A delegation of publishers and journalists was in Brussels today (21 November) to warn Brussels counterparts that the very existence of the small group of media which are not part of the quasi-monopoly of Delyan Peevski, a shady power broker, is under threat by all the instruments of the state power, and in particular the prosecutor general.
Peevski is a controversial businessman and media mogul who is in the centre of many scandals in Bulgaria in recent years. Media ownership in Bulgaria is extremely opaque, but it’s an open secret that he controls a vast majority of media, friendly to Prime Minister Boyko Borissov and his GERB party, including a distribution system unfair to the competion of media outside his group.
The Union of Publishers in Bulgaria (UPB) is an independent, non-governmental and non-political body representing print and online media in Bulgaria. Members of UPB are mainly independent media, among others – Economedia AD, publisher of Capital and Dnevnik, Sega EAD – publisher of Sega newspaper, Zebra BGN AD, publisher of Club Z magazine and clubz.bg, Mediapool OOD – publisher of mediapool.bg, Mit Press OOD, publisher of Manager Magazine.
A UPB delegation led by Theodore Zahov, UBP president, and including journalists from Sega and Mediapool, informed ENPA, the European Newspaper Publisher’s Association, and personally Carlo Perrone, ENPA President, of their concerns. The text below sums up their main messages:
In last years three of the UPB key members have been under constant attacks from different government institutions and state prosecution.
Pressure against Capital, Dnevnik and their publisher Ivo Prokopiev
Capital and Dnevnik, the publishing company Economedia and its majority shareholder Ivo Prokopiev have been under pressure from the state institutions over the past 9 years, since Boyko Borissov has taken power. The novelty is that the latest attacks threatens the survival of the two media titles which are among the few left in Bulgaria which do not obey the public relations and media strategy of Borissov and his entourage.
In the period 2009-2013 Capital published several journalistic investigations on political corruption surrounding Corporate Commercial Bank (KTB). It was revealed that the government had concentrated deposits of state-owned enterprises in this bank. KTB in turn financed the family of MP Delian Peevski to buy out newspapers and newspaper distribution companies (in both sectors he achieved an unprecedented concentration, far beyond the regulatory standards). KTB also financed related parties – its majority owner Tsvetan Vasilev in partnership with Peevski to acquire assets including from privatisation (at one point they equaled 5 billion Bulgarian leva (€2.5 billion), or over 6% of Bulgaria’s GDP in 2013). Financing or direct transfers to their accounts had been made also to the profit of political parties, politicians, judges, prosecutors, members of regulatory bodies, journalists, public influencers, sports clubs.
Capital’s findings were officially proven true by auditors after KTB went bankrupt in 2014. More than 84% of the banking portfolio was to related parties. The recovery rate of total assets after the insolvency is expected to be well below 10%.
Three years later the prosecution brought KTB indictment case to court. However Peevski was not questioned during the investigation and his name was not even mentioned in the indictment report.
Meanwhile Capital and his publisher underwent massive fire from the state-controlled machinery. Over 850 discrediting articles full of fake “facts” and speculations appeared in Peevski’s newspapers over the period 2010-2012. Negative media campaigns never stopped since then. In the past year only, eight books (of the same substandard quality) were published and distributed free with the same newspapers. One of them, in English – was distributed in the European Parliament.
Strong institutional pressure complemented media attacks. Since 2009 Capital and Dnevnik, Economedia, Prokopiev personally and his family members, his other companies and their managers have become subjects of numerous tax, regulatory, prosecution, police and other inspections. None of them found wrong-doings, but many of them have been re-opened soon after being closed.
Some of the leading investigative journalist of Economedia and their assets were also under attack.
It has been demonstrated in many recent occasions that Peevski maintains strong informal influence over the high Judicial Council and Prosecutor General, Sotir Tsatsarov. Leading figures in various institutions, including ministers in the current government have been acting in obvious favor of Peevski’s economic interests. He and his political party DPS (Movement for rights and freedoms) have an “excellent communication” with Borissov in his capacity of PM.
The prosecutors’ continuous efforts to produce a case against Prokopiev had finally materialised in January 2017 when he was indicted in a case relating the sale on the Stock Exchange of the minority state-owned stake in the electric utility company. The case is currently canceled by the Sofia District Court and returned to the prosecution due to procedural and logical gaps, and shortfalls. The prosecution has appealed.
The EVN case triggered an administrative procedure in KONPI (the Commission for withdrawal of criminal assets) against Prokopiev, his wife Galya Prokopieva and their children. The aim of the preliminary inspection is to find if there are gaps between the acquired assets and the declared income in the last 10 years. The period goes back to January 2007th.
In late August it has become clear that there is a strong external pressure from Peevski and personally from Tsatsarov over KONPI Chairman Plamen Georgiev. He was forced to begin a confiscation procedure against Ivo and Galya Prokopieva assets and to impose injunctions on them.
On 7 September 2017 Prokopiev submitted to KONPI a statement with detailed information for the acquired assets and declared income of the family for the period in question. The statement shows that the declared income is 10 times greater than the value of the acquired assets.
Both Galya and Ivo Prokopiev and all their companies have gone through full tax revisions for exactly the same period. The revisions found no wrongdoing.
However, the pressure Georgiev and other members of the committee continued. According to the Bulgarian Confiscation Act KONPI has the right to ask injunctions on assets and bank accounts just by declaring a potential gap, without a need to prove it initially to Court. This could effectively block any business enterprise until the final ruling of the Court (on the pledges and collaterals), which takes between one and two years.
The ultimate goal of the pressure imposed by Peevski and Tsatsarov on KONPI is Economedia AD, the publisher of Capital and Dnevnik, where Prokopiev is majority shareholder. KONPI could effectively block Economedia’s activity for two years, by requesting injunction on its shares and its bank accounts without any initial defense option for the publishing company.
Attacks against Ognyan Donev, publisher of Club Z
In 2012, the then co-owners of Media Group Bulgaria Holding (publisher of newspapers 24 Hours, Trud, 168 Hours, etc.), Ognyan Donev and Lyubomir Pavlov, were charged by the prosecution for money laundering for alleged shares selling and documentary fraud, following a signal from their former partner, Hristo Grozev.
At the same time, another charge was brought against Donev – for tax evasion from revenues from the sale of shares in a pharmaceutical company – transactions from 2006 which, according to the prosecutor’s office, have been investigated for three years, although this crime is assessed only on official documents.
The money laundering case was terminated by the prosecutor’s office in March 2013 after Grozev as witness withdrew his claims and the prosecutor’s office found that there was no evidence of any crimes committed.
The case for tax evasion is still at first instance in the Sofia City Court.
Already in the course of the criminal proceedings, there have been comments that the prosecution’s activity had one main purpose – to force change of ownership of the newspapers published by Media Group. The same intent was pursued by leaked eavesdropping of talks between Donev and the then editor-in-chief of Trud Svetlana Djamdjieva. Some of the private discussions pointed out that the then Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov was informed in advance with regard to the timing when the official charges against Donev and Pavlov would be pressed by the prosecution.
Shortly after the opening of the case, the process of changing the ownership of the media holding had started. At that time media Group published two of the most influential national political daily newspapers – Trud and 24 hours, the weekly 168 hours as well as a number of other print publications. The transfer of ownership had been finalized shortly after the surcease of the criminal proceedings for money laundering against Donev and Pavlov.
Donev himself, the magazine Club Z and the Club Z website that are currently financed and published by him are under continuous attack in a number of public statements by the Prosecutor’s Office and the Prosecutor General which happens in complete synergy with Peevski’s media circle. As a rule Peevski’s media are in full support to all thesis of the prosecutor’s office. The reason for these attacks is the critical attitude of Club Z media towards the work of the Prosecutor’s Office, the Prosecutor General and the Supreme Judicial Council, an attitude which has always been in accordance the standards of journalism.
Sasho Donchev, publisher of SEGA Daily, accused of ‘high treason’
The publisher of Sega newspaper Sasho Donchev and his business in gas distribution Overgas were subject to an investigation for high treason by the Prosecutor’s Office based on a signal dated 16 January 2017, to the Prosecutor General Sotir Tsatsarov. The signal contains publicly-known information regarding a complaint, filed by Sasho Dontchev in 2011, to the European Commission for Abuse of dominant position of Bulgargaz and Bulgartransgaz on the Bulgarian market, as a result of which the European Commission (EC) initiated legal actions against Bulgaria.
Notwithstanding that it is a matter of public information on legitimate actions from 2011 (filing a complaint to the EC), in April 2016, on the basis of this signal, the Prosecutor’s Office initiated an investigation against officials and servants of the Energy and Water Regulatory Commission (EWRC) for service crimes. According to the statement of the Prosecutor’s Office, dated 24 April 2017, the investigation must establish whether the commission’s members had fulfilled their professional obligations to control the execution of the key elements of the business programs of the gas-distribution companies and whether the investments actually made by these companies correspond to the approved ones by the commission. “The fulfillment of these obligations (compliance control of the actual investments made in the gas-distribution networks with the stated ones in the business plans approved by EWRC) has a direct relation to the price of gas for the end user.”
However, before the Prosecutor’s Office announced this investigation in this way, in March Dontchev was invited, by an intermediary, to an off the record meeting with the Prosecutor General Tsatsarov, during which meeting, Donchev was subject to a number of clearly-distinguishable threats, albeit in the form of “advice” by the Prosecutor General. Donchev himself recounted the story during a business forum – that the Prosecutor General had expressed discontent with the editorial policy of Sega newspaper which according to Tsatsarov supported the opposition party “Da, Bulgaria!”. Tsatsarov also criticised the editorial policy of BIT television, which actually is not owned by Donchev, but according to the Prosecutor General, Donchev has “a say” there. All three cases refer to two media and an opposition party with critical positions vis-à-vis the Prosecutor General, the work of the Prosecutor’s Office as well as the politics of the then ruling party.
The information above is a faithful, but not exhaustive account of what UPB flagged to ENPA.