Romania's media landscape – so near and yet so far

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What kinds of problems exist in the country, which occupies the 45th spot on the Reporters Without Borders ranking list?
We, in Bulgaria,  have become accustomed to using Romania as a measuring rod in all matters – Romania, with which we shared a common path to Euro-Atlantic integration, while after accession we continued to move in pair under the umbrella of a common monitoring mechanism in the field of justice.
 
If we lend trust to the Reporters Without Borders index on press freedom worldwide, we would find no basis for comparison in the field of media freedom. Bulgaria occupies the unfortunate 100th spot in this index, while the country’s northern neighbour performs significantly better in the 45th position. As it has previously been contended, however, this ranking lacks a mechanism for direct measurement of press freedom. Instead it measures the perception of freedom, which is in turn influenced by the subjective mindset of poll participants.
 
In other words – if journalists in a certain country have higher expectations, respondents are likely to assess reality more critically and be more sensitive to any form of undue pressure. We state this clarification without in any way contending that this is the explanation for the huge difference in ranking positions of the two countries, which we are otherwise used to seeing side by side.
 
A Forum of the Vienna based South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO) that took place in the end of September in Bucharest enables us to take a closer look at the problems facing the media environment in Romania.
  There is a pre-election atmosphere,
Only a few days ago has Prime minister Victor Ponta gathered 70 000 people at the national stadium to officially announce his candidacy for the presidential elections in November. The Prime Minister is among the guests at the opening of the SEEMO Forum on Political Influence in the Media. He points out sharp polarization as the most characteristic feature of the media environment in Romania while also commenting that in this is not necessarily a bad thing. “The diversity of viewpoints, in fact, is the biggest advantage that was brought to us by democracy,” the Social Democrat utters in the hall, located in the Palace of Parliament, from whose roof 25 years ago flew for the last time the helicopter carrying Nicolae Ceausescu. Ponta recalls that in Romania there are five television channels broadcasting political journalism and news updates 24 hours a day. “Journalists of the five channels follow me everywhere, and then each channel has a radically different interpretation of the events of the day,” says the Prime Minister. His words are confirmed by the attending journalists, who are commenting that Romania does indeed have
a wealth of news channels,
on top of which the local regulator has recently granted three additional licenses, so it is expected for informational news channels to grow to the number of eight. Romanians are not so eager for information as for television, says one of the participants. According to him, this eagerness is due to the time Romanian national TV broadcast a very short program dedicated solely to official events involving the communist elite while the people were en masse directing improvised antennas to the south to catch Bulgarian TV broadcasting football games, animation and even western movies.
 
TV news channels form part of the powerful business trusts, behind which stand
 
powerful economic and political interests,
but whose owners are increasingly being looked into by the judicial system. In his speech at the forum Ponta does not miss the opportunity to attack one of these owners, claiming that the latter offered to help him become president, as he had helped all previous heads of state, and in exchange demanded for the politician to exempt him from taxes. “I told him I did not want his help and advised him to continue paying taxes,” said Ponta from the speakers podium, and then named said media mogul on the sidelines – Adrian Sarbu, founder of Pro TV and of the largest private news agency Mediafax, who for several years was executive director of the Central European Media Enterprises (CME) group, to which he had previously sold his TV stations. According to sociologists, even without the aid Ponta allegedly refused from Sarbu, the social democrat has the best chances in this presidential race, in which his main competitor is liberal Klaus Iohannis, an ethnic German and mayor of the beautiful city of Sibiu.
 
Incumbent President Traian Băsescu is not entitled to more years in office as head of state and it is interesting how this will affect the media landscape in the country, which was dominated in recent years by fierce opposition along a Ponta- Băsescu axis.
 
The Romanian representative in SEEMO is Marina Konstaninou, who in the past 12 years has been editor in chief of Jurnalul National – a newspaper from the business empire of former Conservative Party leader Dan Voiculescu. This fact is quite significant and largely predetermines the range of participants in the international conference. Journalists. Some of them have worked at the Antenna TV channels, others are representatives of state media – all loyal to Prime Minister Victor Ponta and critical of his opponents, primarily of the President Traian Băsescu but also of a range of judges and prosecutors, who according to one interpretation refuse to play by the whistle of the government, and according to the opposite – carry out political assignments.
 
The relationship of journalists with the judiciary is a central problem of the media environment in Romania. Early last year, the European Commission included
 
unprecedented criticism of the media
in the monitoring report on Romania. Brussels saw “numerous examples of media putting pressure on the judiciary.” The text was obviously alluding to Dan Voiculescu’s media outlets, provoking outrage among their journalists who responded with recriminations that the EC is impermissibly trying to restrict freedom of speech. To date Voiculescu himself is imprisoned after he was sentenced definitively in August to10 years in prison on charges of money laundering. Voiculescu is by far not the only politician, large business owner and media tycoon who fell foul of the National Anti-Corruption Department acting as a specialised Prosecutor’s Office in this area. It is clear that when the owner has troubles with the judiciary, these also affect the employees in the respective media. It is very difficult for investigative journalists to do their job when a criminal prosecution has been launched against the owner of the media, emphasizes Razvan Savaliuc, owner and editor of the website “World of Justice.” In his view there is pressure to stop the investigations in such cases, which could negatively affect the outcome of the process.
 
But this is not the only obstacle – the Romanian Penal Code includes an article that criminalizes false publications about the actions of judges and prosecutors in certain cases. Participants in the SEEMO event all agree that this text
 
muzzles not only journalists,
 
but all analysts who are not permitted to comment on the work of the judiciary, since it is open to interpretation whether their comments constitute false information or justified claims. President of the lower house of the Romanian Parliament Valeriu Zgonea who also speaks at the conference, states that a procedure is already underway for the removal of the article concerned. Yet it turns out that to date this text of the Penal Code has not been applied and no journalists were sent to prison for criticism of magistrates. A much stronger deterrent are the insult and defamation suits as the damages awarded are very high. Journalist Val Valcu states that some of his colleagues were ordered by court to pay up to € 100.000. He urged the court to take into account the amount of income of journalists when obliging them to pay compensation.
 
Andreea Cretulescu, host of a commentary show on the RTV channel, indicates another problem that puts a rod in the wheels in investigative journalism – the fact that it is expensive and requires much time for thorough research.
 
Investigative journalism is more expensive than TV shows,
says Cretulescu. According to her, what limits the investigations is not necessarily censorship of a classical type, but the fact that media owners are not willing to invest endlessly in investigations that do not earn a return in a very limited advertising market. State institutions, on their end, do everything in their power to limit access for journalists to information that would put responsible employees in a bad light. Along with this, journalists are completely unprotected while the law in this area is quite hazy. This begs the question of why a journalist would take on the risks of investigation, so Cretulescu. She is of the opinion that Ronania could take a page out of France’s book, where the state provides financial assistance for journalist investigations. A TV show host from the same channel, Cătălin Striblea, also speaks about the motivation of journalists. According to him every conversation about TV in Romana starts with “What will be the ratings?”
 
“Every one of us is under threat of loosing our job
and then not being able to find a new one because the media market in the country is too small. Journalists in Romania do not have a syndicate or any other form of protection and we are constantly facing a choice, the decision of each and every one of us depending on the number of children we have and what kind of credits we service to the bank”, so Striblea. Due to these motives many colleagues choose to look away and cut compromises with their conscience, he says.
Patrick André de Hillerin, a journalist from the newspaper Catavencii, confirms this theory. According to him there is great corruption in the media and journalists are dying out as a species exactly because of their
 
illegal ties to politicians.
 
De Hilerin draws attention to the fact that the cost of election campaigns is limited by law, but everyone knows that the actual amounts exceed by far the officially declared values, and what is paid “under the table” contributes to corruption in the media.
 
The death of traditional media
is a topic invariably discussed at all major journalism conferences and this one is no exception. Marina Konstaninou recalls how many newspapers have stopped being published in recent years and indicates that in up to five years, Romania could be left without a single hardcopy newspaper. With the argument that what is written on paper endures, while writings on the Internet may be altered at a subsequent point, she and other participants insist on reducing the rate of VAT (24%) for the print media, but Prime Minister Ponta announces that it will not happen and that the tax rate is not the main threat facing print media.
 
Alex Giboi, director of the National Information Agency Agerpress, draws attention to the fact that the media who produce news are unprotected from the reproduction of these materials without their consent and even without indication of the source. We invest money and labour to create these news, highlights Giboi. Razvan Câsmoiu, director of the Romanian Copyright Agency, however, states that according to local law news are not subject to protection as opposed to publishing products. Questions arise about the boundary between news and current affairs material, he said. Besides copyright protection
 
another problem of state media is their politicisation.
 
The vast majority of members of the supervisory bodies of the national radio and television are political figures, appointed by parliament while media professionals are represented by a single representative. Oana Popescu from national television (TVR) points out that a new general director of TVR is elected every two years with the change in government, which in turn has a negative effect on the quality of this media. At the moment TVR is in a dire financial situation and the talk of a “Greek scenario” – closing the station and re-establishing a new one – is becoming more and more common, so Popescu.
In recent days, the media environment in Romania has been rocked by a sensational uncovering of truth. In September, the star of TV B1 Robert Turcescu, announced on air that he is a
 
military intelligence officer,
 
who works undercover in the media. It would hardly seem so strange – the media in Eastern Europe were filled with people from the communist secret services, many of them enjoying whirlwind careers after the political changes, if not for the fact that Turcescu was born in 1975 and started his career in 1993. This means that he was not a collaborator of the previous Sekuritate but works for the services of a democratic country, which have infiltrated their own agents in the media. Furthermore, this confession came completely unexpectedly. Turcescu himself said that he is doing this because he owes it to the audience, to his family and to God, and that he will not be broadcasting until the court, provided by him with all necessary documents, rules on his guilt. Few people believed this explanation and many analysts have suggested that Turcescu was in fact blackmailed and forced by someone to confess. Currently, it remains a great mystery by whom exactly, but this shows that the issue of links between the media and the Secret Service is still relevant in Romania, a country on whose territory seven special services are currently operational.
 
Curiously enough, all problems that come up during the SEEMO conference regarding the media environment in Romania seem
 
relevant to Bulgaria as well.
Of course, the scale, actors and specific details are different, but self-censorship, lack of protection for journalists, lack of interest for investment in quality investigations and the use of the media to settle political dealings are challenges that both countries are facing. The main difference is probably outside the scope of the media and it is that the Romanian Judiciary has delivered effective sentences for corruption on a large scale, including after journalistic investigations. For example, after an investigation of the sports newspaper Gazeta Sporturilor the majority of football club owners in the Romanian First League ended up in prison for money laundering, corruption and tax evasion.
In this context, the difference between the 45th and 100th position on the Reporters Without Borders Index also shows that the state of the media environment is not an internal problem for the media, but depends on the functioning of the rule of law as well. There is no rule of law without a free media, but the opposite also holds true – there is no way for the media to be free if the state is not governed by the rule of law.
 
By Ivan Radev, AEJ-Bulgaria