The International Press Institute (IPI), a global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists, condemns the opening of a criminal investigation against Bulgarian journalists Atanas Tchobanov and Assen Yordanov.

Tchobanov and Yordanov, who work for the independent news website Bivol, received phone calls from police on June 10 alerting them that an investigation was being opened into their real estate holdings. The timing and subject of the inquiry suggest that it is a retaliatory measure in response to the journalists’ investigative reporting, which exposed a real estate scandal among government officials earlier this year.

Bulgaria-based Bivol has published several investigative pieces over the past months that detail how members of the ruling party bought real estate below market value and how EU funds and political connections were used to purchase resort guesthouses. The investigations implicated senior officials in the Bulgarian government, including Prosecutor-General Sotir Tzatsarov.

On June 2, the pro-government newspaper Trud published an anonymous article that accused Tchobanov and Yordanov of purchasing real estate under market value. After the article was published, the General Directorate of National Police purportedly received a report from the anti-corruption NGO BOETS that accused the journalists of real estate fraud. BOETS has denied issuing such a report.

Tchobanov has claimed the report was falsified. Following the accusations, both Tchobanov and Yordanov published real estate documents that refute the report. When they requested more details about the investigation, Tchobanov said they received no response.

“This investigation imposes a judicial burden, used by the state and the propaganda machine to smear me and my colleague and to cause the public to mistrust our work,” Tchobanov said in an interview with IPI. “It can be a long and exhausting process to prove that there is nothing to prove.”

IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen condemned the criminal investigation.

“This investigation appears designed to intimidate Bivol and its journalists in light of their investigative reporting into corruption and abuse of power in Bulgaria”, he said. “The Bulgarian justice system should be focused on investigating wrongdoing in the ApartmentGate scandal instead of harassing the journalists who acted in the public interest in revealing it.”

Bivol is known for meticulous investigative work into corruption and abuse of power in Bulgaria, especially in relation to the misuse of EU funds. Last year, the site, together with the Romanian news outlet Rise Project, revealed massive corruption in Bulgaria’s construction sector with support from IPI’s IJ4EU fund for investigative journalism. Bivol previously estimated that €400 million worth of EU-funded projects were under scrutiny due to the revelations. The site and its journalists have faced several instances of harassment over its reporting.