SOFIA (Reuters) - Bulgaria has frozen assets and property and bank accounts belonging to businessman and media owner Ivo Prokopiev, who said the state was trying to silence the country's independent media.
The Commission for Illegal Assets Forfeiture is preparing to file a claim against Prokopiev and his businesses to seize assets and property worth 199 million levs ($119 million), which it believed were derived from a rogue privatization of a plant 17 years ago, said the commission's chairman, Plamen Georgiev.
Bulgaria, one of the European Union's poorest and, according to Transparency International, its most corrupt country, set up the commission in the 2000s to confiscate the illegally obtained assets of corrupt businessmen and officials and organized crime bosses.
Prokopiev, 46, denied any wrongdoing. He said the commission has been used to intimidate the journalists at the influential financial newspaper Capital and the news website Dnevnik. He is the majority owner of both.
He also said a Bulgarian court had ruled in 2004 that nothing was wrong with the privatization of mineral maker Kaolin, the basis of the accusations against him.
"We are witnessing how a state institution with very wide powers is being used as a bat and an instrument for repression," Prokopiev told a news conference. "We do not have any doubt about the ultimate goal of this .... to subdue the editorial position of two of the few independent media in Bulgaria."
Georgiev told a news conference a regional court in Bulgaria had frozen shares and stakes of Prokopiev in over 40 companies on commission's request, but said the actions would not impede the work of the news organizations.
Five right-wing political parties that are not represented in the parliament protested against the commission's move. Some political analysts also saw it as an attempt to silence the independent newspapers in the country.
"This act really seems to be directed against people who are representatives of free media in Bulgaria, said Daniel Smilov, an analyst with Sofia-based Center for Liberal Strategies.
Bulgaria ranked 109th out of 180 countries, lower than any EU member, in the 2017 World Press Freedom Index compiled by the Paris-based organization Reporters Without Borders. Bulgaria ranked 51st in 2007, when it joined the EU.
(Reporting by Tsvetelia Tsolova, additional reporting by Angel Krasimirov editing by Larry King)