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Romania: Media Complain of Intimidation

Attacks on reporters may jeapordise EU membership bid.
By Daniela Tuchel

European Union officials have raised questions over Romania’s membership application in the wake of a series of attacks on journalists investigating links between politics and corruption.


Emma Nicholson of Britain, European Parliament rapporteur for Romania, demanded earlier this month that Bucharest's request to join the EU be put on hold. An amendment to that effect has been introduced into the European Parliament in Strasbourg by Arie Oostlander, of the Netherlands.


The EU Commissioner for Enlargement, Guenter Verheugen, formally asked Romania for information about the attacks.


The criticism has caused turmoil in Bucharest. But while foreign complaints about the erosion of press freedom have embarrassed the political establishment, Romanian media groups have expressed support.


Twenty-two press associations signed an open letter on February 8 to the enlargement commissioner that backed the EU officials’ criticisms. The letter complained of violent attacks on journalists, adding that the rising political pressure was linked to forthcoming elections.


The media groups welcomed attempts to “warn the Romanian authorities that Europe has a stake in securing media freedom in this accession country” and reminded their government it was obliged “to take firm measures against intimidation and aggression” against the press.


Sixteen journalists suffered physical attacks last year. All had written reports about corrupt officials, or on the local mafia. Many more were on the receiving end of anonymous death threats.


The most well-publicised attack concerned Ino Ardelean, an editor of the daily newspaper, Evenimentul Zilei, who was beaten up after writing articles drawing links between ruling Social Democratic Party officials and corrupt business practices.


Unknown assailants beat Ardelean unconscious in the streets of the western city of Timisoara last December and he had to undergo several operations and almost two months of medical care before going home.


The US ambassador, Michael Guest, sharply condemned the assault, while the French ambassador, Phillipe Etienne, paid a visit to the Agency for Monitoring the Press in Bucharest to inquire about similar cases of aggression.


Etienne told the Romanian media that French officials remained “extremely interested” in the outcome of official investigations into separate incidents last summer, in which two other journalists were attacked. The ambassador added that it was “worrisome” that the latest incident had occurred on the eve of elections and at a time when Romania was preparing to join the EU.


While the assault on Ardelean was widely condemned, it was three weeks before the Prime Minister Adrian Nastase commented, to announce he had placed the interior minister in charge of the case.


It was widely believed that the premier was only spurred into action after western human rights organisations and diplomats had publicly expressed concerns for freedom of speech in Romania.


Nastase urged the authorities to find the culprit in order to show the case was not connected to the Social Democratic]party, adding that he would be “amazed” if any link was uncovered.


Florin Kovacs, lawyer for Ardelean, said police inaction after the assault on his client was part of a familiar pattern. “It is regrettable that no police inquires into cases of violent attacks on journalists last year have identified the perpetrators of these assaults,” he said.


Kovacs added that he believed a mafia-style network was being paid to carry out the beatings. “Unfortunately being a journalist is one of the riskiest professions in Romania,” he told IWPR.


Silvia Vrinceanu, editor of Ziarul de Vrancea, in the eastern town of Focsani, agreed. “Opening a journalistic investigation and writing the truth has become increasingly dangerous,” he said. “I am shocked about what has happened to some journalists.”


She herself was recently beaten up right outside her home. “The police have done nothing,” she remarked. “They asked me to look at some suspects’ photos in the police station and that was the end of it.”


Some reporters have paid for their investigations with their lives. Iosif Costinas, a reporter who was writing a book on organised crime in the Timisoara region, mysteriously disappeared from the city in June 2002. His body was found almost a year later in a nearby forest.


Assaults on Romanian reporters in 2003 were mentioned in several end-of-year reports compiled by human rights organisations.


Reporters Without Borders referred to “increasing pressure from the authorities, reducing the chances of expressing political opposition or criticism that might give a ‘bad image’ to the country at a time when Romania is negotiating to join NATO and the European Union.”


The Vienna-based South East Europe Media Organisation, SEEMO, meanwhile, voiced “deep concerns” over Csondy Szoltan, a journalist from Miercurea Ciuc, in central Romania, who was attacked two weeks after the assault on Ardelean.


Szoltan was seriously injured just after Christmas when an assailant beat him on the staircase outside his apartment, striking his head with a crowbar. He had already been attacked last September while investigating the local mafia in Miercurea Ciuc.


“SEEMO has been informed of numerous cases in which reporters have been physically attacked in Romania this year,” SEEMO's secretary general, Oliver Vujovic, commented. “This development is extremely worrying, especially in light of the upcoming elections in Romania in 2004.”


Alongside direct pressure, Romania journalists increasingly complain of silent censorship of their work, imposed by the private owners of local papers.


The US-based human rights organisation Freedom House recently criticised this censorship in a report, addressing a “lack of editorial independence” in Romania's private media outlets, which, it said, tended to “advance the personal, political and business interests of the owners rather than the pursuit of journalistic excellence”.


Brasov-based journalist Mihaela Carstea told IWPR this problem was manifest in her home town, where she complained that reporters simply echoed the views of local press proprietors. “They write what their bosses ask them to or they get fired,” she told IWPR.


Horea Badau, who produced a recent talk show on media freedom, aired by Delta Radio France International, said many Romanian press bosses emulated what he called the “Berlusconi model,” referring to the Italian prime minister who is also a media mogul


“They are businessmen, politicians and media owners all at the same time. They use the media to help the growth of their businesses and to further their political careers,” he said.


Badau said the average local journalist had to act as the mouthpiece of the boss, “He can reward the business and political partners of the owner, or go over to the opposition”. That entailed the risk of physical intimidation, however.


Not all Romanian journalists agree that their profession is being targeted. Mihai Valentin Neagu, a leading reporter in Bucharest, cast doubt on claims of intimidation.


“Romania is not Chechnya or Afghanistan,” he said. “Romania has a free media and newspaper accusations concerning the biggest corruption scandals have not brought negative consequences on the investigative authors.”


Neagu said most attacks on journalists were part of “the phenomenon of street violence: the difference is that they are more widely spoken about than assaults on ordinary citizens.” He added, “People always say that the ruling party is to blame.”


As for Ardelean, he is now suing the government and the police for 1,5 million US dollars. “After more than two months, they have failed to arrest any suspects in the assault,” he said.


“I hope the police can find the guilty partner soon, so I can withdraw my complaint and justice can be done.”


Daniela Tuchel works for the Bucharest newspaper Libertatea.


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