Murder of Viktoria Marinova: Freedom of the press threatened in Europe

, by Marine Delgrange, Translated by Juuso Järviniemi

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Murder of Viktoria Marinova: Freedom of the press threatened in Europe

On Saturday 6 October, the lifeless body of journalist Viktoria Marinova was found by a cyclist in a park in Ruse, the fifth-largest city of Bulgaria located by the Danube river and the Romanian border. Raped and strangled, the young woman, mother of a young girl, seems to have lost her life as a result of violent blows to the head and suffocation.

A murder apparently unrelated to Marinova’s journalism

A suspect, Severin Krasimirov, was arrested and detained in Germany, near Hamburg, after an investigation launched by Bulgarian authorities and the use of the European Arrest Warrant. The Minister of the Interior, Mladen Marinov, stated that there was “enough proof linking this person to the scene of the crime”, particularly mentioning the traces of the man’s DNA found on Marinova’s body. Even if his criminal record so far only included some metal thefts, at the time of the murder he was wanted for a similar crime. However, he has since been extradited.

The ongoing investigation, very closely followed by the Bulgarian government, currently seems to dismiss suspicions related to a possible link between the murder of the journalist and her investigative work. According to her ex-husband Svilen Maksimov, director of the TVN channel for which she worked, “all evidence points to an awful coincidence”.

Nonetheless, the question is still under debate, and speculations are doing rounds, in particular among the press. On 30 September, Viktoria Marinova hosted the first and last episode of Detektor, featuring interviews with Attila Biro, an investigative journalist within the Rise Project in Romania, and Dimitar Stoyanov from the investigative bivol.bg website, both of whom had been detained for several hours to the south from Sofia by the Bulgarian police in connection with their investigative work on the GPGate.

#GPGate: Misuse of EU funds

“GPGate” is the name given to the large-scale misuse of European Union funds by Russian oligarchs connected to the Bulgarian mafia, a scandal that is suspected to involve, among others, the Russian and Bulgarian branches of the Lukoil consulting company. In its investigative report, Bivol accuses the directors of the GP Group of spending money allocated to programmes like the European Regional Development Fund for their personal purposes. According to Bivol, they have bribed multiple actors in the chain, from ministers to statutory auditors and experts, with a sum exceeding 50% of the turnover of the enterprise.

The persons under the spotlight have participated in founding numerous projects and organisations for which funding is requested but not entirely used. Three persons in particular are being investigated: Tatiana Delibasheva, Petar Elen Petrov and Lilyana Zorteva. They are suspected to have received a significant part of the company’s revenue in the recent months. The GP Group company seems to be associated with the Bulgarian Lukoil firm, whose general director Valentin Zlatev is famous for his close links with Prime Minister Boyko Borisov.

On the Detektor programme, Viktoria Marinova didn’t fail to remark the state of press freedom in the country: “The scene of investigative journalism in Bulgaria is full of contradictions. On the one hand, the government and the corporate world pressure strongly the media owners and the media themselves. The number of forbidden topics is growing all the time. Investigative journalists are being systematically removed. On the other hand, in recent years we see many undeniably successful investigations. Most of these are published on the bivol.bg website. Our team is committed to providing a platform for journalistic research and will continue to do so. And we will be running our own investigations exclusively on topics relevant to the public interest. This is the meaning of Detektor. The TV program that detects lies. And that gives priority to the truth.”

Assen Yordanov, founder of the bivol.bg site, refuses to exclude any version in the murder case, including “intimidation by example”, a method typical of the Russian mafia. According to the independent site, one thing is certain: “Viktoria Marinova and TVN did the only on air reporting on #GPGate. All the others were scared by the high political profile of the persons and companies involved, including Boyko Borisov and Lukoil.”

An alarming situation for press freedom in Bulgaria

What’s more, the Bivol team has already received threats. On 20 September, Reporters Without Borders condemned the arrest and detention of two investigative journalists as they arrived at a location where compromising documents, ripped up and still smoking, were found, pointing towards the inaction or even obstruction of the Bulgarian judiciary in the resolution of endemic corruption.

All this commotion poses a problem to the Bulgarian government, for whom the expressed insinuations are disastrous. On Wednesday 10 October, the Prime Minister said: “I read monstrous things about Bulgaria in the past three days and nothing was true. We, as a country, did not deserve to be smeared like this”, criticising political opponents who, given the drama, seek to draw the attention of the EU and the United States. Prime Minister Borisov pointed out that this was an “isolated case”. After this, at the conference of ambassadors in Sofia he did not forget to clarify that “you have the freedom to write, to talk and to broadcast on every subject”.

In the world press freedom ranking by Reporters Without Borders, Bulgaria only finds itself on the 111th place out of 180, which gives it the worst score in the European Union. In the 2017 Corruption Perceptions Index of Transparency International, Bulgaria was on the 71st spot, behind Cuba and Rwanda, for example.

This position, therefore, doesn’t discourage suspicions about the way in which the criminal investigation is conducted. Some journalists criticise the fact that the authorities dismiss even the possibility of a commissioned assassination, while Atanas Chobanov, a journalist for Bivol, remarked that the investigators have not even looked into surveillance camera footage to see if Viktoria Marinova had been followed. Nevertheless, the prosecutors working on the case have launched an investigation on the GP Group, targeted by Bivol’s research and accused of misusing funds, and 14 million euros of the company’s assets have been frozen for the duration of the investigation.

An equally concerning situation elsewhere in Europe

The death of Viktoria Marinova is no less than the third disappearance of a journalist within the EU in the space of one year. A year ago, the Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, an anti-corruption activist, was the victim of an attack on her car, having already received death threats. Last February, in Slovakia, the journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée were found shot dead in their home. The investigation revealed a link between the death of the journalist and his work: Jan Kuciak investigated corruption and the mafia in the country, and published his findings on the aktuality.sk website.

In the EU as a whole, the trend is downwards. The NGO Reporters Without Borders (RWB) recently published the 2018 Press Freedom Index, along with a column called “Journalists are murdered in Europe as well”. In the text, the organisation describes and denounces the hostile environment towards the press on the continent, especially in countries of Eastern Europe, and alerts about its progressive diffusion to the rest of Europe, conveyed by populist movements.

In the first place, politicians, often far-right leaders, are the ones ceaselessly accusing the press of trying to discredit them, particularly in international public opinion, following the example of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. In the Czech Republic, President Miloš Zeman of the Social Democratic party once brandished a Kalashnikov inscribed with the word “journalists”, after calling them “manure” and “hyenas”. The country has dropped from the 11th to the 34th place in terms of press freedom within a year. In the same vein, since Serbia’s Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić was elected as the President, the country has descended to the 76th spot, not least because of the use of pro-government media like Pink TV for making accusations against other journalists and defaming them. And the examples are numerous: in Croatia and in Albania, it’s the same alarming observation.

And the situation isn’t going to fix itself: at the time of the Catalonian referendum, RWB warned about the growing harassment of journalists. France is not an exception either: for example, in his presidential campaign in 2017, Jean-Luc Mélenchon said that “hatred for the media and those who run them is just and healthy”.

In addition to politicians, journalists are vulnerable to the hostility of criminal organisations. Threats are very much present in Bulgaria, but also in Italy where some journalists investigating the mafia must be accompanied by police officers in their investigations in order to guarantee their security.

Recognition of the problem at the EU level?

Numerous European-level politicians have spoken on the topic. For example, Věra Jourová, the European Commissioner for Justice, said she was “shocked by the brutal murder of Victoria Marinova”, and announced that she “will follow closely the investigation and offer help by EU agencies, if needed”. She expects “urgent actions to bring those responsible to justice and to clarify if the attack was linked to her work”. Frans Timmermans, Vice-President of the European Commission, notably tasked with questions related to rule of law, said that “again a courageous journalist falls in the fight for truth and against corruption”. In response to this, Bivol retorted that there had been no EU reaction after the GPGate report was published, even though it addresses an important point that reveals dysfunctions within the EU, particularly in Eastern Europe.

According to AFP, the European Commission intends to mobilise OLAF (the European Anti-Fraud Office). The murder of Viktoria Marinova has at least drawn the attention of European-level leaders to crucial questions, as we keep hoping that a real investigation is conducted and that effective measures are taken to fight corruption in the EU – for example the release of EU-level funds to help achieve standards in terms of freedom and transparency in the countries that are not at the required level.

Your comments

  • On 19 October at 08:47, by some1 Replying to: Murder of Viktoria Marinova: Freedom of the press threatened in Europe

    Great. Thanks for covering this story. Viktoria WAS killed because of her investigative work, don’t trust the “authorities”. Our PM was the lap dog of Todor Zhivkov - the leader of the communist party and regime until 1989. What can you expect of him? More corruption and populism. They all go together hand in hand with the mafia.

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