The low level of trust in the institutions on the part not only of the citizens but also on the part of those working in them is the reason – also evident from different sociological data

15/01/2018 -  Mediapool

(Originally published by Mediapool , our media partner for the project ECPMF )

In Bulgaria there are no whistleblowers in the classical sense of the word. There is no way for such signals to be the initiative of people working for the very institutions, having in mind the fact that there is lack of trust that the signal for illegal activities will be checked and investigated and the person sending the signal – protected. This is what the co-founder and member of the board of the Anticorruption Fund Nikolai Staikov explained for Mediapool.

A “whistleblower” means a “denouncer”. A person who informs about a supposedly illegal, unethical deed or irregularity in a government, public or other organization.

An irregularity can be qualified in many ways: an offence against the law, infringement of the internal rules, of different regulations or a direct threat to the public interest or the national security, as well as fraud and corruption.

In the West the whistleblowers are often people internal for the organizations themselves. In Bulgaria, however, there are almost no such cases. "If somebody, let’s say provisionally, from the "system" decides to denounce the system itself, then almost in all cases he/she has decided, one way or another, to leave the very system", Staikov explains his observations.

That is why the Anticorruption Fund, whose co-founder he is, has launched a pilot project for training how to prevent corruption and fraud. According to him the institutions themselves must learn to protect themselves against offenses. And when it is clear in their structures how this happens, then – at a next stage, the employees themselves will muster up courage to signal for irregularities. At the moment this is done by separate citizens or non-governmental organizations.

In Bulgaria there is no legal protection for whistleblowers

Bulgaria is among the European countries in which there is no legal protection for the people signaling for irregularities and corruption. On October 24th the European Parliament voted an important – although non-binding report – about the necessity for a legal framework in the EU for protection of the so-called whistleblowers. The necessity for such all-European regulations has become more obvious after several large-scale scandals caused by such people – the most famous are the “Luxembourg leaks” in 2014 about secret tax ruling, which have alleviated the levying of taxes of more than 350 companies round the world; "The Panama Papers Dossiers" in 2016, which revealed off-shore hiding-places of politicians and famous public figures from all over the world; the doping scandal with Russia before the Olympic games in 2016 and also the “Paradise Papers” published in November of this year, revealing again off-shore shelters of high-level and influential officials and corporations.

In spite of the fact that the existence of such signals is admitted to be an important instrument against corruption and fraud, most of the people who have dared to speak openly face serious professional and personal risk. This especially holds true for a country like Bulgaria, where the institutions called upon to protect the public interest work as hirelings of private political or business interests.

Because of this it is not surprising that the greater part of the investigations in the Bulgarian media are restricted to offences, malpractice and corruption at the low levels, in spite of the fact that the basic criticism of EC leveled at Bulgaria is about the failure to reveal high level offence and corruption. A large part of the media investigations, which nevertheless denounce high level corruption, sometimes are inspired by signals hinted at by a state institution – i.e. the positive effect of the revelations has been overshadowed by the circumstance that it is also running some ad hoc political errand.

Another distinct tendency is that the media refrain from a critical approach to the corporative power, and they are still less inclined to conduct investigations of malpractice and fraud, except in cases when, one way or another, a scandal has erupted or there is involvement of politicians. This especially holds true for the big national television channels, whose advertising revenue is strongly dependent on the mobile operators, for example, no matter that these companies’ practices often cause damage to consumers.

The signals

For the duration of half a year since its establishment the Anticorruption Fund has processed over 600 cases from media monitoring and received signals, of them about 120 have been considered by its legal center. From June to November 80 petitions on the Access for Information Act (ZDOI) have been sent and 11 cases have received legal opinion with data and facts arousing suspicions for corruption practices related to a total of 19 institutions – the prosecution, the Commission for Prevention and Ascertainment of Conflict of Interest (KPUKI), the Agency for State and Financial Control (ADFI), control bodies on European programs etc.

"Up to now we have 200 thousand levs of imposed sanctions after our signals on ten public procurement tenders (or to use the Brussels expression “financial corrections”). Those affected by these signals are four mayors, one cabinet minister and a state-owned bank. And one Russian Member of Parliament and his counsellor", says Nikolai Staikov.

The organization does not announce which are the people from whom the signals for offences and malpractices have been received.

The Anticorruption Fund actually reduces to a certain extent the risks for those who are inclined to signal for illegal actions, but refrain from doing this on their own. In addition, the organization, although not numerous and with modest resources, has at its disposal expertise and experience in the checking and establishing of facts. This makes things easier and facilitates the media, which are willing to conduct their own investigations of cases the Anticorruption Fund is dealing with.

The case with the Protest Network signal against Peevski, Tsvetanov and Barekov

One of the most glaring examples of what is happening in Bulgaria with the people signaling for illegal activities is the case with the informal citizens’ organization Protest Network (PM), which was establishedafter the protests against the behind-the-scenes management of the state, which became known as the “WHO” (KOI) model in 2013-2014.

In February 2014 four activists from the group informed the prosecution about the MRF Member of Parliament Deljan Peevski, the CCB (Corporative Commercial Bank) owner Tsvetan Vasilev and the ex-TV 7 presenter and present Euro MP Nikolai Barekov. The signal to the prosecution summarized the media publications pointing at suspicions about serious discrepancies between the official tax returnsfiled by Peevski and the real size of his personal property. As far as the Vasilev banner is concerned, the signal was related to the allowing of unguaranteed loans by CCB to related to it companies. At that time Barekov was one of the bosses of TV 7, financed by Tsvetan Vasilev.

In June 2014 CCB – the fourth largest bank in Bulgaria – collapsed because of the draining of 4 billion levs. The Protest Networksignaldeveloped into a mega case for the draining of CCB in which the main accused was the bank owner Tsvetan Vasilev.

The signal against his ex-business partner Deljan Peevski and his mother Irena Krasteva, however, did not lead to anything, in spite of the established unpaid taxes by Krasteva, amounting to about 300 000 levs. The prosecutor Borjana Betsova terminated the investigation with the argument that everything around Peevski and his mother was clean. A year later Peevski started filing property declarations for millions, without being clear where the money has come from.

In November 2014 a publisher of a site close to Peevski gave a counter signal to the prosecution against the people from Protest Network. He demanded a check of their income. This happened on the very day on which Protest Network took part in the protest against the attempt of the prosecution to hush up exposures of the politician Peevski (the forgery of the “DP” initials making them appear as “10") in the pocket notebook of the ex-boss of KPUKI (Commission for Prevention and Ascertainment of Conflict of Interest) Philip Zlatanov.

The prosecution immediately took action against the civic activists and ordered a complete tax audit of the authors of the signal against Deljan Peevski. Things did not stop there, because the tax authorities started an audit of the whole media group Iconomedia (one of Peevski’s favourite targets) with the argument that Nikolai Staikov from Protest Network years ago had worked for one of the publications of the media group. Prosecutor for this investigation was again Borjana Betsova. In 2015 this investigation was also terminated without any evidence for offence on the part of the investigated people and companies.

The prosecution, however, used the case to make public all payments which the Protest Network members have received in the course of the past four years under different projects. The case "Protest Network v/s Peevski" is actually one of the most solid examples of how initiatives for exposing illegal activities are turned against the people who have signaled for them.

"The safe way"

Outside the non-governmental sector, the political parties' headquarters are almost the only other way for exposing corruption practices in Bulgaria.

Over the last few months BSP has undertaken the task to expose the so-called "shurobadjanashtina" (appointment of close relatives) in the GERB government. The socialists announced that at their headquarters signals for appointment of relatives or corruption practices are constantly received. BSP brought to light how this happens particularly in Haskovo, Gabrovo and Radnevo.

Mediapool sources from BSP informed us that the party receives the data from its supporters working at state-owned and municipal structures in the respective towns: "With every party in power the opposition has similar information at its disposal because its supporters report about every sort and kind of corruption".

At the question why the citizens do not address directly the competent bodies – inspectorates at the institutions, the police or the prosecution, the BSP representatives explained: "When you work at the municipality in a small town to be a whistleblower is difficult or at times absolutely impossible, because there is no institutional criterion for protection. And the person signaling for irregularities always gets dismissed. It is simple – the people are being careful of their jobs". According to BSP, for now, the only way for irregularities to be exposed by people working in the same system is for the whistleblowers to be anonymous party functionaries, who can inform the party headquarters.

Giving a signal through a big political party is the safest way, but it is also a doubtful way to do it from the point of view of public interest, since every political party is inclined to sift the information according its own political aims.

The "Lyubomir Talev" case

Quite recently Bulgaria has had a case with a high ranking official from the state administration, who “plucked up courage” to expose his superiors as liars. The scandal erupted in the spring of 2017 during the mandate of the interim cabinet appointed by the President Rumen Radev.

Then the Ministry of Justice (MJ) published a draft law containing the anti-constitutional proposal for the introduction of an obligatory three-month uninterrupted residency in the respective constituency for every citizen to be able to vote in the presidential and parliamentary elections. This, in practice, would have excluded from participating in the elections most of the Bulgarian citizens living abroad.

This article is part of a thematic dossier curated by OBCT mediapartner network: 14 newspapers in 14 countries. The complete dossier is available here

The MJ declared that the Director of the Legislative Council at the Ministry, Lyubomir Talev, is to blame for this, because he had included the scandalous text in the draft law without the knowledge of then interim Minister Maria Pavlova. Talev was immediately dismissed. However, he declared before the media that the contested proposal was covertly suggested by the President Radev, and the texts themselves were written by the President’s Secretary on legal issues Emilia Drumeva. The dismissed employee revealed that Minister Pavlova was present at the debates of the draft law under discussion at the Presidency, and the version published by MJ was co-ordinated with her. Later the President reluctantly admitted that the three-month uninterrupted residency was really an idea of his and did not deny that the interim Minister was clear as to his wish.

The dismissed Talev was lucky that the political party GERB, during whose mandate he was appointed at MJ, was back in power and restored him to his previous position.

The situation in Bulgaria can be summarized as follows: The fear that if somebody stood up against the system it would crush him, as well as the well-founded doubts in whose interest the institutions work, makes the exposure of illegal activities by the citizens almost impossible.

Who are whistleblowers?

Who are whistleblowers? Why can a worker decide to become one? And if they act in the public interest, who protects them? For a comprehensive overview of the ongoing European debate, see our dossier  based on the materials available on the Resource Centre   on media freedom

This publication has been produced within the project European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, co-funded by the European Commission. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso and its partners and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union. The project's page

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