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 they published in 2018.
The Sofia City Court (SCC) found that Boris Mitov, now a journalist for RFE/RL’s Bulgarian Service, and Stoyana Georgieva, had caused physical and mental anguish to Svetlin Mihailov, a former chairman of the SCC, and ordered them and the website that published the articles four years ago to pay him damages amounting to 60,000 Bulgarian lev ($34,659).
In 2018, Mitov was covering Mihailov’s bid to become 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 “defamatory allegations against [Mihailov].”
Lawyers for Mitov and Georgieva argued that the articles in question contained information about Mihailov, including questions about his sizable wealth and property, that had appeared at the time and since then in other publications.
In her ruling, Popova did not specify exactly what extracts from the articles in question she found “indecent, vulgar, and cynical.”
Popova ordered the two journalists and Mediapool to each pay Mihailov 20,000 lev ($11,553).
“This gag-verdict could set a dangerous precedent for press freedom in Bulgaria,” said Pavol Szalai, the head of RSF’s European Union and Balkans desk, in a statement issued on January 14. “The disproportionate amount of damages that the journalists have been ordered to pay could have a chilling effect on media covering matters of public interest.”
“We urge the Sofia appeal court to overturn this decision. At the same time, we call on the government to adopt concrete provisions so that abusive lawsuits can no longer muzzle press freedom in Bulgaria,” Szalai added.
Popova took over the case only two months before issuing her final ruling, replacing another judge who had been dealing with it for nearly a year, Reporters Without Borders noted.
Her decision, the media monitoring group said, makes no mention of the fact that the plaintiff is a public figure and was, moreover, the court’s former president.
RFE/RL President Jamie Fly had called the court’s decision “outrageous” and said it was meant to intimidate some of Bulgaria’s finest investigative journalists for reporting publicly known facts.
“The public has a right to accountability, and intimidation tactics like this will not keep RFE/RL from informing its audience about issues of public interest,” Fly said in a statement.
Lawyers for the two journalists and Mediapool have appealed the ruling.