THE MEDIA LANDSCAPE IN ROMANIA II: Basic rights and media freedoms – are they really there?
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Translation: Fairpress

Author: Septimius Parvu

In the previous article we started talking about the media landscape in Romania in the past three years; here the story continues.

The incapable guardians

The National Audiovisual Council (CNA) is the institution that oversees the quality of TV and radio productions and supervises the media market. The members of the CNA are named by the Parliament and monitored by a parliamentary commission that debates the annual activity and budgetary reports in April of each year. In the online and printed media there are no institution that can oversee the activity.

CNA’s activity has been publicly criticized for politicization and clientelism. The members of the board are nominated by the political parties and their activity is frequently viewed in connection to the interests of political entities. Also, civil society frequently criticised CNA in 2016, especially due to the fact that it was an electoral year, with both local and parliamentary elections. The institution was blamed for not apply the law, as the members do not meet with the required frequency and the sanctions applied to the media outlets are often not dissuasive.

A monitoring of 2016 shows that the members of the board did not hold 17 meetings due to lack of quorum. In 2017 they held 62 meetings (compared to 52 in 2016) and gave a number of 46 sanctions summing up to 350.000 EUR out of 4250 complaints received.

The electoral campaign was marked by nationalistic, xenophobic messages, with significant derailments. The media and the social media represented an important tool for the distribution of such messages. In 2015, the legislation was modified and for the first time in the elections that took place in 2016 on-line political advertising and TV received more importance.

Conspiracy theories and disinformation were strongly used by parties such as United Romania (PRU) or the Social Democrat Party (PSD). The reactions of CNA were rather weak and late. Most of the sanctions were applied for breaking the regulations related to the electoral campaign (the presence of a single candidate, masked advertising, electoral campaign during the e-day etc). Some of the most toxic messages were produced by Romania TV, one of the media outlets that strongly insisted on the involvement of George Soros in the electoral campaign and protests. The television was fined with 30.000 lei for fake/fabricated news; actually it was the most fined TV station in 2017. Some other fines were applied at the beginning of 2017, the most important quantifying the sum of 100.000 lei. B1 TV station was fined with 5.000 lei for potential fake news. Antena 3 and Romania TV got the most significant fines in 2016.

Antena 3 was fined by CNA for presenting a re-enactment in which Mihai Gotiu, a politician from an opposition party, appears as a true footage; in the movie he was fighting gendarmes during a protest and the TV station presented it as real. Gotiu stated that he will sue the TV station. In another case, the court determined that several journalists must pay 300.000 lei for slandering the chief of the National Anticorruption Directorate.

Severe derailments also took place after the demonstrations in January-February, when hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in order to protest against OUG 13, an emergency ordinance prepared by the government, in a discretionary manner; the purpose of the OUG was to weaken the anticorruption efforts in Romania, but was later abrogated by a subsequent ordinance issued due to protests. Highly politicised TV stations such as Antena 3 (owned by tycoon Dan Voiculescu) or Romania TV (previously owned by PSD/PRU fugitive MP Sebastian Ghiță) produced disinformation and fake news, frequently stating that the protesters have been paid by George Soros.

The president of CNA, Laura Georgescu has been indicted for abuse in office and refused to resign, although members of the council asked her to quit the leading position. According to the legal rules, the president of the institution can be changed by the Parliament; yet, no such measure has been taken. On the other hand, the mechanism has been criticised by the civil society, as it may become particular and address a certain person and not the position in itself. This prolonged situation has a negative impact over the credibility and neutrality of the institution.

Similar evaluation systems are in place for the public radio and the national TV. The president and the board can be dismissed by the Parliament, through vote. This has been used in the past as a clientelistic mechanism and affects the proper functioning and long term management for the institutions. In 2017, the management of the national TV station has been dismissed, as a result of a negative vote.

The Parliament initiated a law that will also allow its members to change in a similar manner the president of Agerpres, the national press agency. Civil society and Romanian and professional journalistic bodies publicly criticised the proposed amendments. The management of Agerpres reacted publicly, including by sending a letter of protest to embassies.

Ovidiu Miculescu, the president of the public radio was declared incompatible by the High Court of Cassation and Justice. Still, for several months, he refused to resign. Employees signed a public letter and asked for his resignation. This action was also supported by civil society associations and journalists that put pressure on the speakers of the two chambers in the Parliament. Miculescu was dismissed by the Parliament and replaced by Georgică Severin in 2017.

In 2016, the anticorruption prosecutors started an investigation at TVR regarding procurement procedures organised between 2005 and 2016 for commercial services. An investigation was also started at SRR for conflicts of interests and abuse in office as 11 members of the board have given contracts to companies that they

controlled in an indirect manner.

In 2016, respectively 2017 the boards of the national TV and radio have been dismissed by the Parliament as the activity reports were rejected. The proposals for the position of President Director of the SRT have been rejected several times by the Parliament, causing protests from the opposition parties, but also from the employees of the television in multiple occasions. The new President, Irina Radu, was dismissed after a year. A new president was appointed in September 2017, Doina Gradea.

The experts we consulted marked the institutional framework in a rather negative manner and characterised it as inconsistent.

Basic rights and media freedoms – are they really there?

One of experts stated that the Code for Audiovisual prescribes some norms, but their implementation is weak. Another one stated that ethics is not a barrier, freedom of the press is disregarded inside media community.

In 2016 and 2017 several journalists working in the private media have been fired or quit the newsrooms accusing of censorship or politicisation. Pressures on journalists have been reported at the national radio. Gabriel Basarabescu stated as whistleblower that a show was taken for him due to his coverage of Moldova and the new bureaucratic Ciolos Government; the reasons stated by the management are related to the fact that Basarabescu did not follow the requested format.

Whistleblowing remains a sensitive topic, as practically the adequate protection is still not in place. Alexandru Rusu and Cătălin Gomboș are journalists working for Radio Romania that have been under investigation as they have criticized the way the management of the institution ran a campaign against the modification of the Law 41 (referring to the separation of the Director and President positions). The former president – director of SRR, Ovidiu Miculescu decided the set-up of a preliminary disciplinary commission to investigate the two journalists, with the possibility to apply sanctions according to the labour legislation, as they participated in a public debate organised by Frontline Club as whistleblowers and in a meeting of the National audiovisual Council. In September 2016, several NGOs criticised the enquiry procedures and drew the attention over the violation of free speech. In October 2016 several employees protested against the commission and accused the abuses in the institution. In November 2016, the President-Director published an order that established that the employees have to send the complaints to the internal management and not to the public opinion, restraining the provisions of the whistleblower legislation and opening the possibility for abuse.

Gomboș talked more about the issues in the Romanian Radio during a debate organised by Expert Forum on political clientelism, in December 2017. He underlined the clientelistic process of hiring obedient people in coordination positions which blocked or influenced the policies. Moreover, topics are avoided, especially related to politics. A third point is that the solidarity of the collective against abuse and clientelism is rather low.

Rise Project, an investigative platform, published a series of articles related to the wealth of Liviu Dragnea, the president of the Social Democrat Party and the business of Tel Drum, a company that is allegedly controlled by him according to the press, both under criminal investigation. The tax inspectors controlled their office in the same day when an article should have been published. This was seen as a mechanism of intimidation; a similar control took place at the office of Hotnews.

In February 2017, Carmen Dan, the Ministry of Internal Affairs publicly blacklisted a few journalists and named them instigators during the protests in January-February 2017 against the Government (OUG 13). Ms. Dan mentioned names such as Cătălin Tolontan, Emilia Şercan, Mircea Marian or Ovidiu Vanghele, as well as opposition politicians such as Nicușor Dan (USR). PMP and USR asked for her resignation, as well as two nongovernmental organisations, Activewatch and the CJI, accusing of pressures of the totalitarian kind.

At the beginning of the year the president of the parliamentary Commission of the Control of the Secret Service declared that it is legal for the secret service to infiltrate covered agents in the press and confirmed that there are such cases. ActiveWatch, Centrul pentru Jurnalism Independent, Centrul Român pentru Jurnalism de Investigație and Miliția Spirituală criticised the declaration and asked for the specific introduction of such incompatibility in the legislation and practice.

Several journalists quit their jobs/were fired and accused political pressures. On the other side, journalists were candidates in the elections. Moreover, some of them continuously published defaming articles about civil society and the opposition parties and therefore showing a strong ideological and submissive behavior.

Besides pressures, journalists have been threatened by politicians. Marian Vanghelie, the former Social Democrat mayor of 5th District in Bucharest threatened a journalist, as he was representing Romania TV, a TV station owned by Sebastian Ghiță. Cătălin Cherecheș, mayor of Baia Mare was accused by a journalist that he confiscated the recorder during a local council meeting; the recorder was given back, but without the memory card. Journalists were pushed out of the Malaxa hospital, as they were investigating the abuses of the manager of the institution, under criminal investigation. Several journalists have been aggressed during the protests in 2017 by protesters in front of the Controceni Palace (presidency) or were under pressure by the police.

Cătălin Rădulescu – PSD deputy – was aggressive with the mass media and declared during the protests in 2017 that he could shoot the protesters. He was suspended from the party and a criminal investigation started against him.

More to come about the media landscape in Romania.

Connected article: THE MEDIA LANDSCAPE IN ROMANIA: Clientelism-free media policy is rather far away

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