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Comment: Kidnapping Highlights Flaws in Romanian Media

Disappearance of reporters in Iraq stirs debate on Romania's military role there and the media's professional standards.
By Ioana Avadani

Romania is waiting anxiously for the end of a crisis triggered by the recent kidnapping of three journalists in Iraq.


As the government calls for their release, rallies have taken place across the country. Hundreds of journalists have taken to the streets in gestures of solidarity with their kidnapped colleagues, joined by members of the local Arab community, under the slogan: "Set them free! They are innocent!"


While the story of the kidnapping has naturally stirred a debate on Romania's military presence in Iraq, it has also concentrated minds on standards and training issues in the Romanian media.


An unknown group seized Marie-Jeanne Ion, a senior reporter for Prima TV, Sorin Miscoci, a cameraman, and Ovidiu Ohanesian, a reporter for the daily newspaper Romania Libera, five days after they arrived in Iraq on March 28.


The three were in the company of Muhammad Munaf, a businessman who lives in Romania and who is also an Iraqi-US national. He has also disappeared.


Munaf had reportedly offered to pay the reporters' travel expenses, fix interviews with top Iraqi politicians and translate.


On April 22 and again on April 26, Al-Jazeera television broadcast two separate videos of the three journalists.


Handcuffed, barefooted and in tears, they were shown pleading with the Romanian authorities to pull out the 850 or so Romanian soldiers now deployed Iraq, warning that if they failed to do so, they would be killed.


Romania's new centrist government has not said whether it will respond to the threat by pulling out troops, while opposition parties have called for a gradual withdrawal, though not under pressure.


The public, however, has already decided on the matter. On April 24, an opinion poll said 70 per cent of Romanians wanted their soldiers to leave Iraq in order to save the journalists' lives, a significant rise on the 57 per cent who sought a pullout before the hostage crisis.


While the story has naturally spawned a media frenzy, with the various outlets all competing to produce new angles, voices and experts, it has also turned the spotlight onto the media itself, and onto the amateurism and exploitation that characterise much of the industry.


This is largely because it transpired that the three Romanians left for Iraq without receiving any professional training in work in a conflict area and that they additionally checked into a hotel situated outside the heavily patrolled "green zone" in the centre of Baghdad.


Their lack of foresight has reminded the public that safety training is barely available to most Romanian journalists who - living in a peaceful country - rarely gain first-hand experience of covering armed conflicts and, as a result, see such training as no more than common sense.


The debate has highlighted the irresponsible role of many Romanian editors. In a discussion joined by many journalists on the Freeex e-gropu, an Internet discussion group, reporters were almost unanimous in condemning the editors and employers of the three captured journalists for not preparing them properly.


Sending out staff into a war zone with only minimal training was judged irresponsible and a sign of a signal lack of respect for their work.


Many journalists remarked that such attitudes reflected the views of many editors and employers who seem to see journalists just as spare parts.


Asked why they were so reluctant to challenge their bosses, many quoted the standard response they themselves had encountered. It could be summarised as, "If you don't like it, go! There are hundreds like you, scratching at my door."


While employers continue to see journalists as an extra cost rather than an asset, journalists are likely to continue to experience such thoughtless treatment, the discussion concluded.


The plight of the kidnapped reporters has also raised another issue in Romania - the ethics of undertaking trips that are essentially sponsored events.


In this case, the three reporters had gone to Iraq largely financed by their Iraqi contact, Munaf.


Some participants in the debate have said the opportunity to cover fields that would otherwise be beyond their reach should take priority over all other risks.


Others maintained that the source of finance for expeditions must always be a crucial issue and that reporters should not be funded by money that their own organisations cannot generate.


Finally, the crisis generated a debate on how reporters should cover a story in which their own colleagues are in the spotlight.


Some journalists say they face an agonising dilemma over what they feel is a need to balance compassion for fellow journalists in distress with their professional duty to investigate all aspects of a story.


For some, there was a danger that close investigation of the story could be seen as insensitive. For others, shedding light on the facts remains the number-one duty and they defended their right to explore all the circumstances surrounding the kidnapping, including profiling the victims and possible perpetrators.


The crisis over the kidnapped reporters in Iraq poses difficult challenges to journalists in Romania. They not only have to separate rumours from the few known facts, and keep the story in the headlines against the advice of the authorities who have urged the media to maintain a general silence.


Ioana Avadani is director of Romanian Centre for Independent Journalism in Bucharest.