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Cartoon: Aurélien Cantou

Journalists from Bivol Asen Yordanov and Atanas Tchobanov were invited by the Council of Europe to present their Balkanleaks platform at the World Forum for Democracy, which was held in the Council’s headquarters in Strasbourg from November 23 to 29. Balkanleaks and the Canadian initiative OpenNet, which tracks Internet censorship, were the leading presentations in the panel entitled “In Search of Transparency” (LAB 5), part of Theme 1: “Alternative to Representative Democracy.”

The video from this panel was the only one that was not posted on the forum’s site. The information we received from a senior official from the Council of Europe is that censorship has been exerted on the order of the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Thorbjorn Jagland. The reason – Balkanleaks’ presentation mentioned the names of Boyko Borisov AKA Buddha, of Sergey Stanishev and of Monica Yosifova.

UPDATED 03/12/13: 96 hours later the video was published severely CENSORED. Here is how:

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Click here to see the CoEnsored LAB 5 video

Besides the journalists from Bivol and Adam Senft from OpenNet, participants in this session’s debates included: Jung-Won KIM, Senior Research Judge, Constitutional Court of South Korea, John SHIPTON, Australia, Chief Executive Officer of the Wikileaks Party, Chantal CUTAJAR, France, President, Citizens’ Observatory for International Finance Transparency, Rachel OLDROYD, United Kingdom, Deputy Editor of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. The discussion was moderated by Julia LAFFRANQUE, Estonia, Judge at the European Court of Human Rights, while Ellen BERENDS, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, Permanent Representative of the Netherlands to the Council of Europe, was rapporteur to the plenary session.

Each of the discussions was reported to the plenary session and the forum’s participants had the opportunity to vote online and in plenary hall with YES or NO to the question whether the initiative greatly increases the influence of citizens in the process of political decision-making and if it makes democratic institutions more transparent and accountable. The Balkanleaks initiative received 74 % positive and 26% negative votes in the online voting. In plenary hall, 83% voted YES, 17% NO. The comparison shows that this is one of the highest ratings of all 20 conferences at the World Forum.

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Screenshot of the plenary hall vote on Balkanleaks. Complete video recording of the vote in plenary hall can be seen here

The presentation was listened to with great interest and was welcomed with applause. The speakers were greeted personally and expressly by those leading the panel and by all other experts present in the hall.

Subsequently, it turned out that a large Bulgarian group, composed mostly of administrators and magistrates, has arrived specifically for this session. After it, several people besieged Asen Yordanov in the hallway and loudly attacked the journalist, saying that it was undignified to speak critically about Bulgaria at such a forum. These attackers refused to accept the presented data for the total collapse of freedom of speech in the country in the last six years, the dependence of Bulgarian media and, for the most part of them, their murky ownership; the growing trend of having a police State and of spying on those who oppose the government, etc.

A few minutes later, Atanas Tchobanov was notified by an employee of the Council of Europe, Irena Gidikova that the presentation has created a political problem and has not been appreciated by the organizers. These events gave quick indication of the effect of Balkanleaks’ presentation among Bulgarians present in Strasbourg. One can only assume how fast the information leaked to Sofia and how it has been diligently reported that facts, unpleasant for the country’s political-gangster clique, have been revealed by journalists before the global community.

Lies about Technical Glitches

Videos from all other discussion panels were uploaded on the forum’s page as early as Thursday afternoon. Except LAB 5, which was mysteriously absent. Friday morning we inquired with the Head of Directorate Communication of the Council of Europe, Daniel Holtgen. At 10:23 am, we received a reply by an associate of the Directorate, Estelle Steiner, explaining that there was a “technical problem.” Around noon, Director Daniel Holtgen confirmed by telephone that there was a technical problem exactly with LAB 5 and that a formal response about the lack of the video was in the process of being prepared.

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The Lie

The exposure of the true “political problem” came with the price tag of more than 24 hours of maintaining a blatant lie before all participants about what and why prevented the broadcast of the session! A precedent that is extremely humiliating for participants, and is definitely unacceptable and embarrassing for the high criteria of a global institution, such as the Council of Europe, which claims to defend freedom of expression, transparency and democratic principles. This is hardly achievable trough fraud and lies! The explanation for these lies, given by both Claudia Luciani (listen to the recording) and Irina Gidikova, in the presence of John Shipman and Willers Rabea from the Directorate of Democratic Governance, was more than absurd. Namely, they said that they had been confused and told a lie amidst the stress because they wondered what exact explanation they could offer for the unprecedented censoring of the video!!! We think that such behavior does not suit senior officials of the EU Council. Unfortunately, the shameful scene did not remain hidden from the audience and the journalists at the forum.

Trying to clarify what exact “technical problem” prevented the uploading of the video recording, we approached the “Multimedia” office. They explained how both camcorders, for unknown reasons, produced corrupted files at the same time, and technicians were trying to retrieve them. When we asked where to turn for more information, we were referred back to Irena Gidikova, responsible organizer of the forum from the Directorate General of Democracy, Democratic Initiatives Department.

Our hints that we intended to give a quick press conference, yielded quick results. Shortly before 3:00 pm, Atanas Tchobanov and John Shipton talked with Mrs. Claudia Luciani, Director of the Directorate Democratic Governance. She openly admitted that in fact no “technical problem” was the reason for censoring the entire LAB. Luciani said bluntly that the Secretary General of the Council of Europe has decided the video should not be uploaded, because what has been said in this panel was against the rules of the Council and was creating legal problems as names of certain personalities have been mentioned. This is how, in “the most democratic way,” not because of technology glitches, the problem was prevented from spreading online.

Claudia Luciani: We are the guardian of, you know, right to privacy and human rights. So the secretary general thinks that he’s not in the position to release…

Atanas Tchobanov: The video?

C.L.: The video about…

A.T. So that’s not a technical problem?

C.L.: Yes, but you understand that we… (not audible) We cannot possibly… (not audible) To give you an answer, so, you have asked us, we have to take not too long, we have asked the Secretary general and this is what he… (not audible)

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The Twitter account of WFDemocracy claiming there is a technical problem with the video

Compromise with Censorship

After discussions and tough negotiations between the organizers and Bivol, the following compromise was reached: the video to be moderated in order to conceal the names of the affected persons (Borisov, Stanishev and Monica Yosiffova) both in the picture and in the sound; then the file to be uploaded on the official website of the forum. However, this could happen no earlier than Tuesday, said the representative of the “Multimedia” department. Visibly nervous, he kept insisting that there was a technical problem, but only with one of the files, not the two recordings, as he said initially.

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Cartoonist Aurélien Cantou caught the key moment when Claudia Luciani admitted before Atanas Tchobanov and John Shipton the lie about the technical problem and the censorship imposed by the Chief Secretary of the Council of Europe. Negociations to publish the video blurred followed.

Meanwhile, we insisted on an explanation why the video from LAB 5 is missing to be posted on the website and for the “moderated” video (the staff of the Council of Europe do not like the word “censorship”) to also include an explanation why parts of it are blurred (the same way, faces of people in crime news are blurred) and why sound is missing or replaced with beeps (the method of the Council for Electronic Media, CEM, to conceal obscene language). 48 hours later, the site still does not display a message explaining why the video from LAB 5 is missing. We also have no written confirmation that the promise will materialize.

Temple of Democracy Anyone?

We admit that we did not expect to be bestowed with such honor. To be blatantly censored in the very “Temple of Democracy” as the Council of Europe likes to be named. To be censored at a Forum for Democracy, in a panel dedicated to transparency and the fight against censorship!

The same Ms. Gidikova sent beforehand by email a “fulcrum,” which hinted at what was supposed to be said and what not. The request was not to focus on particular individuals and cases. Such strange message should have been enough to put us on guard, but who knew that in the “Temple of Democracy” free speech is rated so precisely?

Our presentation is available online and everyone can see it and become convinced that it affects global issues of access to information, security and protection against tracking of people, who dare to reveal important facts to the public. For us, Bivol journalists, Balkanleaks is primarily a technical tool for transparency under the increasingly deteriorating media freedom. We gave examples of both the collapse of freedom of speech (the ranking of “Reporters Without Borders”) and relations with murky institutions that conceal as “State secret” documents of great public importance. Receiving such unclassified documents under the Access to Public Information Act can take months, and years spent in court battles. And this is possible, both in Bulgaria, which is a bad example of transparency, and in the European institutions, which, at least theoretically, should be flawless.

To illustrate our statements, we showed the report of the Customs inspection in the factory of Misho the Beer (read here). It took us two years to obtain this document, in which it is clearly written that someone has impeded the completion of this inspection. This person has a name, but it was illegally deleted, even in the report obtained by us at the cost of a Court judgment against the State institution! Otherwise, the facts are clear: Boyko Borisov, a former Prime Minister, called Customs Chief, Vanyo Tanov and ordered him: ” Come on, take them out of there … because I’m not Parvanov … I made a commitment that I will not touch him.”

Another example is our attempt to obtain from the European Parliament financial documents for a grant in the amount of 60 000 euros, received by the wife of PES President, Monica Yosifova (read here). Our motive was the total silence on the part of Stanishev’s family regarding the question: Is there conflict of interest or not in similar joint activities with the EP with EU funds? The question also hit a wall at the EP and we are preparing a complaint to the European Ombudsman and the European Court of Justice.

We emphasized that these documents are not secret, should be transparent to the public, and are exactly of the type, which we expect to receive trough the platform Balkanleaks. Their timely (and not delayed by years) submission, by reliable witnesses asking for anonymity, would certainly be of overriding public and democratic interest.

None of our colleagues, who took the floor during the panel, found our presentation outrageous. But someone apparently decided that it was not good enough. Thorbjorn Jagland, the Chief Secretary, has hardly acted on his own in deciding to defame with such anti-democratic actions the institution he is leading – at least not without external pressure, in our opinion. The question again is WHO? Such precedent renders senseless the very existence of a sham Council of Europe, which spends millions of European taxpayers’ money, allegedly to promote democracy in the world.

Ambassador Ellen Berends reported to the plenary session the Balkanleaks achievments, mentioning the leaks exposed abuses of the Bulgarian Prime Minister. Claudia Luciani is sitting behind at the right side.

Final Word

It is sad to be free and “marginal” Bulgarian journalist who has put his “head in the bag” to shake post-communist corruption and the political – mafia gang in Bulgaria of all colors and parties. It is a pity to see the plague of our homeland’s deadly disease sweeping across European institutions. And underestimating these symptoms makes the situation tragic.

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