My career as a journalist began at the same time the Berlin Wall came down. It was in 1989 so this was a time when democratic changes were starting to happen in formerly Communist countries, including my own—Bulgaria. When I was working on my first stories as a journalist, I also participated in two student strikes. And I witnessed the overthrow of two Communist governments and the removal of a president appointed by the Communists.
The overlap of these events played a vital role in the development of my career as a journalist. Soon after the dictatorship collapsed I felt I could play a valuable role in bringing forth the democratic principles that my country had lacked for decades—freedom of speech, the rights of citizens, and the promotion of independent journalism. Years later when I was teaching investigative journalism to younger colleagues and college students, they would read my stories and ask: How could you possibly still be alive after writing this?
I could write these investigative articles because, as a citizen, I felt I was playing a part in the effort to overthrow the government. In this way, I lost any fear of authority. I have survived because of the kind of experience and outlook that I have acquired in more than 20 years of being a journalist in a country where the ambition for change overcomes the pressures of fear.
Resources for Investigative ReportersIs it dangerous to be a journalist in Bulgaria? Yes, it is: Fail to watch your step and your health might be damaged—or you could lose your life. On several occasions after an investigation I did was published, I took some time away, including traveling abroad. I would stay away until the primary danger had passed. To this day, I seek to have a flexible schedule for leaving home or work so as to impede the organization of a possible attack. Yes, Bulgaria is still a considerably dangerous place for journalists, but the dangers are not the same as reporters would find in Iraq, for example.
When I went to Iraq months after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, I worked in a precarious environment for which one can hardly prepare, not to mention the difficulty of ensuring one’s safety. Danger arrives with randomness. In Bulgaria reporters usually have the opportunity to assess the situation and decide how far to go with their investigation.
In 1994 I was the victim of a physical attack. It happened in my hometown of Stara Zagora where I worked for nearly a year after graduating from the university. I wrote an article in which I was critical of a nightclub that was notorious for drug distribution and underage prostitution. The owner had good contacts in the local underground world and a close relative at the local police department who was chief of the department in charge of the fight against organized crime. That is why he thought he was untouchable. After my story was published, the nightclub’s owner tried to buy up the print run of this regional newspaper. Later, three of his bodyguards attacked and beat me but without any serious consequences for my health.
Shortly after the incident I moved to Sofia, the capital, where it is generally safer for journalists. Still, for a year I received 10 threats that I would be taken to court in my hometown because of my stories. None turned into an actual lawsuit. They were just ways of warning me that if I wanted to have a family and lead a normal life, I should stop writing about certain people.
In Sofia, threats followed the publication of almost every story I did, and over the course of a couple years, I was taken to court on three occasions. The hardest period of time—packed with threats and court cases—was between 1994 and 2002.
I definitely do not consider myself a hero nor am I a journalist who has been severely pressured. I am more of a typical representative of the journalistic guild from the transition years in Bulgaria. In those times, a significant number of my colleagues have been put on trial, become victims of physical encounters, been fired, or were pursued.
In 1996 I found myself in court for the first time. The person who headed the state telecommunications company had sued me. I had written in my stories that he was part of a criminal group that was extremely close to the Socialist government then in power. This group, which the news media called “the Orion friendship circle,” had permeated state authority on multiple levels and drained state resources through various schemes. I had written about this group after I had conducted a series of investigations. The lawsuit filed against me went on for months.
At that time it was impossible for a journalist to demand and acquire official information in connection with an investigation. Additionally, the telecommunications company director barred me from the central office building. Even so, I had at my disposal reliable sources who supplied documents from telecommunication equipment auctions. These documents clearly showed how companies whose offers were far from the most favorable won the auctions because of the corruption built into the selection procedures.
In the course of those several months, I described with exact numbers the mechanisms of corruption and defended my journalistic disclosures in court. In December 1996 the top officials of the Socialist government resigned, followed by the collapse of the Orion friendship circle and its power. This is how I managed to fairly easily win the first court case against me.
In 1997 Iliya Pavlov, the boss of Multigroup, the biggest private enterprise in the country, threatened—via an official message he sent to all of the nation’s news media—to sue me. His legal action was in response to an analytical piece I had done about how the Russian interest in gas, which he represented at the time, was not in accordance with the Bulgarian national interest. By chance, this threat of a lawsuit happened on my birthday, and the managers of 24 Chasa (“24 Hours”), the newspaper I was working for at the time, as a joke gave me a present of a striped shirt so I could be ready for jail. In these ways, we tried to overcome the stress of a potential claim for a large amount of money, which could cause serious trouble for our newspaper.
At that time Bulgarian law allowed journalists to go to jail for stories they published; this law is something we have since managed to change through social pressure. But thanks to the managers of 24 Chasa, Multigroup’s legal threat was overcome without any serious backlash. It was not a secret that Pavlov was connected to the most dangerous criminal groups in Bulgaria. Years later he managed to acquire American citizenship, and in March 2003, on one of his rare visits to Bulgaria, he was shot to death in front of his office in Sofia by a sniper.
The funeral of wealthy Bulgarian businessman Iliya Pavlov, who was shot to death by a sniper in front of his office in Sofia, Bulgaria. Photo by 24 Chasa/Bulgaria.
In 1997 I was back in court again when the boss of a security company, who was also part of the Orion friendship circle, took legal action against me. For two years he pursued me with lawsuits because of a story that described how he pressured innocent people to leave their private property. He lost this legal fight. Soon after, this man was arrested and prosecuted for his participation in the murder of the former Bulgarian Prime Minister Andrey Lukanov. He received a life sentence, which another court repealed, and he is now free.
A public prosecutor who had deprived scores of people of justice initiated the most grueling court case against me after I wrote about his actions. Even though the Supreme Court Council imposed due penalty on this prosecutor, it did not prevent her from filing lawsuits against me for two and a half years. I prevailed because of the competence of my defense lawyer and the support of my newspaper’s publisher.
In 1997 I started using databases as I worked primarily in analyzing information from company registers. This reporting tool made it possible for me to discover connections between businessmen, politicians and organized crime. I gradually incorporated into my work more advanced database reporting and the classification of information in Excel spreadsheets.
For a number of reasons, however, some of the journalistic investigations I did between 1997 and 2008 were not published in the newspaper. Sometimes this was because the people or companies I had investigated were too powerful and they made aggressive threats against the newspaper and me. The decision was made by the editor in chief. This is why in 1998 I created a personal website. When I disagreed with my editor’s decision, I had a place to publish those stories, along with the ones that the newspaper did publish. There were times when I agreed with my editor that my life would be in danger if we published the story, and so I would not publish those on the website either.
Through the years I have participated in a number of investigative journalism trainings in Bulgaria conducted primarily by foreign journalists. In 2001 I made a presentation at the Global Investigative Journalism Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark; I took part in the second conference in Copenhagen in 2003 as well as the third one in 2005 in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. In the course of all three conferences, I attended training workshops on computer-assisted reporting and these have proven to be hugely significant to my work. In 2002 the U.S. State Department invited me to attend a month-long training in investigative journalism in the United States, where I visited the editorial offices of leading news organizations in Seattle, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, New York, Washington and other cities.
My visit to the United States was extremely important in helping me to learn more about the guidelines for investigative journalism. In 2003 my book, “Toppling the Government: 100 Stories of an Investigative Journalist,” became the first book about investigative journalism published in Bulgaria. The next year I compiled and edited a report for Transparency International about journalistic investigations by Bulgarian nongovernmental organizations. The U.S. Agency for International Development funded the investigations and the report.
Between 2004 and 2006 I participated in the BBC’s Technical Assistance for Improving Professional Standards of Journalism project as a local trainer. Through this project, nearly 600 Bulgarian journalists and media workers received training in investigative reporting. I also co-taught a course in investigative journalism (with a focus on new media) at Sofia University. The development and teaching of this course was financed by the Embassy of the Netherlands from 2008 to 2010.
During this time I also started to seek support outside of Bulgaria for my reporting and to engage with reporters from other countries on cross-border projects. For more than five years I have worked with Scoop, a valuable support program financed in part by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Denmark for Eastern European investigative journalists. Scoop provided vital support for journalists in Bulgaria and the Balkans at a very difficult time.
Since 2006 I have worked on projects with other journalists through the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), which is a highly effective network of Balkan-based investigative journalists. For a cross-border project on the Balkan energy market as it confronted new economic circumstances, I provided the necessary information from Bulgaria. I continue to work with OCCRP.
In 2006 and 2007 I prepared annual reports (“Reporter’s Notebook for Bulgaria”) describing the levels of corruption in Bulgaria as part of a project of Global Integrity, an independent information provider based in Washington, D.C. I also prepared anti-corruption reports for this same center in 2008 and 2010.
Meanwhile, in Bulgaria, I established the Bulgarian Investigative Journalism Center that was launched at the start of 2008. Through this center I am able to work collaboratively with investigative journalism centers throughout the world. And I’ve assumed the role of executive director of the Information and Online Services Department at the Newspaper Group Bulgaria, which is the company managing the biggest newspapers and magazines in Bulgaria. I am responsible for the Newspaper Group’s Internet projects, including Bulgaria’s two biggest news websites, www.24chasa.bg and www.trud.bg.
With these new management responsibilities, I have had to considerably reduce the number of investigations in which I can take part. However, my positions allow me to upload stories—without censorship of any kind—to our websites, which receive a combined total of more than 100,000 visits daily. And I do this working with a team of talented young journalists who are mastering the minutest details of investigative journalism. I am studiously transforming myself from a traditional journalist to a digital media professional as I strive to continually apply new technologies to my investigations as well as figure out how to best use multimedia for a more effective presentation.
Today I feel that journalism in Bulgaria can be conducted in the same way as it is in Western Europe or the United States. What creates a distinction is the substantial lack of resources for Bulgarian journalists. Another problem remains the ineffective judicial system, which fails to provide a legal environment that is sufficiently protective of the rights of Bulgarian journalists.
Just a few weeks before I wrote these words I was in court, but this time as a witness. A colleague of mine had a lawsuit filed against her for a story she wrote about an employee at the Ministry of Justice who was fired because of corruption. What she had reported is true, but she was in court having to defend her story. A lot of Bulgarian journalists have faced similar situations, and many of them end up being found guilty. While the situation is much better than it was years ago, it remains dangerous for investigative reporters to do their work in this country.
Stanimir Vaglenov is the founder of the Bulgarian Investigative Journalism Center and the executive director of the Information and Online Services Department at the Newspaper Group Bulgaria in Sofia. He was awarded the Global Shining Light Award at the Global Investigative Journalism Conference in Toronto, Canada for his work on the OCCRP cross-border project about the Balkan energy market.