THE MEDIA LANDSCAPE IN ROMANIA: Clientelism-free media policy is rather far away
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Translation: Fairpress

Author: Septimius Parvu

The public media in Romania have been under constant pressure from politicians and have become more dependent in the last two years from the national budget. The elimination of the radio-TV tax by the Social Democrat Party was a political initiative that will turn the public media even more clientelistic, as both the national radio and TV companies become strictly dependent on the will of the politicians. In the past months, a series of visible derailments in terms of independence and orientation on public interest of TVR have been visible, as some shows have been either reduced or totally removed from the programme. On the other hand, the performance criteria for the management of the institutions are rather fuzzy and long-term discussions lead to no result.

Maybe some of the clearest positions regarding the political perspectives on the role of the public media was expressed by Lucian Romașcanu, former member of the Parliament and Minister of Culture who declared that the modernising of the public media should transform them into “professional bodies of communication of the Romanian state”.

Cristina Lupu, media expert in Bucharest stated in an intervention during a public debate organised by EFOR that things are going backwards and the situation of the media is getting worse due to political pressures. The pressures also come from other institutions that are used as a tool to silence journalists. If bad articles are written about some of them, then the risk of an immediate fiscal or labour related control is imminent.

On the other hand, the National Audiovisual Council continues to be a weak and politicised institution, with rather slow and soft reactions towards the derailments. Its faulty functioning has been criticised by the civil society, but also by the general public, as the institution was a target of the protests in 2017.

The management of the public media and CNA had integrity issues and they were under criminal investigations or marked by incompatibilities. The appointment and dismissal procedure for the presidents of the public media remains a vulnerability, as the Parliament can change the leadership of the companies early; this procedure might also be extended to the national press agency, Agerpres.

Significant derailments from the professional standards have been visible during the elections in 2016 and the protests in 2017. The justice reform has been a fertile ground for disinformation, propaganda, conspiracy theories or fake news, widely propagated by TV stations such as Antena 3, B1 TV or Romania TV, but also by newspapers such as Evenimentul Zilei. Some of them have been the target of a public campaign of boycotting their advertising contracts with some companies.

Some of the biggest media companies are still marked by legal issues, as owners either have been arrested, convicted or are under criminal investigation for varied crimes of corruption, but also blackmail or economic misdemeanours. These owners – such as Dan Voiculescu or Sebastian Ghiță – also used their own media in order to support their cause and fight against the stability and independence of justice.

A rather high number of pressures on journalists have been reported. In some situations, politically tied owners impose their vision over the news; journalists are fired for public comments; whistleblowers are dragged into commissions for speaking out about the abuses in their institutions. Some of the well-known journalists have run for political offices in 2016; names such as Robert Turcescu were elected in the Parliament. Two members of CNA have shown their intent to candidate in the elections.

Media policy is rather unpredictable and based on political priorities instead of arguments and data; there is low political will to fight clientelism in the policy development process. By short, the public policy in the media sector is either random or based on political interests. Although there are some positive amendments to the legislation regarding the media or transparency, the last two years brought a series of initiatives targeted to erode the rule of law and freedom of speech. We can mention attempts to criminalise insult or calumny, to impose very harsh sanctions for “social defamation” or to introduce more severe rules for data monitoring.

The last 2 years represented a positive trend from the financial perspective, as several major media companies made a profit; there are still media outlets that register losses rather than profit, such as Realitatea TV. Overall, lack of money remains a major problem in the media market, especially in the local media. The media advertising market seems to follow ascending trends, reaching towards the profit records in 2008, before the crisis. Online media and TV remain the most used channels, while the printed media is constantly thinning, together with advertising. Local media remain captive, with low resources and dependent on the capacities of the owners, including politicians or politically connected leaders in the communities.

Investigative journalism had some success, as online platforms or independent projects such as the Rise Project have published highly viewed articles about important politicians or corruption cases. The independent platforms have had a slight increase in the last two years and some of them are supported by public contributions. The investigative segment in the national TV and radio stations is reduced or inexistent, due to the official politics of management; the absence of such production is proof of safe behaviour and does not affect the political decision makers.

Clientelism-free media policy is rather far away

One of the media experts we consulted considers that there are no efficient barriers to clientelism. The only barrier that may bring some support is provided by the audiovisual legislation that limits ownership on AV media based on a complicated algorithm to measure “editorial influence” (involves shares and audience rates). Moreover, despite some mechanisms in place, the country is not able – or interested – to deal systematically with clientelism in the legislative process.

Generally speaking it seems that the Romanian state has a chronical lack of vision and arguments when it comes to legislating. One of the experts states that apart from the AV media ownership data collected by CNA, no other data regarding the media sector is collected and published by the state. Media policy is not based on data, also starting from the fact that the media sector is one of the least researched sectors in Romania. Moreover, media policies are themselves clientelistic and adopted in order to serve party interests.

One of the major amendments to the legislative framework is the elimination of the radio TV tax that was highly prompted during the electoral campaign for the Parliamentary elections in 2016. Through a populistic initiative, in an electoral year, the Social Democrat Party (PSD) eliminated 102 taxes, including the ones covering the TV-radio tax. Although it was one of the lowest taxes in Europe (1.5 EUR), it covered a part of the expenses for the already indebted public media companies. According to the am-

endments, through the annual budget law, the Romanian Radio Society (SRR) and the Romanian Television Society (SRT) receive funds for functioning and development. The Romanian TV was given 211 million EUR, while the Radio received 85 million EUR; in comparison, all the publicity in the private media gathers 350 million EUR per year. SRT received in 2017 from the government an increase of 662% compared to 2016; the sums also cover a historic debt of more than 150 million EUR. The difficult financial situation led to the suspension from the European Broadcasting Union (EBU); TVR was not allowed to broadcast Eurovision. The populist decision may have a significant impact on the independence of the public media and might have opened a wide opportunity for consolidating the political clientelism; the decisions was highly criticised by the civil society and the public opinion.

Another potential clientelistic initiative was promoted through Law 8/2006. Journalistic associations – amongst others – have been included on a list of retired creators that can receive a compensation that represents 50% of the pension, but no more than 2 gross salaries; they have to be members in a union of creators with public utility status. Still, only the Union on Professional Journalists in Romania/ Uniunea Ziariștilor Profesioniști din România seem to be eligible; therefore, the law can be considered to have a clientelistic potential. Journalists wrote that three of the members of the board have degrees in the army, as colonels. Another controversial initiative of the same UNPR senator, Haralamb Voichițoiu is the instauration of the Day of the Journalist for 28th of June. The project has been criticised by civil society organisations and regarded as a retrograde and rather restrictive; the project is still in the Parliamentary process.

Law 504/2002 of the Audiovisual was slightly amended in 2016. The media covered by the law must ensure the political and social pluralism, diversity and education of citizens, with the enforcement of human rights and liberties. Also, the media providers must assume cultural and scientific responsibilities; initially, the TV stations were bound to include in their programs at least one minute of scientific and technological information, but the law was changed in the Senate. In 2016 and 2017, the Audiovisual Code was amended and included changes referring to the protection of the minors, discrimination (making the provisions more inclusive) and a few new rules for publicity.

Law 144/2016 modified the FOIA legislation by extending the categories envisaged for providing information. The amendments added categories such as public utility operators, political parties, sports federations and public utility NGOs that receive public funding. Moreover, in 2016, the government amended the norms for Law 544/2001 and introduced some provisions that enhance transparency. Some of the most important ones are related to the provision of information in certain formats, including open ones; clarifications regarding costs of information and timeline; accessibility for persons with disabilities; providing templates; procedures regarding complaints.

The Ministry for Public Consultation and Civic Dialogue and Expert Forum published a manual covering court decision related to Law no. 544/2001 regarding the free access to information of public interest, especially exceptions from the information that must be published. Most difficulties are encountered in providing information on how to spend public money and public procurement.

Several new laws or amendments seem to have the purpose to limit freedom of speech and public debate in general:

  • The initiative of Liviu Dragnea, president of the Social Democrat Party related to the social defamation attracted harsh criticism from the public opinion due to the fact that it imposed high sanctions for unclear and discriminatory provisions. For example, defamation can be considered a simple declaration through which a person is put into an inferior position on the basis of its membership to a certain social group – which is a quite vague and potentially abusive provision. The project has received a negative vote and for more than a year is idle in the Parliament. Still, during the extraordinary congress PSD held in March 2018, Liviu Dragnea upheld the nationalistic speech, by saying

Let’s start saying some truths. Romania is a sovereign state, but when politicians, heads of institutions, known voices of the society sabotage the country, with anti-Romanian statements, we lose independence, dignity, respect and we do not win anything in return. The defamation of one’s own country through a lie is a very serious deed.

  • At the end of 2015, the controversial former ALDE senator Cristiana Anghel proposed a series of amendments to the Criminal Code in order to reintroduce calumny and insult; this can prove to be a serious threat for journalists and is part of a longer series of similar proposals. In 2016 it was rejected by the Senate. In 2017, the Government negatively advised the act and the project has not evolved in any direction.
  • The “Big Brother” odyssey continued, although it was frequently criticised by the civil society and journalists. In 2014, the Constitutional Court (CCR) considered some provisions of the law illegal. The law refers to the obligation for telecom operators to retain data and to make it available to investigators with the consent of a judge. George Maior, Director of the Romanian Intelligence Service (SRI) resigned due to this fact. In 2016 CCR decided – through Decision 621/2016 – that the new piece of legislation is constitutional. Law 203/2015 allows SRI to access data from the internet suppliers, but only with the approval of a judge. The users are monitored when they access the internet, the equipment used and the browsing history. The information is kept for at least three years. The most important and contested provision states that at the request of the courts, prosecutors or bodies with attributions in the field of defense and national security, with the prior authorisation of the judge, the providers of public networks make available the information in no more than 48 hours.

An initiative that failed to be adopted by the Parliament stated that all TV and radio broadcasters have to play the national anthem. CNA has voted against the legal proposal.

Law 66/2017 modifies OUG 25/2013 (anti-rebade ordinance) that practically eliminated publicity agencies from the relation between beneficiaries and audiovisual entities. The current law eliminates the article that states that buying ad space can only be done by an intermediary in the name of the final beneficiary, with no negotiation space. OUG 25 was badly received by the agencies, as their incomes have gone down significantly due to this provision.

The conclusion related to the legislative framework is drawn by one of the experts we consulted: there is legal framework, but not effectively applied.

More information is coming regarding the media landscape in Romania. Stay tooned.

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