Romania’s press freedom in free fall as its takes over EU presidency
As Romania prepares to take over the European Union’s rotating presidency next week, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is concerned about the sharp decline in press freedom in this East European country and calls for active measures to combat disinformation and promote quality journalism.
The problems with Romania’s media include excessive politicization, corrupt funding mechanisms, the subjection of editorial decision-making to media owner interests and deliberate disinformation.
The media’s transformation into political propaganda tools has become increasingly apparent in recent years, especially during the elections that have been frequent due to political instability. The economic crisis has led to the closure of many media outlets while oligarchs have taken control of others.
Although enshrined as a basic principle in its constitution, media freedom has been declining steadily in Romania, which is ranked 44th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2018 World Press Freedom Index.
“Twelve years after Romania joined the European Union and as it gets ready to take on the EU presidency, we urge its authorities to demonstrate responsibility by preventing any further decline in press freedom in their country,” said Pauline Adès-Mével, the head of RSF’s EU and Balkans desk.
“The government must do everything possible to guarantee editorial independence, prevent journalists being exploited by oligarchs and their interests, and combat disinformation, so that Romanians can have access to the reliable news coverage that every democracy needs in order to function properly.”
Ownership concentration affecting editorial independence
Ownership is the biggest problem for Romania’s media, whose editorial independence is under greater threat than ever. Some media owners are being prosecuted, others are in prison, and most maintain political “friendships” that serve their interests. The editorial policies of these media often ignore the public interest, and self-censorship is a rule of survival for journalists.
Owners have used their media outlets in recent years to wage systematic disinformation campaigns designed to undermine Romania’s judicial system. The pro-government TV channels Romania TV and Antena 3 have violated basic journalistic ethics in their coverage of protests in 2017 and 2018 by including false information designed to suggest, for example, that the Hungarian-born US billionaire philanthropist George Soros was behind the protests and that he tried to sway the outcome of the 2016 parliamentary elections.
Romania TV is also behind a smear campaign against the National Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA) and its chief prosecutor, the spearhead of an offensive that has been alarming the political class for months.
TV owners convicted of corruption
The editorial line taken by media outlets can often be explained by the fact that their owners have been convicted of corruption. Dan Voiculescu, one of his country’s richest men, is a perfect example of how a single individual often combines a wide range of professional activities in Romania. A former politician, he owns a leading media group that includes Antena 1, one of Romania’ most popular TV channels. And in 2016, he was convicted of money laundering and blackmail.
When not in prison, some media owners are on the run. This is the case with Sebastian Ghita, a controversial businessmen charged with bribery, blackmail and money laundering who has obtained political asylum in Serbia. Before fleeing, he made sure he would be able to attack his political enemies by investing in the media, including the leading 24-hour news channel, Realitatea TV, and by creating his own channel, Romania TV, in 2013.
Adrian Sarbu, the owner of the Mediafax group, Alexander Adamescu, the owner of the newspaper Romania Libera, Dan Andronic, the editor of the newspaper Evenimentul Zilei, and many other press bosses have also been charged with corruption in recent years. Doina Gradea, the head of the state-owned broadcaster TVR, was recently accused of interfering in its ethics committee and censoring its journalists after she suddenly shut down one of its leading current affairs programmes.
Legislation threatening independence
The media are also harassed by parliament. After increasing its control over the public radio and TV media by replacing their executives, the ruling PSD-ALDE coalition tightened its grip on the national news agency AGERPRESS in 2017 by passing a legislative amendment that allows it to fire the news agency’s management without any grounds.
The survival and independence of the state-owned media is also threatened by the elimination of around 100 taxes, including the TV licence fee, the main source income for Romania’s heavily indebted public radio and TV broadcasters.
The National Audiovisual Council (CNA), which is supposed to ensure that radio and TV enjoy “complete respect for press freedom,” has been widely accused of “politicization," conflicts of interest and incompetence in recent years. Its members, who are appointed by the political parties, openly express their political views in the newspapers and on TV, while its president and a former member are currently been prosecuted on corruption charges.
Police violence during protests
Another symptom of the poor state of press freedom is the way both Romanian and foreign reporters have been treated during protests. When tens of thousands of Romanians took to the streets in August to demand the government’s resignation, around 15 journalists were subjected to physical and verbal violence by police, prompting President Klaus Iohannis to ask the prosecutor’s office to investigate their “brutal and disproportionate intervention.”
Accused of compiling a “blacklist” of journalists regarded as inciting a revolt, interior minister Carmen Dan nonetheless defended the police, insisting that they had “respected the law and defended the institutions of the state.”
Investigative websites now the only source of news
Investigative reporters have not been spared. To offset the poor quality of the traditional media and shed light on the ubiquitous corruption, several journalists have launched investigative media outlets such as RISE Project, Casa Jurnalistului, PressOne, Factual, G4Media, Sa fie Lumina and Recorder.ro, whose reporting has jolted the political and media landscape.
The state has not been slow to respond. Hotnews and RISE Project, which have published exposés on such leading politicians as PSD leader Liviu Dragnea, received visits from the National Agency for Fiscal Administration (ANAF). RISE Project has been threatened with a fine of up to 20 million euros if it does not reveal its sources for a series of Facebook articles.
The authorities have also tried to restrict journalists’ access to state-held information in recent years. The Bucharest city hall, the health ministry, the defence ministry and other state entities have all used undemocratic methods to withhold information from journalists. The European Union’s recent General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which is intended to protect personal data and privacy, has also led to abuses, with Romanian officials using it as grounds not to share information with reporters.
PressOne investigative reporter Emilia Sercan nonetheless recently scored a significant victory in the case she brought against the defence ministry, which had cited the GDPR as justification for refusing to give her access to the information she had sought on public interest grounds.
As a result, independent investigative reporters and websites are now seen as one of the slim hopes of a journalistic revival in Romania.