On June 28, 2018, the Paris District Court (Tribunal de Grande Instance de Paris) issued a ruling with which it acquitted journalists and producers of French TV M6 and Bivol’s editor-in-chief Atanas Tchobanov on the private charge of libel and defamation by the former Bulgarian Minister of Investment Planning, Ivan Danov. The court dismissed all of Danov’s claims and confirmed that there is evidence of Danov having unduly received EUR 15,000 in unemployment benefits.

The prosecution also pleaded against Danov’s claims. It demanded as a first measure releasing Atanas Tchobanov of liability. In the M6 report, Tchobanov says he has sought a comment on the case from the French Employment Agency (Pôle Emploi) and has submitted written questions to it in person. According to the prosecutor, this assertion is not at all defamatory. The court reached the same conclusion.

French court: Atanas Tchobanov’s statement is not defamation

Is Danov a cheat?

Regarding French journalists’ claims that Ivan Danov had received money from the Employment Agency through fraud, the prosecution also pleaded for release of liability because the investigation had been conducted in good faith, the issue was of great public interest, and also it attests that Danov has received this money in violation of the law. This was also the plea of the lawyers of journalist Remy Vincent and the producers of M6 TV.

The Court accepted that linking Ivan Danov’s name to fraud was justified and released the journalists of liability.

From the documents and evidence, it appears that from 2004 to 2005 Ivan Danov has received undue benefits within the meaning of the French unemployment insurance regulation in France, amounting to many thousands of euros.”

The Court’s motives were the jurisprudence of the French Supreme Court of Cassation, according to which the failure to comply with the declaration from the initial application for unemployment benefits, namely, the commitment to notify the Employment Agency of any change in the situation, constitutes fraud within the meaning of the Labor Code. There is also fraud when there is no notification about the beneficiary returning to his home country, the Court ruled.

That is exactly what Danov has done after he has started receiving the benefits. He, himself, made public statements that he had not known that the French services continued to pay him the benefits after he returned to Bulgaria.

Following the decision of the Paris District Court, Ivan Danov can appeal within ten days. Whatever happens, however, he will not be liable nor even return the unlawfully received benefits, as all limitation periods have expired in both France and Bulgaria where he was investigated for declaring untrue data.

Political Cover-up

From what was said in the courtroom, it became clear that French television has requested an opinion about Danov’s case from Rejane Biolet, Head of the Unit for “Preventing and Combating Abuse and Sensitive Cases” of the French Employment Agency, but she has refused to speak for fear of political pressure.

The footage from the TV program that was presented in the courtroom showed her demanding to stop the camera after receiving the question about Danov, pointing her finger up. The Court became interested whether Biolet had shared anything about the issue off the record. Journalist Remy Vincent said that when the camera was not rolling, Biolet told him how she had tried several times to launch a probe into evidence of Danov abusing the welfare system but had been deterred by her bosses.

Excerpt from the judgment of the Paris District Court in the defamation case of Ivan Danov

The political context at that moment was favorable to Danov. In France, then, the Socialists were in power, and Bulgaria had a government with the mandate of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), whose boss Sergei Stanishev is also the leader of the Party of European Socialists (PES). In fact, it was the government of controversial lawmaker, businessman and media mogul Delyan Peevski, who even had a brief stint as head of the National Security Agency (DANS). Against the backdrop of relentless street protests and series of scandals, a possible administrative prosecution against Danov in France could have shaken the power in Bulgaria and accelerated the fall of the cabinet of Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski.

The cover-up for Danov emerged at that time in Bulgaria as well. The Bulgarian Prosecutor’s Office managed to crush a probe against him for document fraud. This happened after a prolonged passing of the ball and the change of the supervising prosecutor with the “right” one – prosecutor Betsova. She twice returned the case to the Ministry of Interior for further investigation until the statute of limitations expired.

Betsova also became known for terminating the investigation into the illegal enrichment of Delyan Peevski on the signal of the so-called “Protest Network”. She managed to attract the interest of the-then French Ambassador to Bulgaria who asked in a tweed “What kind of apple is Betsova?” in a reference to his earlier claims of the presence of “bad apples” in the Bulgarian judiciary.

After the Prosecutor’s Office whitewashed Danov’s past, he tried to prosecute Atanas Tchobanov for defamation. The District Prosecutor’s Office in Sofia launched pre-trial proceedings against Tchobanov, but they were terminated by the Appellate Prosecutor’s Office on the grounds that there was evidence that Ivan Danov had committed a crime – document fraud, by declaring untrue circumstances to the French authorities in order to benefit.

Why is Danov suing in Paris in a “doomed case”?

After Danov filed suit in 2016, Peevski’s media renewed their defamatory campaign against Bivol and more specifically against the editor-in-chief of Atanas Tchobanov, who lives in Paris. They reported that the French Prosecutor’s Office had “been after” Tchobanov and had handed him over to the Criminal Court for defamation, something that was downright disproven by the Paris District Court. In fact, it is clear from the prosecution’s pleadings that it does not agree with the plaintiff and calls for Tchobanov being released of liability.

The prosecution pleads that Tchobanov has not defamed Danov

The smear campaign by Peevski’s media against Bivol and its journalists has been going on for years. It was activated after a series of investigations into Bulgartabac‘s hidden ownership and the complicity of First Investment Bank (Fibank), the bank financing Peevski, in criminal schemes with theft of EU funds.

Peevski’s mercenaries, acting as journalists, even harassed Tchobanov and his family in Paris. The smear campaign was condemned in publications of Reporters Without Borders, OCCRP, the International Committee to Protect Journalists CPJ and the organization Index of censorship.

In fact, with his legal claim, Ivan Danov is acting as Peevski’s scapegoat in his dirty media campaign against Bivol as demonstrated by the French court’s judgement.

In France and in Bulgaria similar cases are a daily routine for journalists and the media. At the moment, Bivol is involved in several cases against claims by protagonists in out investigations. Ultimately, the court assesses the plaintiff’s claims by taking into account the veracity of the allegations, the good faith of the reporters and the public interest in the facts disclosed in the publications.

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