Unmasking the Truth through Critical Investigative Journalism in Bulgaria

One of Marin's first days at bTV.

 

The following information and answers were submitted by Marin Nikolov, is a journalist in Bulgaria. He is currently is a reporter at bTV and was a former Investigative Reporter at NOVA. He is an incoming Central and Eastern European Journalism Program (CEEJ) Fellow. The CEEJ program was postponed and the fellows will be arriving in the U.S. to begin their fellowship in the spring. Until then they will be participating in a webinar series and will be highlighted through a CEEJ blog post series. Q&A Series with CEEJ Fellows Pt 4: Marin Nikolov.

1. What is your topic or content of interests and why?

I am a TV journalist and I make reports and journalistic investigations on topics from different walks of life focusing on social issuesviolations of laws, criminal cases, and harmful practices in politics, economics, the judiciary, ecologyheritage conservation and more. I work mainly with facts that are important for Bulgarian society.

2. What brought you to the area of journalism, what made you want to become a journalist, is there someone that inspired you?

When I was a child I liked literature and history and wanted to become a writer. While studying cultural studies at Sofia University, I developed a desire to observe the processes in society and so I decided to become a journalist. It combines the work of a writer, historian and chronicler of modern history. Using images and videos as a means of expression in journalism has increased my job satisfaction.

3. Why does journalism matter?

Journalism for me is like a lamp – it shines where it is dark. It’s my way to show the problems and my main goal is to see them solved. 

4. What is your primary challenge as a journalist in your country?

I’d like to do a journalistic investigation on cross-border issues of global importance.

5. What is your current understanding of freedom of the press or what does it look like in your country?

Freedom of the press for me means that I have no restrictions on the nature of the events, facts and topics that I choose as objects of my work, regardless of which people affect. That means that the bosses at my media outlet do not stop my suggestions for reports and investigations. I was lucky to have this freedom for years, but in 2018 a gradual change of ownership began in the television, where I worked, and that freedom began to slowly disappear. Luckily at the end of 2019, I switched to working at bTV – my current workplace. Here I am able to freely work on cases that I find important and interesting.

6. What is the one thing you are most looking forward to during your program in the US?

To learn more about working in the media of the USA and to immerse myself in it as much as I can.

7. What are some of the things that have colored your impression of the U.S.?

During my visits to California, Nevada, and Arizona last year I saw the positive mood, freedom from prejudice, and belief in the success of the Americans I met. These things inspired me emotionally and I wanted to know more about America

8. What are you hoping to accomplish with this fellowship?

I would be happy to establish valuable working contacts and expand the field of my work as a journalist with new ideas, facts and topics.

Here are links and summaries from his recent investigative articles and reports:

How to lose 4 million?

The journalistic investigation reveals a series of actions of the local authorities in Sofia, which have brought a loss of over BGN 4 million to the citizens: (1 dollar equals approximately BGN 1.8). Sofia Municipality sold a big regulated land property with several buildings in Sofia for BGN 2 million and then bought it back for BGN 6 million. The difference of BGN 4 million went to the private company “Knyazhevo Service”, associated with one of the largest companies that clean Sofia’s garbage – Titan. The property was sold after a report by Sofia municipal councilors, in which they claimed it is not necessary for the municipality. Two years later, the same Sofia municipal council voted unanimously that the same property is important and significant. The municipality bought the property at a triple price with the citizens’ money from local taxes. That happens thanks to licensed appraisers who determine the value of the sale and purchase of the land. The appraiser at the second deal explained on camera that she had given a value of over BGN 6 million because a new building had been built on the property. However, satellite images show that from 2014 until today, there are no new buildings on it. According to public financial documents in the commercial registry of Bulgaria the private company, “Knyazhevo Service” there are no reported expenses, which would indicate serious construction or repairs on the property. Their documents show only the profit of BGN 4 million. After the publication of this story, many Bulgarians ask themselves а question: Are there any municipal councilors, expert appraisers, or other municipal employees who have accepted bribes to vote and help carry out these unprofitable deals. These questions must be answered by the prosecutor’s office, which has launched an investigation into the case.

Court, Lies and Videotape

This is a story about false witnesses and false testimony in Bulgarian justice and court. The investigation mentions a false witness who, through his testimony, helped the accused – a prominent businessman, Hristo Kovachki to obtain an acquittal. Hristo Kovachki was accused of tax offenses with damages to the state of over BGN 16 million. Years after the case against the businessman ended, this witness spoke in front of our camera and admitted that the businessman had promised him money and had not paid him part of it. It is quite a rare case for someone to admit that he or she testified for money, but the person is from the Roma minorities in Bulgaria, who are distinguished by their directness in conversations and interviews. His story was verified and proven through dozens of documents on the case, interviews and confessions filmed with a hidden camera. Following the publication of the story, the prosecutor’s office started a new investigation. 

Freedom for the driver with drugs in Samakov

Sofia Court of Appeal released a drugged driver, who has hit a woman with his car twice in a parking area, on bail of BGN 5,000. The man is out of custody three months after he was arrested for the incident. The injured woman is alive, but in critical condition at the hospital. This short news report reflects the development of the case, the position of the relatives of the injured woman and that of the driver’s lawyer. In April in Sofia, another similar accident with a drugged driver caused the death of a famous Bulgarian journalist and presenter Milen Tsvetkov. Since then, citizens in Bulgaria have been very sensitive to this type of road accident and have called for more severe punishments and sentences for drivers who have used alcohol or drugs.

Give the money back!

The Bulgarian government wants to recover BGN 80 million from 103 unprofitable land swap deals. With these deals, the former state government in Bulgaria (2007-2009) gave huge areas of state forests on the Black Sea coast and in the mountain’s touristic regions to private companies in exchange for private forest properties. The state’s forests were much more expensive than the private forests, but state appraisers gave them the same value. This caused damage to the treasury of millions of BGN. Nowadays, thanks to civil pressure from eco-activists and under the decision of the European Commission, the government of Boyko Borisov has acknowledged the damage and estimated it at BGN 80 million. The state aid for these 103 deals has been estimated based on the difference between the market prices and the administrative prices of the lands, but the movie “Give the money back!” showed a prize analysis of the purchases of forests and farmland near the properties of the land swap deals and calculated a much larger price difference. The huge differences between this evaluation of the state and the market prizes became a substantial ground for doubts that the Bulgarian government is currently carrying out a procedure for partially retrieving the state aid allocated with the deals. Among the businessmen who have to pay back the money are famous Bulgarian millionaires and politicians such as Hristo Kovachki, Grisha Ganchev, Yavor Haitov and Todor Batkov.

Andon Donchev on the Kabakum Case

Since July, there have been protests in Bulgaria against the government and the republic’s chief prosecutor. At that critical moment, Prime Minister Boyko Borissov announced, the ruling party would demand the convening of a Grand National Assembly to vote on a new constitution. Many of his opponents saw this act as an attempt to gain time and delay the moment he resigned – an establishment of a  Grand National Assembly requires procedures in parliament that take several months. To approve a draft of a new constitution, members of the Bulgarian parliament must support the government’s proposal with at least 120 signatures. Initially, no one expected these signatures to be collected, but it turned out that one of the parliamentary groups surprisingly supported the government, and now Bulgaria is moving towards a Grand National Assembly. The current news report shows how a former member of the same parliamentary group received the right from the state to manage a beach on the Black Sea near the city of Varna and signed a very profitable concession contract. That is a lucrative business in Bulgaria, because of tourism in the summer. Together with the host of the morning talk show on BTV Anton Hekimyan, we prepared an interview with the leader of this parliamentary group Veselin Mareshki. The main question was whether the state ruled by Prime Minister Borissov’s party had given the beach to Veselin Mareshki’s people in exchange for their political support. During the interview, Veselin Mareshki admitted two things. First, he voted for the draft of a new constitution of Bulgaria without reading it. Second, companies close to him manage the beaches near the city of Varna. Mareshki saw no legal or moral problems in these two facts and has therefore been criticized by many Bulgarian citizens.