In June 2012, Asya Pencheva, a Bulgarian journalist working for the newspaper Utro, was charged with criminally defaming a local orphanage employee, Tsenka Blagoeva. The charges were related to a published story containing an interview with an orphanage employee who claimed that orphans had been abused. During the course of the interview Blagoeva’s name was mentioned.

A regional court in Ruse, a city and homonymous province in northern Bulgaria, convicted Pencheva and ordered her to pay a criminal fine of 5000 BGN (approximately €2,500) as well as 1,000 BGN (approximately €500) in damages to Blagoeva. Pencheva appealed the ruling to the Ruse District Court. The district court revoked the regional court’s ruling, reportedly due to “flawed application of the law” and ordered a retrial. The case was then thrown out based on the fact that the charges had been filed past the statute of limitations.

In a recent e-mail interview, Pencheva told IPI’s Grayson Harbour about her see-saw court experience and her desire to continue reporting in the public interest.

IPI: Tell us a little bit about the background to your article. Why did you decide to report on the issues you did?

PENCHEVA: Back in 2011 there were quite a lot of orphanages in Bulgaria. The public interest in them was enormous due to the fact that there had been an increase in the number of complaints about violence and bad attitude towards the children in these institutions. I am familiar with Ruse’s orphanages and I had been following carefully as a journalist for years what had been happening there. There had never been a single complaint. In addition to this, after the BBC’s story about Mogilino, my colleagues and I had become even more alert to this topic. [Ed. In 2007, the BBC broadcast a documentary called Bulgaria’s Abandoned Children that highlighted the plight of mentally and physically disabled children in a Bulgarian state institution in Mogilino, also in Ruse province. The film sparked debate in Bulgaria about the treatment of such children.]

A woman came to me in June 2011. (I had heard her name before because she was engaged in the problem about teenagers who are required by law to leave the orphanages when they turn 18.) The woman brought me a CD on which two videos were recorded. The videos showed something like the interrogation of children by a voice behind the camera. The youngsters were explaining how they were abused and spanked by the employees of the orphanage called “Nadezdha” [Ed. Bulgarian for “hope”]. This woman said that one of the social workers named Tsenka Blagoeva could tell me a story about a child who had been bullied as well.

I was shocked, and on the same day I made contact with Mrs. Blagoeva and interviewed her. She told me everything in detail. The conversation was of course recorded with my Sony Digital Voice Recorder. I attached a photo of her (which I took with her knowledge) to my [article] in the newspaper. In the interview Blagoeva blamed her colleague […] to be the most violent one to [a] child…. I found and recorded [the colleague’s] point of view as well that of the orphanage’s headmaster, Maria Jordanova.

All points of view were published in my story for the newspaper Utro (the media I work for). I wrote the story because I assumed it was important for society to know what had been happening in these institutions. Not to mention that free access to these institutions is strongly forbidden. Even if a small percentage of the story was true, and the child had received only one spanking, this is horrible and should not happen at all. As a humanist and a mother of two, I firmly believe that violence of any kind should not occur.

IPI: What was your reaction to being targeted for defamation?

PENCHEVA: It all came out of the blue for me, because the interview with Mrs. Blagoeva took place in June [2011]. The court’s notification for me came in January [2012] (seven months later). Until then no one had said or complained to the newspaper [about the article]. I still had the recorded interview, so I did not think it would be a problem at all – the judge would see that I had written everything said [by the interviewees].

However, the court decided that the recording would not be admitted as evidence in the trial. This was the thing that broke me because I did not have any other chance to prove I was right. After the sentence I was shocked, I could not believe what had just happened.

IPI: How did the trial personally affect you?

PENCHEVA: I was really stressed. Although I had my family and my colleagues supporting me, I felt horrible. Later, I managed to live through this unfair situation.

IPI: Did the trial affect your work as a journalist? Were you able or allowed to continue covering other stories?

PENCHEVA: This trial was totally absurd from the beginning. That is why it can never change my understanding of the profession [of journalism] and the journalist’s values. I continued reporting stories including those about [the violation of] human rights.

IPI: Did you have to personally finance your court proceedings?

PENCHEVA: [The newspaper] covered a part of the court proceedings. However, I had to help as well because after the first trial I decided I would need a more experienced lawyer from Sofia (Bulgaria’s capital). His [expenses] in Ruse were my responsibility and they still are.

IPI: Did the trial present financial problems for you individually or for your media organization?

PENCHEVA: Yes, this was a financial problem for Utro due to the fact that the media earns money mainly from advertising so it was impossible to cover everything. However, my family was 100 percent there [for me] and the fee was only a part of the solution to the problem.

IPI: Do you have any personal insight for other journalists, should they find themselves in a similar situation?

PENCHEVA: If a journalist has done his work properly and there are laws protecting him in his country, these kinds of trials should not happen. The recording from a journalist’s recorder should be considered as proof. How can this not be? The same for the notes which the journalist had written down on the interview. These [writings] are small and done instantaneously so the journalist does not have the time to manipulate them and they are a real proof of what happened during the meeting.

IPI: Do you feel that the current defamation laws in your country are fair?

PENCHEVA: I am not an attorney so I cannot comment on the Bulgarian laws. I believe that a change is definitely needed so journalists can do their job freely and responsibly.

IPI: What effects has the experience had on you as a journalist? Are you more hesitant to cover a controversial story than you were before?

PENCHEVA: What happened showed me that there are a lot of stories which should be told to the public so that all kinds of discrimination will not be forgotten. I am sure that although this process took place, I would never betray the professional standards of journalism.

IPI thanks the School of Public Policy’s Center for Media and Communication Studies (CMCS), Central European University in Budapest and the Centre for Media Pluralism and Freedom (CMPF), European University Institute in Florence for the use of their country-specific defamation data, which were processed and developed by IPI.