Bulgarian Journalist Atanas Tchobanov: Balkanleaks Expose Corruption and Abuse of Power
Atanas Tchobanov was born on June 26, 1968 in Sofia. He graduated from the French Language High School. Between 1984 and 1989 he was an active speleologist and mountain-climber. Tchobanov left for Paris in 1990 and currently resides there. He is one of the founders of the newspaper "Paris News," but for the last two years has not been a member of its editorial team. In 2008, Tchobanov became a member of the public council of the Association for Free Speech "Anna Politkovskaya." He is married with two children. Tchobanov holds a PhD in computational linguistics from Paris West University. He is a free-lance journalist, blogger and free-speech activist, currently involved in the project for investigative journalism www.bivol.bg
There were several recent publications about the Balkanleaks site, an analogue of the notorious whistle-blowing WikiLeaks. You are the Balkanleaks spokesperson. How was the idea about such site born?
The idea was born in an online chat, while we were discussing the WikiLeaks model. This model has two main aspects: 100% anonymity of the sources and 100% original information. The readers can compare the level of objectivity of media reporting the same information. We also discussed that WikiLeaks stopped accepting new documents because it is involved in a heavy survival battle. Its founder, Julian Assange, says in an interview that it would be good and desirable to create other such sites, with more local focus. For this reason we decided to create a similar site and call it Balkanleaks, taking into account the perspective of working with sources and journalists having similar problems with corruption, organized crime and freedom of speech.
You have enough causes already. Why did you accept this additional load - to be the site's frontman?
Because it would be more difficult for them to spy on me, follow me, pressure me. Not that they can't, but, after all, I reside mainly abroad, have good contacts with journalists and human rights organizations in France and on European level and can protect myself more efficiently. My colleagues voiced these arguments when making the proposal and I agreed.
What is the site's main goal?
New exposures of corruption, abuse of power and ties between those in power and the underworld.
How are Balkanleaks and WikiLeaks similar and how are they different?
They are similar in regards of the technology they use and the protocol for verifying the reliability of information, which is done by seasoned journalists and experts. They are different in their span, focus, and ambitions. Balkanleaks, currently, does not collect donations, and everyone participates on a volunteer basis. This how Brusselleaks work and we have good contacts with them.
I know one of the similarities is partnership with the media i.e. information from Balkanleaks to be published in the media. Do you have any problems with media publishing this information?
The publication and the reaction in the media do not depend on us, but on media themselves, from their agenda. For example, Bulgarian media did not publish the last document we posted, because there are more serious scandals going on in the country – this is a document about charges against Bulgarian Prosecutor, Rosen Dimov: https://www.balkanleaks.eu/dimov.html. In 2001, he had been charged with money laundering, but not in Bulgaria, in neighboring Greece. So, it makes sense for us to expand the focus on all Balkan countries, It is worth to do an investigating report to find out what happened with this case – is there a verdict; was it dismissed? But Balkanleaks' role is to announce that there is such information available, not to investigate the details surrounding it.
What about the authorities' reaction? Have there been any threats, any attempts to stop the site or a certain publication?
The reaction was mockery. According to the State Agency for National Security (DANS) and the Unit for Combatting Organized Crime (GDBOP) the site only has old information. They, most likely, have seen only the archive materials, which have been uploaded in order to be available through the search engine and offer an example what documents are of interest to us. We are not insisting for the authorities to show great interest in our work. There have not been any attempts to stop us or to influence our publications.
Who, without mentioning names of course, sends information to Balkanleaks? Are people afraid to send such information?
We do not know this and there is no way of knowing since the TOR technology conceals the source. If the source does not wish to come out, something we do not, in any way, encourage, there is no way we can follow them. We have applied all effort, from a technical viewpoint, to do the maximum to disallow tracing the source, even if serious intelligence services make such attempts.
How is the anonymity of the sources guaranteed?
The answer can be found in Balkanleaks' anonymity statement at https://www.balkanleaks.eu/anonymity.html
What about reliability of information? Are there documents you refuse to publish?
We have received materials not worth publishing because they have not been authentic documents, but just copied from anonymous postings in internet forums. This is easy to verify. We can publish only documents which correspond to the following conditions: 1. Are not publically available; 2. Are of public interest, and 3. Their authenticity has been confirmed by experts and journalists. We are not at all interested in publishing things that would harm the image and the reputation of the initiative.
Can you tell us what you have received so far and what publications are forthcoming?
Everything we have received, after it has been established that the document corresponds to the above mentioned conditions, is already published. The last two publications are the full special surveillance devices recordings from the legal case Santirov-Tsonev and their accomplices in a scam for contraband and money laundering. We have not received anything new in the last couple of days.
I recently wrote an article about your unique search tool. Do you wish to add something? Who is the creator; is this person Bulgarian?
I created the tool in my spare time with the help of a colleague, a database expert. Such tool was simply missing in the numerous online search engines, which came out in great numbers after WikiLeaks published the classified diplomatic cables. But, less than 1% of these cables have been made public, so it is interesting to speculate about the content of the unpublished ones. The key words, the source and the dates of the cables give some ideas and directions.
Who are the others behind Balkanleaks? Do they insist on remaining anonymous? Haw many are you?
About a dozen. I cannot reveal any names.
What would happen if the notorious tapes, which shook Bulgaria in the last weeks with scandals about corruption scams in the Customs all the way up to Prime Minister, Boyko Borisov, were given to Balkanleaks?
First, speculations about someone bringing some flash drives would have been immediately dismissed because all transfers of documents are guaranteed anonymity. Second, the recordings would have been analyzed professionally from technical and content viewpoint in order to assess their reliability and the extent of public interest they represent. This would have been done not by one media with "murky" ownership, but by several ones, including colleagues from abroad, who have experience in scandals related to leaks of classified information. Only then the decision to publish them would have been made, and the publication would have been accompanied by the expert opinions, for example as it is in this article (in Bulgarian) - http://www.bivol.bg/home/item/733-bip-bip.html. This is the strength of combining crowdsourcing with classical journalistic work.
Do you have any contacts with WikiLeaks?
And what is your assessment of WikiLeaks? They certainly will change diplomacy? Will they change journalism?
They already changed the way one looks at official information from institutions as a whole, not just from diplomacy. Respectively, they change the requirements for the media, which publish this information. Yes, I think journalism will change and would become more critical and wary of what those in power offer to the media.
What do you think about the US reaction?
I think the reaction of the Obama administration is aggressive and out-of-proportion. This is not the reaction of democratic State, realizing its immunity against the temptations of the tyrants is the First Amendment and the right of information. The Founding Fathers would probably be very alarmed by the attacks on WikiLeaks and their sympathizers. This "Chinization" of the US is strange, and must become the grounds for public opinion to pressure the EU and the European governments to better guarantee the freedom of speech, of press, and the protection of citizens' private information. One can think about a European directive to ban authorities from demanding that journalists reveal their sources. Hungary's bad example, over the introduction of their reactionary media act, can become the starting point of this debate.
As I said, you have many causes. There is no way I can ask you about them all... However, what is your opinion about the state of Bulgarian media, maybe in the light of the recent sale of WAZ media in Bulgaria and the change of ownership?
I do have an opinion. I can summarize it in very difficult to translate pun, a play of words: "The government organization "Politicians without Banitsa" (in Bulgarian this rhymes with "reporteri bez granitsa," which means "Reporters without Borders." Banitsa is a fillo dough pastry, usually filled with cheese) is protesting against the editor-in-chief of the daily "24 Chasa" (24 Hours) vacating her post." Maybe, we also need to tell the full story about one of Bulgaria's best known journalists, Valeriya Veleva, baking a banitsa for now Prime Minister, Boyko Borisov, and taking it to his home in Bankya in the night he won the general elections. These ties, this interdependence of media and people in power, and between media and the oligarchy are shameful, while in regional media the situation is even more pathetic. Known and unknown local feudal lords and mayors give regional media taxpayers' money in exchange for "media servitude in delivering information" in favor of local municipalities. I am sure you understand there is no chance for a critical report on the work of local authorities to be published in such media.
Since a major part of our readers are Bulgarians living abroad, do we need a Diaspora Minister?
No, what we need is representation in the Parliament. With such large percentage of citizens having the right to vote and living abroad, it is self-implied that they should have their own Members of the Parliament. These MPs need to be elected in a separate voting region - "Region Abroad." Under the current system, the votes from abroad twist the picture in Bulgaria because they are mostly in favor of the ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS).
And what do you think about the new Bulgarian Communities Abroad Bill?
I have not seen the Bill, since it is worked on in the dark. What I see in the media makes me think this will become just the next bureaucrat push to create inefficient non-governmental structures.
The Head of the State Agency for Bulgarians Abroad, Rosen Ivanov, recently launched the idea to establish a Federation of Bulgarians Abroad under the patronage of for former star football player and now coach, Hristo Stoichkov. I will comment with Stoichkov's own words from a recent interview in English: "Too much peoples come only for the passed the dime. No work. No sarcificy. This is the tim." (Stoichkov became the laughing stock in Bulgaria after this interview over his broken English.)
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