honest journalism.”

“We published investigations exposing Geshev’s corruption and abuse of power. This is obviously an act of revenge,” Tchobanov said.

On Friday, Bulgaria’s Minister of Interior, Ivan Demerdzhiev, stated before the country's parliament that neither Geshev’s family was in the car nor could the device have seriously damaged Geshev’s vehicle. He also noted that the role of an Israeli bomb expert who landed in Sofia hours before the blast and declared it “highly professional” is unclear.

Eastern European investigative journalists have been facing increased pressure and harassment lately, be it in the form of threats or baseless accusations and lawsuits.

Last month, the Bulgarian branch of the Association of European Journalists called for the protection of the three journalists and reported that a person close to a suspected drug lord and organized crime boss filed six lawsuits against them after they published two investigations.

It is time for Bulgaria to respect press freedom and protect their journalists who expose corruption and organized crime in the country, the Association said.

The World Press Freedom Index, which was published on Wednesday, said that press freedom has hit a critical low in a record number of countries, with repressive governments clamping down on critical voices and the spread of fake content.