by Iveta Cherneva
When the news hit that the Romanian hard-baller Laura Kovesi was to become EU’s top prosecutor, anti-corruption activists across Europe applauded loudly.
One could hear the applause also in Bulgaria – a small EU country facing issues with EU funds misappropriation and theft, as well as freedom of the press -- a place where Kovesi’s work is much needed.
Defined institutionally, Kovesi’s office has “the competence to investigate, prosecute and bring to judgment crimes against the EU budget, such as fraud, corruption or serious cross-border VAT fraud”.
In other words, the EU top prosecutor is tasked with the tough job of going after crimes involving EU money.
Bringing to justice crimes related to EU funds is almost impossible without the leads on the ground – work often done by a functioning free media and investigative journalism that uncovers shady deals and contracts.
It is precisely journalists that sometimes lead the way. Often media investigations are the precursor of criminal investigations. The media is a key ally in busting EU fund crimes.
That might prove even truer if we speak of an EU service that will operate from EU headquarters relying on leads and allies on the ground.
That’s why Kovesi’s job in Bulgaria will be especially tough.
Bulgaria ranks as 111th in the world in terms of media freedom, according to Reporters without Borders.
To illustrate the situation, one should look no further than the current scandal involving the nomination of Bulgaria’s own chief prosecutor and the simultaneous firing of a seasoned journalist especially critical of the only candidate for the top prosecutor post in the country. The scandal sparked protests.
As reported by Reuters, the national radio journalist Silvia Velikova was fired for allegedly being critical of the work of the deputy chief prosecutor Ivan Geshev who has been nominated to become Bulgaria’s next chief prosecutor in October this year. The journalist’s sacking caused protests that gathered Bulgarian journalists, while the capital Sofia saw thousands of protesters marching the streets in early September against Geshev’s chief prosecutor nomination.
Phone calls made by four unnamed individuals to the director of the National Radio allegedly asked for the journalist critical of Geshev to be fired, or at least to be silenced until Geshev’s election as chief prosecutor. The journalist was fired as a result. And while she has been in reinstated to her post – after Prime Minister Boyko Borissov spoke in her defense – it is clear that shady dealings are behind journalists’ firings and hirings in Bulgaria.
As the protests and the process surrounding the appointment of Bulgaria’s chief prosecutor are still unfolding, the scandal with the phone calls that caused the journalist’s sacking is gaining speed in the public space. Another protest that will attract several thousand concerned citizens is expected in the capital Sofia on 25 Sept Wednesday at 6pm.
In the meantime, the international organization Reporters without Borders issued a statement that found that there is a pressure on Bulgarian journalists who are critical of the candidate for chief prosecutor, Geshev.
In Bulgaria, journalists who ask uncomfortable questions can be removed in a heartbeat, after as much as a phone call. Sometimes they pay with their lives, as in the case of the murdered in 2018 Viktoria Marinova, or face severe intimidation as in the case of Genka Shikerova whose car was set on fire not once but twice, in 2013 and 2014.
As long as media in Bulgaria are not truly free to do their job, EU funds crimes will go uncovered.
Journalists on the national level in any EU country have a key role to play to support the work of the new EU prosecutor.
That’s why if Laura Kovesi wants to be efficient in prosecuting EU funds crimes in Bulgaria, she would have to take into account the context, which is that Bulgarian journalists are often not allowed to do their job and ask the hard questions.
Iveta Cherneva is an author in the spheres of security, politics, human rights and sustainability. Her career includes work for five UN agencies, the US Congress, University of Oxford, and think tanks and political offices in several of the world's diplomatic capitals (Washington DC, Geneva, New York, Stockholm, Sofia and The Hague). Iveta is the author of Trafficking for Begging (2011) and The UN Security Council, the ICJ and Judicial Review (2013), editor of The Business Case for Sustainable Finance (2012), and co-author of Regulating the Global Security Industry (2009).
An Atlantic Council young leader (2012), Global Shaper with the World Economic Forum (2014) and William H. Donner Human Rights Fellow (2007), Iveta has commented in media such as TIME, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, International Herald Tribune, The Economist, Washington Post, Forbes, Euronews, El Pais, Sydney Morning Herald, Al-Jazeera, Radio France, ELLE and USAToday. Her articles appear in peer-reviewed academic journals such as The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs, Essex Human Rights Review, Buffalo Human Rights Law Review, and the Intercultural Human Rights Law Review. Iveta has testified before the UN Working Group on business and human rights, and has been commended for leadership by NATO Secretary General.