Romania: Press Harassment Concerns Grow

International organisations are becoming increasingly concerned about the country’s poor press freedom record.

Romania: Press Harassment Concerns Grow

International organisations are becoming increasingly concerned about the country’s poor press freedom record.

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

When journalist Silvia Vrinceanu wrote some articles for a Focsani-based independent newspaper last year, she had little idea that they would provoke such a storm.

The pieces, published in the Ziarul de Vrancea daily newspaper in August 2002, had raised questions about the ruling Social Democratic Party’s regional leaders.

It sparked a campaign of intimidation - which included death threats - that culminated in the TV station OTV broadcasting a video showing the journalist dancing scantily-clad at a private New Year's party eight years previously.

"When the authorities don't like what is written about them, they can turn a journalist’s life upside down - make up stories about you, trample on your feelings and [do their best to] drive you insane," she told IWPR.

"They tried to destroy my reputation, my career and my marriage. I lived a nightmare but I had my family, friends and the newspaper I was working for. They all supported me, and luckily my story has a happy ending.

"When [the authorities] realised that they couldn't silence me, they placed an advert in another paper offering a reward of 500 US dollars for any ‘compromising material’ against me. But I refused to be shut up in this dirty way."

Vrinceanu is just one of many Romanian journalists who have been harassed by

politicians in recent times – tactics that are drawing increasing criticism from the West.

Several important international organisations condemned the campaign against Vrinceanu, including the South East Europe Media Organisation, SEEMO, and Reporters Without Borders.

Robert Ménard, the secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders, wrote a letter to Romanian prime minister Adrian Nastase, saying that "it is intolerable that an opposition journalist is personally targeted because of what her newspaper publishes, especially when her private life is affected".

In its latest report, Amnesty International hit out at the excessive pressure and intimidation levelled by the authorities against the media in the past year.

While Bucharest responded to the criticism by amending its penal code, these changes fell short of international standards, according to Amnesty. It said that excessive restrictions on freedom of expression remained, “The revision of the Penal Code failed to amend article 168 - communication of false news - or article 236, defined as defamation of a state or nation."

This can lead to trouble for reporters trying to cover stories which criticise the authorities, said Vrinceanu, adding that at Ziarul de Vrancea alone there are currently more than 140 lawsuits pending against staff members and management.

There were more than 400 criminal cases brought against the media in Romania last year, the vast majority concerning defamation. Most prosecutions resulted in financial penalties or suspended prison sentences.

Information technology writer Ovidiu Cristian Iane was arrested at the beginning of 2002 on suspicion of creating the so-called Armageddon II file - an e-mail report accusing Nastase of corruption - and was charged with disseminating false information.

While under arrest, Iane admitted he had sent the e-mail upon the request of his friend, Mugur Ciuvica, former chief of cabinet of the ex-president Emil Constantinescu. Ciuvica was then investigated on similar charges to Iane. A few days later, following vocal protests from several international human rights organisations, the charges were dropped and the two men released.

In spite of such high-profile interventions from the international community, intimidation of journalists continues.

For example, Sergiu Poliopol - director of a regional radio network in the town of Petrosani, in the centre of the country - was live on air discussing a government sponsored anti-corruption campaign when his car was set ablaze by unknown persons.

Incidents such as these have created a sinister atmosphere which affects not only journalists.

“At the moment, there are managers working for state institutions who are afraid to talk to the media because they may get politically persecuted afterwards," said Vrinceanu.

"Some people don't want to talk to journalists on the phone, because they’re afraid that it might be intercepted. They would rather send us short messages on our mobiles."

Daniela Tuchel works for the Bucharest-based newspaper Libertatea.

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