Fundraising campaign for Mediapool - AEJ-Bulgaria

"No to SLAPPs against media and journalists!" - AEJ-Bulgaria

A record claim for compensation against Bulgarian online newspaper Mediapool, "guilty" of bringing the problems of the insurance sector to public attention. A trial brings the SLAPP issue back under the spotlight in Bulgaria, between fears and professional solidarity

21/03/2023 -  Francesco Martino Sofia

One million leva (about 500,000 Euros): this is the record compensation  requested in court by the Bulgarian insurance company "Lev Ins" against the online publication "Mediapool". According to "Lev Ins", an article  published by the media in September 2022 – an insight into the risk that Bulgaria will be excluded from the cross-border insurance coverage system (the so-called "green card") due to the default of some Bulgarian companies, including "Lev Ins" itself, would have caused enormous damage to its image which must now be compensated.

The Mediapool article quotes the minutes of a meeting of the Council of Ministers in Sofia, in which Finance Minister Rositsa Velkova addresses the risk of serious sanctions against Bulgaria and Bulgarian citizens who circulate with their cars outside the national borders.

Even without explaining the direct causes of the risk, during the meeting Velkova reiterated the long-standing problems of "Lev Ins" with the national "green card" office, and the company's missed payments to the system. In practice, the company would refuse to pay insurance premiums for accidents abroad, justifying itself with the accusation of being a victim of fraud, especially in Italy.

"When we sought the management of 'Lev Ins' to get their point of view, they told us that we would get answers, yes, but in court", is the comment for OBCT by Stoyana Georgieva, editor-in-chief of Mediapool.

For Georgieva, the exorbitant claim for compensation by "Lev Ins" has the sole purpose of intimidating the media and shutting up those who inform citizens. "We have all the features of SLAPP, a legal proceeding against a media outlet that attempts to inform citizens about a topic of public interest by citing a clear and authoritative position by the institutions, in this case the government". The intimidating nature of the legal initiative, according to Georgieva, is confirmed by the amount of the requested sum, absolutely disproportionate and sufficient "to liquidate our editorial staff".

When the news of the compensation request became public, various actors in the world of Bulgarian journalism decided to react and show solidarity with Mediapool colleagues. The Bulgarian section of the Association of European Journalists (AEJ) immediately launched a campaign  to ask "Lev Ins" to withdraw its legal requests and collect the 40,000 leva (about 20,000 Euros) needed by Mediapool to cover the legal costs.

“In just three days, the campaign's goals were achieved”, Maria Cheresheva, a well-known investigative journalist and vice-president of AEJ-Bulgaria, told OBCT. "For us it is a great satisfaction, above all because the defence of press rights is not very popular in our country, given the low level of trust in the media".

For Cheresheva, even more important is the fact that the funds raised come above all from many donations from ordinary citizens, who this time "have shown that they fully understand that their contribution was necessary to defend spaces of freedom" in a context where the problems in the media sector are many and persistent. In addition to addressing the Mediapool case, the money raised will be used by AEJ-Bulgaria to start a long-term project: the creation of a fund dedicated to supporting Bulgarian media and journalists targeted by SLAPP, “currently our priority. The allegations against Mediapool, in a certain sense, have accelerated the process, acting as a catalyst: a positive aspect in a situation that is anything but such”, concludes Cheresheva.

However, the Bulgarian journalistic world remains divided. "This trial is yet another litmus test: if many media outlets have expressed solidarity with us, more than a week after the news of the trial, none of the national TVs has spoken, or even mentioned the case", says Georgieva. “From my point of view, a very negative sign, which speaks of colleagues under pressure, censorship, and self-censorship”.

And if the fundraising for Mediapool has had an unexpected success, the request to "Lev Ins" to desist from the process, at least for the moment, has fallen on deaf ears. In a press release dated March 8, the insurance company, after assuring that it has always "defended freedom of the press, and ethical and objective journalism", insists in seeking the legal way to resolve the case, arguing that this has no intention of influencing "the editorial policy of this or that media". Compared to the compensation requested, the figure would be "completely adequate for the potential damage that the tendentious news [published by Mediapool] could cause to the insurance sector in Bulgaria".

At the moment, Bulgarian law does not provide for the possibility for magistrates to block claims for compensation which can be described as SLAPP in the pre-trial phase. “Another serious problem is the ability for judges to freeze SLAPP-affected media accounts pending sentencing”, Georgieva says. “We know that this request was made – and fortunately rejected in the first instance – by 'Lev Ins' against us. However, nothing prevents it from being repeated and, if accepted, it would put our backs against the wall".

“In addition to being dangerous, this possibility is vexatious, a kind of 'presumption of guilt'”, adds Cheresheva. "In fact, the media are punished by freezing their accounts before establishing the facts".

The European Commission has proposed a directive that aims to establish a minimum common denominator at the member state level aimed at harmonising measures against SLAPP in terms of procedural guarantees: the current Bulgarian interim government has paid attention, meeting various stakeholders ( including AEJ-Bulgaria) and setting up working groups that should transform the indications into legislative reforms. “Things look promising, but we must bear in mind the high political volatility that has gripped the country for years. Today's positions could change drastically after the new elections”, concludes Cheresheva.

On Sunday 2 April, Bulgarian citizens are called to the polls for the umpteenth early consultations, the fifth in just two years.

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