The Judicial Case with a Reader's Letter

| Shortened version of The Videlina publication.,

Organizations and media deem The Videlina's conviction for a reader's letter absurd

The Bulgarian Association of Regional Media, the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, the Ethics Committee of the Union of Bulgarian Journalists, the Journalists against Corruption Association and the Access to Information Program backed the publication!

The Bulgarian Association of Regional Media (BARM) organized at BTA-Sofia a press conference on the occasion of the worrying precedent with The Videlina newspaper. We remind you that the publisher was convicted for publishing a reader's letter to pay Sonya and Georgi Varnikovi the amount of BG 20000. The court held that the letter contained untrue, defaming and slanderous statements that have caused the plaintiffs "non-material damages, suffering and pain". The Pazardzhik District Court ruled that the publisher is employer to the author and is therefore subject to liability under art. 49 of the Obligations and Contracts Act. The ruling was confirmed by the Plovdiv Court of Appeals. At the press conference in the capital, BARM's sharp reaction received support from the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, the Ethics Committee of the Union of Bulgarian Journalists, the Journalists against Corruption Association and the Access to Information Program, as well as from national media representatives. "More than 120 lawsuits have been filed against regional media in the past three years and this trend is becoming a cause of concern", says BARM's Vesela Vatseva. „The regional journalists operate in a feudal reality and are more vulnerable to persecution by powerful individuals affected by publications. In the case with The Videlina, we wish to declare that we respect the judiciary but we're against breaches of the freedom of speech", states Galentin Vlahov, member of the Board of BARM and CEO of The Chernomorski Far newspaper, Burgas. The Videlina's editor-in chief, Valentin Nenkov, pointed out to the attending national media representatives that the reader's letter is a continuation of a series of investigative materials published by the newspaper, concerning a shady deal with the former Detelina kindergarten. The sale of the facility to the NITEX company of Dospat has resulted in damages to the Municipality of Pazardzhik in the amount of BGN 600000 when it was resold to local businesspeople. The letter contained new information on the deal, which made editor-in-chief Valentin Nenkov publish it. The information was additionally verified and the evidence was submitted to court. On the other hand, the author Kunka Delcheva, confirmed her statements under oath in the courtroom. Plaintiffs Sonya and Georgi Varnikovi never took advantage of their right to response to the letter, neither expressed willingness to do so nor were refused the opportunity. Valentin Nenkov told the audience: "We submitted evidence on each and every detail mentioned in the letter, including verbal statements concerning those parts of the text that couldn't be backed with documents“. Apart from the letter, the main charge – that the affected person had boasted that she had collected a commission in the amount of BGN 30000 – was confirmed also by another witness at the Court of Appeals. However, both instances make no distinction between the statement in the letter that Varnikova has boasted to have received a bribe, and the fact that was not directly accused of taking the money. The denied relation between the NITEX company and Sonya Varnikova, who at the time was head of the International Relations Department at the Municipality, was proven documentary. The documnts indicate that the electricity, water and other bills of the municipal property bought in 2002 by the Dospat-based company were paid by Vanikova's father. How come that the plaintiff claimed she knew no one at NITEX, and her parent was paying their expenses?! In her letter Kunka Delcheva claims that Varnikova's brother has an illegal establishment in the proximity of the Georgi Bregov school. This statement is backed with a document issued by the municipal administration, which indicates that the brother is using a building that has sprawled outside the area permitted for the purpose. As to the claim that the plaintiff has traveled to England and has attempted to engage in prostitution, at the first instance the author said that she was ready to testify on this but in camera. This has not been reflected anywhere. The allegation that Sonya Varnikova was a member of the GERB political party but was expelled on the grounds of pursuing self-interest, moved to another political party and ran for a municipal councilor, is proven by publications in the local media. It should be noted that apart from the land for a NITEX administrative building, the Municipality of Pazardzhik also sold her another 20 decares in the Sazluka area for working premises. Three years later, the company's manager, Sergei Chaushev – whom Varnikova claims not to know – sells her 3 decares of this land. Despite all the evidence, after four meetings the second instance – the Plovidv Court of Appeals – confirmed the ruling of the Pazardzhik District Court. The Videlina is currently working with a lawyer, Mihail Ekimdzhiev, who is preparing a complaint to the Supreme Court of Cassation and to Strasbourg. "We have a reader who is standing fully behind her words; we have a huge amount of evidence in support of the publication, and as a result we get convicted at two instances". This is how Valentin Nenkov presents in chronological order the circumstances with regard to the case. On getting acquainted with the case, the Bulgarian Association of Regional Media came up with an opinion and wanted to voice it through all national and regional media, as it was convinced that a worrying precedent has been created by the court ruling that the publisher is an employer to the author and is therefore subject to liability under art. 49 of the Obligations and Contracts Act! In other words, the publication of a reader's letter is interpreted by the court as a work assignment. BARM believes that the publisher may assign work to the editor-in-chief or the journalists, but not to readers expressing their opinions in letters. Regarding the publisher as an employer to the reader is absurd. "Imagine then how many people are employed by TV and radio stations that dare conduct polls to see what people think or that broadcast opinions live", says Ivan Bunkov, chair of the Board of BARM and editor-in-chief of The Nov Zhivot, Kardzhali. Says Ivan Rachev from Journalists against Corruption: "This is an outrageous court decision. Tomorrow any publisher may be held liable for nor verifying the contents of advertising he has published". "I've been following the Videlina case since the very beginning and I believe that both instances that have ruled on it have not taken into consideration the Convention on Human Rights, whose article 10 clearly defines the significance of the freedom of speech and the right to disseminate information, as well as defines what is libel and defamation", says Yuliana Metodieva of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee. "A reader's letter concerns a public activity. Sonya Varnikova has taken part in a deal whose further development has obviously damaged the city's interests. The text is not anonymous, the facts have already been subject to an investigation by The Videlina. It I also a fact that Sonya Varnikova has not taken advantage of her right to response in the newspaper, in order to clarify the circumstances that she considers slanderous; instead, she goes directly to court and asks for BGN 20000 that were eventually granted to her. We are severely opposed to this sanction, as it means that in the Bulgarian judiciary system the speech can inflict the same damages as battery. The 120 lawsuits filed against regional media in the past several years indicate that in our country information is regarded as a thereat and not as an aid. The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee believes that Strassburg The Videlina's complaint will probably be accepted and ruled on in Strassbourg", adds Yuliana Metodieva. Representatives of other media also expressed their disbelief with regard to the legal absurd.

Alexander Kashumov, a lawyer with the Access to Information program, comments that this case is a sign of what is happening with the regional media. It is very difficult, however, to hold the court responsible for a decision, especially when there is no specific evidence of general malice.

A verdict to pay BGN 20000, however, may mean the demise of a local media. These are small commercial companies with a staff 5 to 10, where the editor-in-chief doubles as a reporter. Their efforts to generate a public debate on local issues are enormous. Some things in the Videlina case are beyond any doubt and obviously illogical. First of all, the extremely high compensation is adjudicated for comments on a case of evident interest to the public. Secondly, the letter concerns a public person who is running for a municipal councilor, and the Convention on Human Rights includes a text regulating the freedom of speech during elections. For the punishment to be higher when a public person is concerned than a private person, is a legal absurd. The court's thinking is that the higher someone's standing, the less should be said about him. Therefore, can the media publish letters, can they give the floor to people who want to say something and who stand behind their words?! In this case the media was also forced to act as a prosecutor and to investigate something on which the responsible institution has failed to act. The fact that article 49 of the Obligations and Contracts Act, relating to the contracting, is used in lawsuits against media is a cause for concern. A verdict for a reader's letter is a hindrance to an important and publicly beneficial part of journalism that is the investigation. This brings up the absurd question how the court makes the distinction? These were lawyer Kashumov's words at the press conference.