Yet another tragic death of a high profile journalist is now raising questions. A Bulgarian journalist and TV personality who was in the midst of a deep investigation into alleged corruption involving EU funds has been found murdered in the Bulgarian town of Ruse, authorities said on Sunday.
The body of 30-year-old Viktoria Marinova was found in a local park on Saturday, and though so far police have presented the case as a tragic rape and murder unconnected with her professional work as a journalist, Bulgarian media were quick to suggest it could be linked to her EU investigations. Police said on Sunday she appeared to have been beaten, raped, and strangled to death in crime described as "exceptionally brutal".
Major media outlets in the West, meanwhile, were quick to pick up on the suspicious nature of the timing of the heinous crime, with The Guardian noting that "The European commission and German government have urged Bulgarian authorities to bring to justice those responsible for the brutal killing of the journalist Viktoria Marinova, who had been reporting on alleged corruption in one of the EU’s newest member states."
Bulgarian Interior minister Mladen Marinov immediately tried to throw cold water on widespread speculation that she was targeted for here investigation journalism, saying there was no evidence of this: “It is about rape and murder,” he said in a statement. Marinov added that there was no evidence suggesting she had previously been threatened over her work.
However, news of her death has been picked up in headlines around the world after Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was reported murdered by a Saudi hit team inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in a sensational story already tearing apart Saudi-Turkish diplomatic relations.
Marinov was further the third journalist to be murdered in the EU this year while pursuing corruption and fraud investigations.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, an intergovernmental organization, has called for a "thorough investigation" into Marinov's death, describing a disturbing "trend of increased attacks against female journalists."
Meanwhile USA Today, echoing other breaking stories, suggests that she possibility of a criminal conspiracy based on the explosive nature of the story she was pursuing at the time of her death:
It is not known if Marinova's murder is linked to her journalism work. Investigators are still trying to trace potential witnesses and establish a motive for her killing. However, Bulgarian media reported that Marinova recently interviewed Romanian journalists who were investigating politicians and businessmen for alleged corruption of EU funds.
Some statements of EU-connected officials themselves have seemed to suggest there may be more to the story than simple local crime. Vice president of the EU's executive branch, Frans Timmermans, for example, tweeted the following: "Again a courageous journalist falls in the fight for truth and against corruption. Those responsible should be brought to justice immediately by the Bulgarian authorities."
A spate of other recent deaths of journalists who had been actively working on corruption probes of powerful individuals are as follows, according to USA Today:
- Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed in a car bomb in October. She had worked on the so-called Panama Papers, leaked documents that revealed financial information about the offshore accounts of high-profile officials.
- Slovakian investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his girlfriend were shot to death in February. Kuciak was investigating tax fraud.
- Swedish freelance journalist Kim Wall was murdered in a gruesome case in Denmark last year by Danish inventor Peter Madsen. Wall was killed and mutilated after boarding Madsen's submarine to do an interview.
Questions that now hang over Bulgarian journalist Viktoria Marinova's gruesome murder prompted Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov to issue a statement, saying, “The best criminologists were sent to Ruse, let’s not press them. A large amount of DNA had been obtained.”
Throughout Monday, various media reports uncovered more details as the exact nature of the story Marinova was working on. According to a Newsweek report those she interviewed just prior to her death had already come under close scrutiny by Bulgarian authorities:
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), citing local news website Terminal 3, the men had been looking into alleged fraud involving European Union (EU) funds, while working alongside the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP).
In September, the two reporters had been detained by Bulgarian police. Reporters Without Borders said they were arrested after taking pictures of evidence tied to the misuse of EU money by Bulgarian firms. Bivol claimed to have found “large-scale corruption.”
The owner of Bulgarian investigative reporting site Bivol, Asen Yordanov, told Agence France-Presse (AFP) that his staff had been issued threats due to their investigating rampant misuse of EU funds.
“Viktoria’s death, the brutal manner in which she was killed, is an execution. It was meant to serve as an example, something like a warning,” Yordanov told the AFP.
Marinova’s TV station commented on her death in a statement published by Reuters: “With great pain and insurmountable grief the TVN’s team is experiencing the loss of our beloved colleague Viktoria Marinova and we pray for sympathy to the sorrow of her relatives and colleagues.”: “With great pain and insurmountable grief the TVN’s team is experiencing the loss of our beloved colleague Viktoria Marinova and we pray for sympathy to the sorrow of her relatives and colleagues.”