The Muzzling of the Romanian Media

Commercial and political pressures have left Romanian journalism at its lowest ebb since the demise of communism.

The Muzzling of the Romanian Media

Commercial and political pressures have left Romanian journalism at its lowest ebb since the demise of communism.

Tuesday, 29 October, 2002

When journalist Silvia Vranceanu began investigating a tycoon from the ruling Social Democratic Party, PSD, in the north-east town of Focsani, local powerbrokers warned her to stop.

Vranceanu, a local correspondent for the national daily paper Evenimentul Zilei, refused to back down and went on to publish a series of hard hitting articles. But she paid a price for her persistence. Soon afterwards, a Bucharest TV station acquired and broadcast a tape of a teenage Vranceanu stripping in front of her boyfriend.

Undeterred, Vranceanu has continued to probe local issues, but her experience is one example of the pressures that have left journalism in Romania at its lowest ebb since the demise of communism.

The media in Romania have certainly proliferated since the fall of Ceausescu in 1989. Today, there are 15 national daily newspapers, hundreds of local titles, over 50 private television stations and more than 100 radio stations.

The early 1990s saw an explosion of investigative reporting, but the concentration of media ownership in the hands of local elites, interference from central government and an increasingly corrupt working environment, have combined to chip away at basic standards of truth and accuracy among journalists in recent years.

Shifts in media ownership, with increasing numbers of publications owned by politicians, businessmen or former security service officers, have played

an important part in this decline.

Not that outright ownership is always necessary to establish some degree of editorial control, according to Manuela Proteasa of the financial paper Capital. "Huge amounts of money were transferred from state companies to private media companies, through advertising contracts or even offshore bank accounts," she said. "Control can also be exercised through the provision of subsidies, direct or indirect shareholding and tax. Large TV companies depend on official goodwill to endlessly reschedule their tax liabilities, instead of ever paying up."

The only independent, locally-owned network is the North East group which currently comprises four newspapers in the towns of Iasi, Roman, Bacau and Focsani. The newspapers are owned by the journalists who established them - and in 1998 the group numbered 18 titles.

Despite problems in distribution, intimidation of advertisers and accreditation problems for the journalists, the founder of the group Andi Lazescu hopes to extend the group again, as a way of expanding the independent media.

Otherwise, newspapers which exercise the greatest editorial independence tend to be those have some level of foreign ownership. These include the national daily Libertea, owned by Swiss media company Ringier, Evenimentul Zilei, which is 51 per cent owned by the German Bertelsmann company, and Romania Libera, also partly German owned.

Timisoara, in western Romania, had a particularly effective local press during the 1990s. Local journalists uncovered an oil smuggling racket run by customs and secret service officers during the war in former Yugoslavia, and conducted other investigations into the local authorities and security services which seem remarkable now.

"Back then, we were able to uncover and publish that kind of thing, because the links between newspaper owners, the local authorities, security services and organised crime were nothing like they are now," said a local journalist who did not want to be named.

Today, the local branch of the PSD owns one of the Timosoara newspapers and attempts to exert indirect control over journalists working for the other local papers, according to Mircea Opris, a local correspondent for Romania Libera.

"I know a number of journalists here who are manipulated," he said " They are forced to write articles - mainly on political and economic issues - which are then used to extort or blackmail businesses or the opposition parties. The directors and owners of the publications quietly bank the pay off, while continuing to pay their reporters a pittance."

The use of newspaper reports as a form of blackmail is increasing. Although the articles are essentially intended to extract bribes, some do get published. At the end of the summer, several national titles ran "investigations" into multinational companies. Flimsy stories were used as an excuse for misleading front-page headlines.

Part of an attempt to extort greater advertising revenues from the companies targeted, the articles stopped when the American Chamber of Commerce and the International Advertising Association complained vigorously.

But while some journalists are ordered to write damaging articles, others find themselves more subtly manipulated. "When my boss handed me some interesting files, I followed up the various leads and ended up exposing a gross misuse of public funds," said an experienced investigative journalist in Craiova, the largest town in southern Romania.

"Only after I left the newspaper did I learn that my article was intended to damage one of his commercial opponents. My boss didn't give a fig about the public money which had been stolen."

When journalists try to expose anything that local powerbrokers don't want uncovered, however, it is quite a different story. The ruling clique in Craiova, a group of former intelligence officers who use their access to secret files on local judges, prosecutors and officials to control the local authorities, do not take kindly to inquiring journalists.

In September 2001, Loredana Chimoiu, Craiova correspondent of the Antena 1 TV station, began investigating police corruption and a war between the town's two main criminal groups. When she received a call about a car accident on the outskirts of the city, she drove to the location, only to be pulled out of her car by an unknown assailant, who then used a knife to cut off part of her hair.

In some areas, information is even collected in advance, so that pressure can be applied as soon as a journalist steps out of line. A report obtained by IWPR from the Transylvanian town of Cluj, listed the names of journalists, their sources, and details about their private lives. The report was compiled by former police secret service officers.

While organised crime and local politics continue to account for much editorial interference, some journalists have found themselves muzzled in the "national interest". Raico Cornea, an experienced journalist who has worked both for public television, newspapers and radio, says that he came under pressure over his coverage of the Kosovo conflict. "They tried to modify reality. They told me to be careful about what kind of article I produced because Romania wants to join NATO," he said.

Indeed, NATO entry fever has become a pretext for all manner of control, said Mircea Toma, president of Freedom of Expression, FREEEX, a Bucharest NGO that monitors press freedom. "Everyone is being told to shut up at the moment, until we get into NATO."

In 1999, Romania's invitation to apply for EU membership prompted much-vaunted media reforms and legislation to improve access to information, but the laws were of little practical use to journalists. On certain occasions, the authorities have refused to apply them, which has not been properly publicised.

Another raft of legislation, including a controversial law covering classified information, have served to limit freedom of information. Moreover, dozens of journalists have faced libel suits based on outdated legislation, which has never been removed from the statute books.

Apparently dissatisfied with existing levels of control over the media, the PSD followed its election victory in 2000 with the creation of a ministry of information. Quickly dubbed the "ministry of disinformation" by the press, it has made various attempts to manipulate news coverage, most recently with a secret document exposed in August by the Bucharest daily Ziua.

Entitled "A Public Communication Strategy for the Romanian Government", the document advised government officials on how to manipulate public opinion during the quiet summer months. Officials were encouraged to fabricate stories in order to counter the "extreme aggression" of journalists. "Otherwise this empty space might become a platform for challenging the authorities. The ministry's communications team is therefore to function proactively," it read.

More worrying than central government's often clumsy attempts at covert manipulation, are growing signs of personal corruption among individual journalists. "If you look close at any media outlet you will find either political or financial pressure - or both," said Toma.

Financial pressure can take a number of forms, as Toma who is also a reporter on the leading Romanian weekly Catavencu, explained, "A few years ago we had to sack a colleague from our magazine, when we discovered he was receiving regular payments from one particular bank. We found his name on a list along with 20 other journalists from different publications. They were all on the bank's payroll, keeping people there informed of what was going on. "

A recent private survey supplied to IWPR by FREEEX also showed an alarming lack of initiative among journalists. An analysis of the main media outlets in Transylvania revealed that up over 80 per cent of articles published over the period examined were either verbatim transcripts of press conferences, or news agency copy.

Less than 20 per cent of reports showed any original work on the part of the journalist. "I'm worried. I was expecting that the generation who showed up after the fall of communism would be different. But no, they're dinosaurs, they're following the same old paths," said Ioana Avadanei, head of the Romanian Centre for Independent Journalism, ICIJ. "The enthusiasm and the education gained in more than a decade of freedom haven't made a difference yet. It seems that we'll have to wait."

In the meantime, various media-development NGOs are working to improve the training of journalists, which is currently university-based and overly academic. But even training initiatives can attract unwarranted attention.

"In 1999, we initiated a programme for journalists interested in cross border investigations, and we funded a few journalists to attend," said Cristina Guseth, director of the Bucharest office of the US NGO Freedom House. "After that, we received phone calls from high ranking officials, warning us to stop one of the investigative projects. I realised then how dangerous things can get."

Indeed, Ioana Avadanei, director of the Centre for Independent Journalism, believes that reporters who "step outside" the Romanian system face discrimination. "Some of our journalists have attended courses or training programmes abroad, where they gained a broader perspective," she said. "They find themselves rejected for jobs they apply for here, and working journalists who win places on such courses are not allowed to go."

But in an increasingly bleak landscape, there is hope. More than 300 journalists have registered themselves with the Romanian Online Editors Association, AEPO, an NGO which has set up a website for stories which could not be published.

"We publish journalists from Bucharest and from all over the country. They come to us out of frustration," said AEPO president Ioan Margarit. The stories are checked by AEPO staff and then published online. "One of our latest scoops was about a minister trying to influence the supreme court over a ruling. The story and the documents verifying it came from a journalist who couldn't get it published by the newspaper he works for in Bucharest."

Amidst intimidation, corruption and lethargy, it seems a small but determined band of journalists are striving to keep the investigative spirit of the early 1990s alive.

Paul Cristian Radu, Sorin Ozon and Dan Badea are members of the Romanian Center for Investigative Journalism

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