Romania has a lot of high-calibre journalists to its name. However, many media outlets are now fighting to survive while maintaining professional standards due to judicial investigations, political scandals and struggles with high debt loads. This is according to the authors of The Men Who Bit the (Watch) Dogs, which explores the media landscape in the country.
The report focuses on transparency and ownership of the media — particularly the most influential medium, television, over the past 25 years — from post-communist enthusiasm to today’s chaotic mix of business models.
While journalists in the early 1990s were independent of the pressures that marked the Soviet age, most of the 1,200 newspapers that were established at the time didn’t take off. Speaking to Index on Censorship, one of two Romanian academics behind the report, Manuela Preoteasa from think tank The Centre for Media Transparency, explains that at the time, well-known international media companies just weren’t interested in quality journalism.
“As we demonstrated in the report, the market was kept half-closed during the early 90s, which means that it was not open to foreign investors,” Preoteasa says. As the report highlights, the “market that was inhospitable to the promotion of professional journalism” and so “foreign investors had to focus solely on commercial success”.
The ethos of the era seemed to be: “We don’t sell our country to foreigners.” Foreign investors could not own a licence without a Romanian partner, and apart from state-owned channels, no other private entity could apply. For nine years, only local licences for each of the 41 counties and Bucharest were available.
With ownership of the media confined a handful of tycoons, many outsiders would have lost interest. “Show me a serious TV investor who would have been willing to invest in such an unfriendly market,” Preoteasa says. “I strongly believe that the media market was intentionally kept closed to serious investors.”
Print was different. “The history of the last decade shows that print media could not exist on its own, but only as part of a conglomerate, and the conglomerates were formed around TV stations,” Preoteasa explains. “That is why the TV industry has such a strong influence.”
Economically, many of these media outlets relied on state advertising. Some TV stations — already benefiting from debt cancellations and debt rescheduling — started to receive public money as state-owned companies began to advertise. The scheme was introduced by the government led by former Prime Minister Adrian Năstase (2000-2004) and was soon adopted by local politicians and businessmen.
Romania’s unfriendly business environment, high taxes, bureaucracy and a chronic economic instability also challenged the viability of commercial models within the media, the report says. Other challenges include “the lack of a clear distinction between information and opinion and the absence of marketing- and sales-related knowledge”.
These days, the media industry faces serious legal problems that involve either the owners of the main media groups or the groups themselves. Media owners such as Adrian Sârbu, Dan Voiculescu, Sorin Ovidiu Vântu, Sebastian Ghiţă and Dinu Patriciu have all been on trial or are under various criminal investigations.
In a young democracy, the media should play a key role in holding the powerful to account. However, this doesn’t seem to be the case in Romania.
So are there any signs of hope? “I believe the initiative will come from the telecom industry,” Preoteasa says. As to whether the telecom industry will swallow the existent media or would it invent a new one, the answer lies somewhere in between. “I am sure the online media started to have a say and the pressure from the interactive medium is high,” she says, offering an open suggestion: “Someone should look carefully at what young people are looking for and perhaps this will reveal the answer about what might come next.”
Vasile Luca, a veteran journalist working at Radio Cluj, a Romanian public radio station based in Cluj-Napoca, was fired in May 2015 as a result of a disciplinary committee hearing.
Two months before his termination, Luca, who had been with the station for 25 years, went public with internal documents showing that a station employee, Debreczeni Hajnalka, who was also the press secretary for the head of a political party, was not actually completing any work despite an unusually high salary. Luca filed a complaint at the public prosecutor’s office and, after media coverage, Hajnalka resigned from the station. The station refused to disclose what Hajnalka’s job title had been.
At the time of the resignation, Hajnalka said her role had been to coordinate media strategies, internal communication between public stations and media monitoring. She denied that she had broken any laws or acted inappropriately.
“The case of Debreczeni Hajnalka was surely not the sole reason for my dismissal”, Luca told Index during an interview. “However, after the Debreczeni scandal, there was a lot of pressure, and multiple phone calls were made because the party she works for, the Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania (DAHR), is very influential in the upper echelons of public radio”.
Luca had a long track record of conflicts with station management. He had previously documented illegalities and misuse of public funds at the radio station. In 2010, Luca was granted whistleblower status by Transparency International Romania after he gathered evidence that Florin Zaharescu, director of the station at the time, was embezzling funds.
Luca was subjected to his first disciplinary action in January 2015. Station management accused him of being the author of caricatures of the radio station’s directors. The images were found in the office he shared with six other journalists.
“When Ovidiu Miculescu, the general director of the Romanian Radio Broadcasting Company, was showing his solidarity with the murdered editors of Charlie Hebdo at the French Embassy, editor-in-chief at Radio Cluj, Bogdan Rosca, was trying to impose disciplinary actions against me for a couple of ironic quotes and some pictures of a bristly kitten”, the journalist said.
Along with the “bristly kitten”, the disciplinary committee also weighed a private letter the journalist had written to Vasile Dancu, a local politician and sociologist. In the letter, Luca criticised Dancu for supporting Rosca, his former student, calling him “incompetent”, “unprepared” and “resentful”.
The committee also considered a letter that Luca wrote to Miculescu that criticised Rosca’s managerial performance by citing research that showed that the radio station’s audience numbers plummeted after Rosca took over in February 2014.
As a result of the hearing, Luca’s salary was cut by 10 per cent for one month.
Immediately after the first disciplinary hearing, the editor-in-chief filed a complaint against Luca accusing him of collaborating with a privately-owned television station while he was on sick leave.
“My work ended well before I took a couple of months of sick leave. Even the disciplinary committee had to admit that I had management’s approval for a one-year collaboration with Argo TV which began in April 2013”, Luca said.
Months after the series of documentaries were shot and aired, the television station uploaded the documentary onto their website. The web publication date coincided with the period Luca was on leave. He also appeared on an Argo TV talk show during his leave.
“Luca had an appearance on television as an editor he could not account for”, Attila Szász, the head of the disciplinary committee told Index. “We did not recommend he be dismissed. The dismissal was the decision of the general director”.
According to Luca, the hearing of the disciplinary committee was unlawful because he was not granted the right to be represented by a lawyer. In a written request sent to the committee just before the hearing, Luca pointed out that the exact time and place of the hearing was not set and when they finally made the decision, his lawyer was unable to be present.
Luca said he did not receive copies of the medical records used as evidence against him and, he believes, that the process did not meet standards required by Romanian labour law. As a whistleblower, Luca said, there are legal requirements for transparency that were not met. For example, the time and location of the hearings were supposed to be publicised three days in advance and members of the press should have been granted access.
He has filed a legal complaint and a judge will decide whether he has grounds to challenge the disciplinary actions.
In November, Romanians are set to head to the polls to elect a new president from a field of 14 candidates during two rounds of polling. But one important participant, the National Audiovisual Council of Romania (CNA), will be sidelined as it loses its legally mandated quorum.
According to the CNA’s website, its role is to “ensure that Romania’s TV and radio stations operate in an environment of free speech, responsibility and competitiveness.”
While the first round of voting is set to get underway on 2 November, the CNA’s quorum of eight will be halved on 4 November when four members of the council step down at the end of their terms. If no candidate wins a majority in the first poll, the top candidates will compete in a second round on 16 Nov.
“Without a quorum, the CNA cannot function, and thus it cannot sanction the eventual abuses of television or radio stations during the election campaign,” said Narcisa Iorga, a CNA board member. Iorga believes politicians will benefit from this, as it is in their best interests to have an inactive CNA. Television stations will also use the situation in their favor, though they are already accustomed to breaking the audiovisual legislation, she added.
According to some members of the council, it could be January before the CNA regains its quorum and the ability to make decisions on issuing sanctions, well after the election campaign and the two rounds of voting.
The CNA is Romania’s only regulatory body overseeing television and radio programmes. In its watchdog role, the regulator ensures that legislation governing programming is respected. It’s a key role in a country where television is the dominant media among the population. Political parties and interest groups use the country’s live television shows to get their message across to the public.
By law, the CNA is supposed to have 11 board members. To maintain a quorum, eight members need to be present at the proceedings. The members, who have a mandate of six years, are nominated by the senate (three members), the chamber of deputies (three), the president (two), the government (three), and are confirmed by the parliament.
This is where politics comes into play: the parliament, controlled by a coalition led by the party of Victor Ponta, the prime minister who is the best-placed candidate at the presidential elections, did not vote to confirm the new members before the parliamentary vacation began. Therefore in less than a month, the CNA will have only seven members, one member short of the quorum.
Not having enough members to be able to take decisions is nothing new for the regulatory body. When there are politically sensitive issues on the table, some of its members usually go on a vacation.
For example, on 9 October a number of complaints against the Antena 3 news television will be debated, but it is more than likely that will be no quorum. Two CNA members are currently on vacation, and another two just announced their absence, wrote Iorga on her Facebook wall.
Attacks on freedom of expression: Insult and libel recriminalized
The signatory organizations condemn the anti-democratic practices adopted and exercised by the current parliamentary majority and publicly ask the Romanian President not to promulgate the law through which, surreptitiously, the offenses of libel and insult were reintroduced in the Criminal Code.
In 2006, the Parliament decided to repeal the offenses of insult and libel. In 2007, the Constitutional Court ruled that the offenses of libel and insult are not repealed, then, in 2010, the High Court of Cassation and Justice has ruled that the offenses of insult and libel are abolished, and in 2013 the Constitutional Court ruled again that the offenses of libel and insult are not repealed.
OSCE congratulated Romania after insult and libel were decriminalized. This decriminalization also increased the rating of the country in relevant international rankings, such as those of Reporters Without Borders.
An old bill 2011 (Pl-x 680/2011) proposed the repeal of a single article of the Criminal Code, namely Article 74/1. Under very suspicious circumstances, this bill was radically changed the night before being adopted by the Chamber of Deputies during the plenum of 10 December 2013 (“The International Human Rights Day”) by introducing, among other provisions, the offenses of libel and insult.
This decision, taken without any public consultation made useless ten years of efforts made by the society for the decriminalization of insult and libel. It eliminates Romania from the democracies who reject the idea that a man can be imprisoned for his words.
We remind politicians that the decisions of the Constitutional Court quoted as a pretext for introducing the offenses of insult and libel in the Criminal Code must comply with the European Convention on Human Rights and the jurisprudence of the ECHR – which have the force of law in Romania. Imposing an obligation on defamation to be criminally sanctioned is not supported by any article of the European Convention on Human Rights and of any judgment by the European Court of Human Rights.
On the other hand, due to the haste with which the amendments to the Criminal Code were adopted, another obsolete article was passed, namely Article 207 – burden of proof. This article is in manifest contradiction with ECHR jurisprudence, demanding those who make a statement to prove the absolute truth of the facts narrated, proof impossible in many situations, especially when it comes to journalistic investigations in complex cases. According to the jurisprudence of the ECHR (see case Dalban v. Romania, for example), those who make a statement, even false / exaggerated, cannot be penalized in any way if they prove the existence of a reasonable factual basis for their statement.
It is imperative that Articles 205-207, which recriminalize insult and libel be removed from the Criminal Code. The current form of the law is a serious assault on press freedom and freedom of expression in general.
The signatory organizations ask the Romanian President not to promulgate this law through which, clandestinely, the offenses of libel and insult were reintroduced in the Criminal Code.
Association for the Defense of Human Rights in Romania – the Helsinki Committee