A Bulgarian fact-checking news website risks bankruptcy after an insurance company filed a SLAPP lawsuit for the record sum of 1 million leva (€500,000) for a publication based on the official transcript of a government session.
SLAPP lawsuits – strategic lawsuits against public participation – are civil claims designed to intimidate an individual or company by burdening them with insurmountable legal fees and proceedings.
Mediapool, a privately-owned news website еmploying 11 journalists, announced on Wednesday (8 March) that the insurance company Lev Ins had filed a lawsuit against it, claiming 1 million leva in compensation.
Lev Ins’ justification was that the company “felt affected” by an article based on a transcript of a meeting of the Council of Ministers, which is public information.
Until a year ago, Lev Ins was the leader in the market of compulsory insurance on civil liability of motorists in Bulgaria. Now, it is in second position.
The article in question, published in September, addresses an issue that could affect hundreds of thousands of Bulgarians, namely the risks related to the country losing its rights under the international ‘Green Card’ insurance system.
In the piece, caretaker finance minister Rositsa Velkova is quoted acknowledging problems stemming from the track record of Lev Ins, which according to various publications has problems covering the expenses related to car accidents abroad in which Bulgarian clients were involved.
Velkova is quoted as saying that in the first half of 2022, a number of working meetings had been held between representatives of the Financial Supervision Commission, Lev Ins and the national ‘Green Card’ to address the issues.
The quote which apparently prompted Lev Ins to file lawsuit is the following: “There is a serious risk that our national bureau will be excluded from the ‘Green Card’ system at the next General Assembly, respectively from next year it will stop issuing ‘Green Cards’ for Bulgarian insurers.”
Bulgaria’s problems with the international ‘Green Card’ contributed to the country failing to adopt the necessary legislation that would open its way to the eurozone. In this regard, the caretaker government introduced legislative changes, which suffered a fiasco in the parliament after a boycott of two meetings of the economic commission by most political players: GERB, DPS, BSP, ‘Bulgarian Rise’ and ‘Vazrazhdane’.
Mediapool explains that during the drafting of the article, questions were sent to the executive director of Lev Ins, but the response received was this: “The information thus presented […] will be addressed in court.”
A record SLAPP claim
Alexander Kashamov, executive director of the NGO Access to Information Programme, who will defend Mediapool before the court, said that this 1 million leva claim is the largest claimed compensation against a media in the history of Bulgaria.
The EU is in the process of preparing an anti-SLAPP directive in order to provide protection at an early stage against abuse of defamation and insult claims.
In exclusive comments for EURACTIV, Mediapool owner and Editor-in-Chief Stoyana Georgieva, said that the purpose of the court case was to intimidate the entire journalistic community.
“It is deeply disturbing that we are going to court because of a quote from a minister, contained in a transcript of a meeting of the Council of Ministers,” she said. Such transcripts are public information.
“Given that the case described in the article has been covered for years by Mediapool and the journalistic text presents all the facts with utmost correctness, it can only be concluded that the sole purpose of filing the case is to intimidate the media, but also the entire journalistic community and every independent voice that took the liberty of speaking about the problems with the Green Card system,” Georgieva said.
A contentious founder
This is not the first time the company has been in the spotlight.
In 2010, one of Lev Ins’ founders, Alexey Petrov, was arrested in one of the most-publicised police operations of the then GERB government – the Operation Octopus, labeled as anti-mafia.
A decade later, he was finally acquitted, and the prosecutor’s office and the Ministry of Internal Affairs sentenced to pay more than 43 million leva to Lev Ins due to the failed action against one of its founders.
Petrov is formerly of the Bulgarian special forces and served as an advisor to the state agency for national security. He is no longer publicly listed among the owners of the company, though business publication Capital continues to associate him with the company.
As executive director of the business organisation Union for Economic Initiative, Petrov has championed legislative changes that work in favor of Lev Ins.
[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald]