Alexander Kashamov, September 27, 2014
Monica Stanisheva has filed a lawsuit against Bivol. This is emerged from a claim filed with the Sofia City Court with which she asks the site to pay her 56,000 levs in non-pecuniary damages, stemming from two of their publications. This is approximately the same amount of money that her firm had to return to the European Parliament (EP) for a grant because there were suspicions of conflict of interest which Bivol investigated and exposed.
The prominent PR is complaining about two articles. One is from the fall of 2013 and is entitled “Monica Yosifova Absorbed 60,000 Euro from the EP with Free Buggy Software and a Vision for 60 US Dollars”. The other one is from the end of 2013 and is entitled “The European Parliament Launches Internet Trolls with “Talking Points” in Support of European Elections“. It is worth noting that it is not claimed that the publications contain false facts. The dissatisfaction seems to stem from their interpretation.
The lady is known as the wife of the former leader of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and chairman of the Party of European Socialists (PES), Sergei Stanishev, as well as the owner and manager of a PR agency that deals with well-paid media campaigns and activities in the interest of BSP. In 2013, media also associated her name with the so-called “talking points” – BSP policy documents relating to the party’s communication strategy. Before her marriage with Stanishev, Monica was married to the “transition period” banker Ventsislav Yosifov, who managed the bankrupt First Private Bank – one of the symbols for Bulgarian citizens of the painful instability of the banking system in the 90’s and of suspicions of laundering “red money”. The businessman was the BSP candidate for Mayor of Sofia in the 1995 elections, which he lost at runoff. Eight years ago, the name of Yosifova-Stanisheva was implicated in the closure of Radio “New Europe”, the successor of the long-lasting loudspeaker of free speech during the times of Communist regimes “Free Europe”. During the term in office of the Three-Party Coalition (2005-2009), her PR agency was subcontractor in contracts of lobbyist Hochegger, who is on trial in Austria, with the Bulgarian government for “cleaning the image of Bulgaria”. This “lobbying deal” became subsequently subject to probes by the Parliament and the police. This is part of the publicly available information on Monica Stanisheva that portrays her as an ambitious woman and a symbolic public figure of the post-communist transition
The facts about the publications are as follows. On October 31, 2013, Bivol revealed that Monica Stanisheva’s company – “Active Group” Ltd. – was participating in a project of the Directorate General Communication of the European Parliament in the amount of about 120,000 euro, half of which were the company’s own contribution. The seemingly modest set of activities and the transfer of her business from national to European level are the impressing facts in the case. In 2013, the Directorate General categorically denied the suspected conflict of interest, the latter based on the fact that the owner of the company was the wife of the leader of the Party of European Socialists. Access to documents, related to the project, requested by Bivol under Regulation (EO) № 1049/2001 of the European Parliament, the European Council and the European Commission, regarding public access to documents of the European Parliament, the European Council and the European Commission, was also denied on grounds of “company secret”. In 2014, however, it became clear that MEPs were not of the same opinion. German MEP Michael Gahler asked the President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz whether “a criminal act” could have been committed as Monica Stanisheva has declared in writing that she was not in conflict of interest, while another German MEP – Ingeborg Grassle – requested an investigation. The story was also reported by respected European media. In an official statement, sent to media in 2014, “Active Group” stated that they were abandoning the project and the funds would be returned.
Bulgarian Recipes against Freedom of Speech
There is the issue whether the real reason for the legal case might be prompted by the desire to wean during the years of litigation awkward questions to the elected MEP and current President of PES, Sergey Stanishev. Filing of defamation cases by politicians, civil servants and business activists to censor critical publications has long been utilized as a tool in the Bulgarian context. By the end of the 90s of the last century, charges were brought by the prosecution and the punishment was imprisonment. In 2000, the Penal Code was changed, and now insult and libel cases can only be prosecuted upon complaint of the victim, and the penalty is a fine. However, civil cases for libel and insult remain a favorite scourge for freedom of speech.
In them, the plaintiff is not required to prove guilt of the journalist and the media, as they are presumed. Practice shows that civil courts often award higher damages than criminal ones. Meanwhile, the training of magistrates under the European Convention on Human Rights is generally and primarily focused on criminal judges due to the nature of the legal matter. Regardless of the legislative changes in 2000, the ferocity of politicians and statesmen to sue media is not subsiding. During the period 2000 – 2002, annually, there were about 115-130 pending cases for libel and insult brought against journalists, according to a study of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee.
At European level, there is a high standard of protection of freedom of speech when discussing social issues and when criticizing public figures. Created by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in the 80s of the last century, this standard was adopted by the Bulgarian Constitutional Court in 1996 in its judgment 7 in Case 1 from the same year:
Freedom of speech constitutes one of the fundamental principles that underpin any democratic society, and is one of the basic conditions for its progress and for the development of each person. It applies not only to “information” or “ideas” that have favorable reception or are not considered to be offensive or are received with indifference, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the State or any other part of the population. These are the requirements of pluralism and tolerance, without which a “democratic society” could not be called such.
Our entire society would undergo substantial progress if the people who influence public opinion and processes adhere to this standard of civilized European communication. For any public figure, ECHR held that “the limits of acceptable criticism are … wider as regards a politician as such than as regards a private individual. Unlike the latter, the former inevitably and knowingly lays himself open to close scrutiny of his every word and deed by both journalists and the public at large, and he must consequently display a greater degree of tolerance” (case Lingens vs Austria from July 8, 1986). Thus, those who have undertaken an activity that affects the entire society should keep in mind that they owe transparency and accountability for their actions, as well as tolerance to criticism and questions posed by the public.
The Standard Bivol
A curious fact here is that before the publication on October 31, 2013, Bivol reached by phone Monica Stanisheva. In a frank conversation, she promised to provide all the information regarding the EP grant. For this purpose, the understanding was that the editor was to receive an email address to be used to send written questions to her and she was to return her opinion and information. This address remains unsent until today, despite subsequent invitations from the media to Mrs. Stanisheva to keep her promise. On the phone, she did not spare her praise and admiration for the professionalism, the activities and the investigations of Bivol. In practice, however, she did something quite different, as revealed by the court subpoena.
Media as Institutions
In recent years, some Bulgarian media managed to conduct effective investigations that go beyond the traditional activities of law enforcement – prosecution and police. In Bulgarian public life, overrun by irregularities, inactivity of official institutions and heavy corruption, freedom of speech remains one of the strongest anchors of free thinking, civilian control and prevention of tyranny and oligarchy. As it has been for thousands of years until today, the truth is inconvenient and is haunted by people who do not want to live in a society made up of honest citizens with equal rights as in such society one must fit in with others and obey rules. It is not to be ruled out that the filing a defamation suit against a media from a public figure is not just an individual act, but a long-term investment in censorship, useful for keeping matters in the shade in which personal, corporate and party interests can conveniently slip out of public control and knowledge.
*The title and the sections’ titles were written by Bivol’s editorial staff.
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