11 January 2024

photo - Wikipedia

Access to Information Programme and the Association of European Journalists – Bulgaria call on Kozloduy NPP EAD, a state-owned company which operates Bulgaria’s only nuclear power plant (NPP), to drop its legal claim for half a million leva (around 250 000 EUR) against a former employee who has revealed wrongdoings in the facility.

The record-high compensation claim against Natalia Stancheva, a whistleblower, who had used her right to access to public information, is an extreme example of a SLAPP, in which the Bulgarian state is trying to prevent a citizen from exercising her right to freedom of expression.

The company targets Stancheva and her mother, who, through dozens of freedom of information requests, revealed that  in violation of the law a medical facility was operating on the premises of the nuclear power plant near the town of Kozloduy, located on the Danube River. According to the current legislation, workers in nuclear power plants must undergo regular mandatory medical examinations performed in an authorized medical facility.

Nataliya Stancheva received the Golden Key Award of the Access to Information Programme in September 2023 for her efforts to seek information on the case. The illegal medical facility, which was providing health services to the employees of the NPP was closed down after the Regional Health Inspectorate in Vratsa confirmed the whistleblower’s findings about legal violations.

In response, the Kozloduy NPP EAD has filed a lawsuit against Stancheva and her mother for abusing their rights under Art. 45 and Art. 56 of the Constitution of the Republic of Bulgaria. Art. 45 states that “citizens have the right to complaints, proposals and petitions to the state authorities”, and Art. 56 stipulates that every citizen has the right to protection when their rights or legitimate interests are violated or threatened.

Such claims are unsubstantiated, since neither the Constitution, nor any other laws sets limits on the number of complaints, proposals and petitions that a citizen can file. Moreover, such an interpretation could set a dangerous precedent that would deprive citizens of the opportunity to exercise their rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

The state-owned NPP also claims that the defendants have not used the information solely to form their own opinions, but have disseminated it publicly, including to the media. According to the Law on Access to Public Information, the Bulgarian Constitution and international human rights treaties citizens have the right to freely disseminate information in a democratic society. In addition, the practice of the European Court of Human Rights has granted protection of the access to information for the purpose of dissemination by journalists, non-governmental organizations or citizens under the European Convention on Human Rights.

The large amount of the compensation that the state is seeking through its company is also worrisome. The case is a classic example of a SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) that does not pursue a legitimate goal, but seeks to silence activists and journalists.

Last but not least, Stancheva and her mother should fall under the protection of the new Whistleblowers Protection Act, adopted in accordance with the new European Whistleblowers Directive. In Bulgaria, the authority designated to provide protection under this law is the Commission for the Protection of Personal Data. We call on the Commission to intervene urgently.

We also demand Kozloduy NPP EAD to immediately drop the lawsuit against the two women. It is absolutely unacceptable for a state institution to SLAPP citizens who have exposed wrongdoings in a nuclear power plant. Its main function is to provide electricity for the local and regional consumers, and not to spend public funds on disgraceful lawsuits.

Both organizations expect the Bulgarian Energy Holding – the principal of the Kozloduy NPP EAD, and the Ministry of Energy, which is in charge of controlling the company, to immediately withdraw the lawsuit.