EU funds for the media should go through a supranational body in the EU in order to thwart corruption in them

  • 14.10.2021
  • UBJ
Some of the panelists in the "MaxiM" hall of BTA. Elena Yoncheva and the other participants from Brussels joined from the video wall. Photo: Kadrinka Kadrinova

This was one of the proposals made by journalists who participated in a conference on EU anti-corruption policy and its effect in Bulgaria, organized by Elena Yoncheva. EU Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders made a video address.

The role of investigative and independent journalism in the fight against high-level corruption was one of the main topics of this week's simultaneous conference in Sofia and Brussels entitled "EU Anti-Corruption Policy. How to overcome a decade of inaction in a crucial time for the EU. "

The discussion was initiated by the MEP from the group of Socialists and Democrats in the EP and a well-known journalist Elena Yoncheva, who joined online from Brussels. EU Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders, Vice-President of the European Parliament Katarina Barley, MEP and Co-Chair of the Anti-Corruption Intergroup Daniel Freund and Director General of the European Commission's Directorate-General for Migration and Home Affairs Monique Pariat also took part.

From Sofia, analysts, university professors and journalists gathered as participants in BTA's MaxiM Hall. Among them were the chairwoman of the Managing Board of the Union of Bulgarian Journalists (UBJ) Snezhana Todorova and the member of the Managing  Board of the Union Pavleta Davidova. The speakers from the Sofia participants were lawyer Andrey Yankulov from the Anti-Corruption Fund, Assoc. Prof. Hristo Hristev from Sofia University  St. Climent Ohridski , the editor-in-chief of the UBJ website and Barricade website commentator Kadrinka Kadrinova, the investigative journalist Dimitar Stoyanov from the www.bird.bg website.

The main focus during the two-hour conference was on the future of the EU's anti-corruption policy and the effective investigation of high-level corruption in Bulgaria.

The topic of the role of the media in these processes was discussed at the end of the discussion, but became its focal point. Because, as noted by both journalists - Kadrinka Kadrinova and Dimitar Stoyanov - without support, including financial, for independent media, without legislative guarantees for the rights of journalists and protection from prosecution, including judicial, there can be no really independent and credible investigative journalism.

Attention was also drawn to corruption in the media themselves, turning them into paid servants to political or economic interests and tools against political opponents or business competitors.

A specific proposal was made to establish a supranational European body that would transparently allocate EU funds to support the media, in order to break the current practice of passing this resource through local governments which tend to distribute it only among the "right" media.

"Corruption is a transnational crime. When we underestimate the threat posed by it, we create a fast track on which the internal problems of individual Member States become pan-European. I am convinced that there is an urgent need to create a common EU mechanism to fight corruption and, why not, European anti-corruption legislation ", said Elena Yoncheva at the beginning of the conference.

In a special video address, EU Commissioner Didier Reinders emphasized the importance of real discussion in the EU on the higher role of the rule of law. He pointed out that in the next reports on the rule of law, the European Commission will not only identify problems, including in the fight against corruption, but will also set specific recommendations to each Member State, as well as deadlines for their implementation.

In addition to these reports, Brussels is monitoring the situation in Bulgaria through the cooperation and verification mechanism, which has been in force since our accession to the EU in 2007, and since last summer - through the Monitoring Group on Democracy of the European Parliament, Elena Yoncheva said. She stressed: "We are all aware of the main problems in Bulgaria. For years, the fight against corruption has been a fight on paper, formally reporting results to Brussels, and sometimes even worse - a tool for dealing with politically inconvenient people: opposition activists, investigative journalists, business competitors or just dissenters. ”

She discussed with the participants in the discussion where the problem is rooted - in the laws, in the institutions or in the people who implement them; and what needs to be done so that the Bulgarian people could feel and see results.

The European Union is clearly not using all the powers it has, said EP Vice-President Catherine Barley. She joined the discussion with a desire to hear the views of all participants on the weaknesses and the necessary improvements in the fight against corruption.

Daniel Freund, co-chair of the EP's Anti-Corruption Intergroup, noted that anti-corruption structures already exist and they have the necessary funding, but need to start working with greater ambition. He expressed concern that some of the EU funds intended precisely to fend off abuses do not reach those for whom they are intended, but remain in the pockets of those forces that are in power in one country or another.

Freund reminded that a group of MEPs, including Elena Yoncheva, has taken steps to file a lawsuit against the European Commission for inaction. Since the beginning of the year, a principle has been in force that links European funding to Member States with the rule of law. So far, the EC has not implemented it.

"I want to challenge the impression that the Commission does not want to exercise the principle of conditionality," said Monique Parriat, Director-General of the European Commission's Directorate-General for Migration and Home Affairs. She drew the participants' attention to the two key measures in the EU's new Internal Security Strategy because, she said, corruption was not only a theft of funds but also a threat to security.

Stepping up the fight against organized crime will prevent the generating of finances to be used for corruption crimes. The European Commission is considering whether to give Europol the power to investigate such threats.

In connection with the latest revelations related to the Pandora Dossiers, which show that high-ranking officials in various Member States are likely to cover up suspicious assets and also avoid taxes, Monique Parriat recalled that the commission has already proposed specific legislation in the field of money laundering. Stricter rules will be applied next year on criminally obtained funds, including the possibility of confiscation, she said.

In response to a question, Pariat noted that in addition to the necessary financial and technical support of the EU's anti-corruption institutions, access to data must also be taken into account.

The European Commission has not done what is necessary for Bulgaria, and is not even using these flexible anti-corruption tools at its disposal, commented Assoc. Prof. Hristo Hristev. He cited the attitude towards Poland and Hungary for comparison. According to him, it can be considered that Bulgaria is also in a crisis of the rule of law. The strongest existing control instrument - the restrictions, envisaged in Article 7 of the EU Treaty, is inapplicable in practice because it depends on the unanimous decision of the member states, he said.

For Assoc. Prof. Hristev, one of the measures that can improve the situation is related to the expansion of the functions of the European Public Prosecutor's Office and the strengthening of OLAF's powers.

In Bulgaria, there are no convictions for corruption at the highest levels of government and the main reason for this is the complete monopoly of the prosecutor's office over the function of criminal prosecution, said lawyer Andrey Yankulov from the Anti-Corruption Fund. According to him, in the current situation, a much bigger problem would be to have convictions, because often state repression is exercised pervertly for repression against certain figures who have turned to be uncomfortable at some point.

The last two speakers were Kadrinka Kadrinova, editor-in-chief of the UBJ website and commentator for Barricade website, and Dimitar Stoyanov, an investigative journalist from www.bird.bg .

"In order to have real investigative journalism, and not commissioned by one or another political or economic interest, one or another media oligarch or advertiser (often represented by government structures, especially when it comes to the distribution of EU funds) - in order to avoid such depravity, above all, we must have guarantees and support at the supranational level of really independent media and journalists", said Kadrinka Kadrinova.

According to her, it is absolutely necessary "for the European Parliament to consider and construct in the most rational way a supranational structure for financial support of independent media and journalists through European funds". The journalist stressed that it is right to make this "transparent and to involve independent international journalistic organizations, which are also defending the trade union rights of journalists." She mentioned the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) as appropriate partners.

Kadrinova also insisted that it is very important "to press the issue of protecting the rights of journalists, guaranteeing their work, including decent pay."

This topic in Bulgaria has been persistently raised by the Union of Bulgarian Journalists, including in the proposals of the UBJ for legislative changes, which were introduced in the National Assembly in 2017. "This is the main focus of our common struggle for independent journalism," Kadrinova said.

She added: "When we talk about corruption, let's talk about corruption in the media too. Let's look around and realize how many media - and not only in Bulgaria - pretending to be "serious", have become service partners of one or another political or financial-economic structure. What should a journalist do if his conscience rebels against the venal practices of his publisher or editor-in-chief? To leave? Where to go? How to feed his family? This is the way to the murder of journalism in Bulgaria, for which Elena Yoncheva has warned so many times".

Dimitar Stoyanov from the website bird.bg - the only partner in Bulgaria of the international consortium behind the revelations of the Pandora Files, spoke about the problems that hinder the work of investigative journalists in our country. Important revelations made by small and independent media are not circulated by the big Bulgarian media, because the market is small, and sometimes those involved are the main advertisers - and prevent disclosures that are inconvenient for them.

"The model is vicious. Even if we win in a specific case, revealing corruption, our efforts often go to waste, because there is no adequate reaction from society and institutions", Stoyanov said.

He also mentioned the case when the publication was sued for publishing WikiLeaks revelations, which are also listed in Wikipedia, but the journalists received absurd accusations that they did not check the facts in the US intelligence.

Summarizing the discussion, Elena Yoncheva pointed out: "Everyone in Bulgaria talks about how important the fight against corruption is, but it seems that no one fully recognizes it as a commitment. If we want to find out who is responsible for the overall anti-corruption policy of the country - prevention, detection, investigation, prosecution - the responsibilities are transferred between different institutions. Given the problems we have in this area, shouldn't there be, for example, a minister who is responsible for drafting a comprehensive anti-corruption concept - not to work piecemeal, but with a clear vision, and to be able to bear  responsibility.

The EU offers many solutions, but it cannot interfere directly in areas such as investigation and prosecution. This requires determination at the national  level, Yoncheva commented.

She recalled that the EP's Democracy Monitoring Group, of which she is a member, had recently visited Bulgaria. MEPs from the group met on the day of the conference (October 12th) to discuss the mission's initial conclusions.

Elena Yoncheva expressed hope that Bulgaria will soon have a regular government ready to hear the recommendations of Brussels and the desire of Bulgarian citizens to live in a European country where the rule of law exists in real life, not just on paper. "To start deep reforms so that the institutions can finally work", was Yoncheva’s wish.