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The Bulgarian eco-activist being sued for a Facebook status

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In February 2016, a Bulgarian eco-activist was sentence for a Facebook status aimed at the executive director of one of the biggest mining companies in the country. The case drew attention to the potential fragility of freedom of expression in Bulgaria. After the sentence was issued, the next stage of the trial is set for the 30th of May.

Borislav Sandov (33), is known in Bulgaria for his leading role in key environmental protests in recent years. The trained scientist, and member of the Bulgarian political movement the Greens, recently published a Facebook status calling Lachezar Tsotsorkov, executive director of one of the biggest mining companies in Bulgaria, a "poisoner oligarch".

The words form part of a longer status that explains the "legal saga" between the Greens and the Asarel Medet copper mine. On the basis of the content of the post, Tsotsorkov initiated a lawsuit against Sandov on three counts – one of insult and two of defamation.

Local voices have expressed support for Sandov as the trial continues into its next stages. Meanwhile the French ambassador in Bulgaria, Xavier Lapeyre de Cabanes, made a gesture of support on Twitter by posting "I am Borislav Sandov".

A "humiliation of his honour and dignity"

Tsotsorkov has accused Sandov of disgracing his name. The Bulgarian court in the city of Panagyurishte found Sandov innocent of defamation but guilty of insult in February.

The accusation of defamation arose from Borislav's statement that Tsotsorkov’s mine twice poisoned the waters around Panagyurishte in 2014. The court concluded that at the moment of writing, there had been enough evidence to make the claims put forward in the status. Sandov’s attorney, Kalin Angelov, says this is a success.

The court however also ruled that Sandov's comments had humiliated Tsotsorkov's honour and dignity, as the insult was made public and distributed via social media.

Sandov himself suggests that the trial is rooted in prior circumstances and that there might be a hint of revenge at play. Prior to the trial, he and his colleagues from the Greens had led research as well as legal proceedings sparked by supposed investment intentions of Tsotsorkov, who wanted to almost double the size of the copper mining company he heads up. The mining mogul lost these proceedings on three occasions.

The Bulgarian news outlet Capital Daily quotes legal expert Boyko Boev, a Bulgarian based in London. Boev says that "people participating in events in the public interest, may expect reactions from the Internet in relation to their deeds". 

Boev is also quoted as saying that if such deeds relate to the professional activity of an individual, with the well-intentioned goal of helping society, then it is "somehow" more justified. In Sandov's case it can be perceived that such a topic is in the public interest (the Greens have led a lawsuit against Tsotsorkov in the past accusing him that the enlargement of the mine would cause pollution of the local environment).

Does this set a precedent?

The attorney is quoted as saying that it's not uncommon for there to be trials resulting from Facebook publications and that at the same time, according to the Bulgarian criminal code, a defamation or insult may be "distributed via print media or in other way". Social media is considered included in this list of alternatives.

Capital Daily also concludes that everyone in Bulgaria who feels insulted or a victim of defamation may initiate a lawsuit, no matter if it concerns Facebook, Twitter, or any other social media. In Bulgaria there had been similar cases. When one woman was sued for defamation on Facebook, the court decided she had to pay over 3700 euros. The woman had written a Facebook status in which she accused her former employer of incorrect behaviour.

The proceedings are being brought against Sandov as an individual, but at the same time he is a representative of a party, as he pointed out in a previous interview with cafébabel. He adds that it is the first time that a representative of the party is being sued, even if on an individual basis, due to social media activity.

In a blog post entitled "Insult or criticism: the discussion", Nelly Ognyanova, a well-known Bulgarian expert in media law, also reflects on the case. She points out that according to international standards, such political speech relating to important public debates in contemporary society should have the highest level of protection.

While discussion about the potential for such cases to occur again in the future goes on, Sandov's trial moves to its next stages. It remains to be seen whether he will be found guilty.