Two journalists from the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) – Dimitar Stoyanov from Bulgaria’s Bivol and Attila Biro from Rise Romania – the Romanian partner of Bivol, were detained last night (Thursday) near the town of Radomir in western Bulgaria while trying to prevent destruction of evidence of abuses of European Union (EU) funds.

Timeline of Events

About 6:30 pm on September 13, Stoyanov and Biro were tipped off about documents and equipment being taken out for the second day in a row from the headquarters of the “GP Group” located on “Cherni Vrah” Boulevard in the Bulgarian capital Sofia.

Two days prior to the tipoff, Bivol published evidence of large-scale and wide-spread corruption in projects financed by the EU. It involves secret accounting books of a network of consultancy firms linked to large construction companies. Bivol has obtained non-public documentation for dozens of projects totaling BGN hundreds of millions. These include accounting files with explicitly earmarked bribes.

Dimitar Stoyanov

Several completed projects related to the company “GP Group” reveal how the theft from the projects is being carried out. There are parallel bills of quantities, less work is done than planned, fewer materials are used, but everything is invoiced to the paying body as per job order and the companies receive the full amount.

A day after the publication of the article, “GP Group” began an organized move out of documentation and equipment, something that was verified by Bivol on the spot. The effort continued the next day. Bivol associates managed to follow the vans loaded with documents. They went into the direction of Radomir where the documents were set on fire.

Bivol’s editorial office asked Dimitar Stoyanov and Attila Biro take pictures of the destruction of the documentation that proved to be related to European projects. Bivol’s editors also notified the Ministry of the Interior because at a preliminary meeting earlier in the day the Ministry announced that after the publication, they had started looking into the case.

When Stoyanov and Biro reached the crime scene – the site where documents had been burning, they found many large thrash bags with shredded paper sheets and burning folders with documents from European projects. Some of them had signatures and seals.

Attile Biro – Director of Rise Romania

At that moment the journalists were detained by two policemen in a patrol car belonging to the police directorate in the western city of Pernik. The officers with armored vests and handguns ordered them to lie down on the ground. Then the two journalists were handcuffed and their phones confiscated. Thirty seconds later, Stoyanov and Biro presented their press cards and ID documents. The journalists explained that they were near the fire to save likely evidence of corruption.

None of this helped. In about an hour, the handcuffs were removed, but none of them was able to place or receive the phone calls guaranteed by Bulgarian law in case of a detention.

Two hours after the detention, other police officers appeared at the site and while pocking around the remains of the fire, they managed to accidently enflame it once again. Twenty to 30 minutes later, the firetruck arrived and started extinguishing the burning documents. At that time Dimitar Stoyanov and Attila Biro were still under arrest.

Arrest warrant for 24 hours for Attila Biro

Concerned about the lack of information and because they were unable to reach their colleagues, Bivol’s editors phoned the police precinct in Radomir. From there they were directed to the Pernik Regional Police Department, where they received a refusal to be provided with information and someone hung up the phone. After numerous phone calls in an attempt to clarify the situation, around 1:00 am, the press office of the Interior Ministry announced that the journalists had not been detained but had been taken to Radomir for questioning. There was no answer to a question as to why there could not be reached by phone.

Following an alert by Bivol and Rise Romania, the Romanian Consul arrived from Sofia to the police precinct in Radomir. Around 1:40 am – 2:10 am, the detained journalists were taken away by police patrol officers to the same precinct to provide explanations on the case and receive their arrest warrants that are a fact refuting the Ministry of Interior press office. It turned out that the journalists had been detained because they had been in the area of a crime scene of whose existence the police had been informed by their own editors.

After questioning both of them, the police launched an investigation that is likely to turn into pre-trial proceedings. Several thrash bags with burned and intact documents were brought to the Radomir police precinct, while an inspection group was dispatched to the scene.

On Friday morning, the Head of the Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime (GDBOP), Ivaylo Spiridonov, spoke with Bivol’s editor-in-chief Atanas Tchobanov. He apologized for the detention and explained the situation with poor communication with the local police.

Nevertheless, we believe that our colleagues’ rights have been seriously violated. Nothing in the whole story explains why two journalists had been detained for nearly five hours. Nothing explains why they had not been allowed to make phone calls upon presenting valid IDs.

Nothing explains why the police failed to immediately spring into action to save the burning documents, instead of keeping busy by arresting investigating reporters.

Bivol’s editors also express resentment at the fact that local and national police authorities did not provide the necessary assistance and accurate and timely information about what was happening to our colleagues.

Headline photo: Part of the saved documents

The #GPGate investigation is part of the project “Exposing fraud in EU-funded projects in Romania and Bulgaria” of Bivol and Rise Romania, financed by the European Commission’s IJ4EU Fund and European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF).

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This post is also available in: Bulgarian