Romania: Back Comes the Blue Pencil

A threat of renewed censorship is hovering over Romania's media.

Romania: Back Comes the Blue Pencil

A threat of renewed censorship is hovering over Romania's media.

Romania burst free from the shackles of media censorship following the downfall of former communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989. Now there are fears that censors might be creeping back under the guise of protecting military secrets for the benefit of NATO.

A proposed state-secrets law approved last week by the country's second parliamentary chamber threatens to limit journalists' access to information, according to media commentators and some politicians.

These fears were heightened when Prime Minister Adrian Nastase last month locked up two people for accusing him of corruption, citing grounds of state security.

"The measure is a dangerous one that will limit freedom of expression," said parliamentary deputy Mona Musca of the opposition Liberal Party, PNL, referring to the new legislation. "It should start from the premise of free access to information and then go on to define what state secrets should be excepted. This it fails to do."

Critics complain that the law would make it easy for officials to create too many areas of secrecy. A previous attempt to introduce such legislation last year was blocked by the constitutional court following strong criticism from EU institutions and media watchdog organisations.

President Ion Iliescu argues that a state secrets law is essential if Romania is to join NATO this autumn when the next stage of alliance expansion will come up for discussion.

"When a NATO member, Romania will have to enforce the internal regulations of the alliance, which include the privacy of classified information," Iliescu said." The present law comes after months of debates and it is a better one for sure."

No one doubts that a state-secrets law is necessary. But observers say it

should be more precise in drawing a clear line between protection of

classified state documents and the right to freedom of information.

Journalists and media experts warned there has already been a "serious attack on freedom of expression", citing the January arrest of two people, one a former presidential aide, for circulating e-mails to publications and foreign embassies accusing Prime Minister Nastase of corruption.

Prosecutors claimed the allegations were "a threat to state security" and "harmful to Romania's international relations".

Nastase, who had just announced a campaign to curb corruption, compared the e-mails to the anthrax-laced letters mailed to American officials last year. He said this "political virus" had to be stopped. But he avoided commenting on the reports' account of his personal wealth and the allegation that he is turning Romania into a one-party state reminiscent of the Ceausescu era.

Rights groups condemned the government for misrepresenting the case as a threat to national security. Two of them, the local branch of the Helsinki Committee and the Centre for Independent Journalism, CJI, said the e-mail reports were in the public interest and that their authors should face legal action only if Nastase wanted to sue them in a civil court.

"Events of the past few weeks show the Romanian government is nervous about its relations with local media in the run-up to joining the EU and NATO," said Ioana Avadani, CJI director. "But it would be very dangerous if anyone who criticises the government from now on risks being put in prison accused of harming Romania's image."

Marian Chiriac is a Bucharest-based journalist.

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