IWPR'S BALKAN CRISIS REPORT, No. 520, October 8, 2004
ROMANIA: NEW PRESS CENSORSHIP CLAIMS
Journalists at leading newspapers accuse their employers of editorial interference.
By Marian Chiriac in Bucharest
Calin Hera, a veteran Romanian journalist, remembers vividly how he and his colleagues from the leading daily newspaper Evenimentul Zilei worked hard over the years to publish investigative reports, exposing government wrongdoing.
Now he is a disappointed man, for the media's ability to shape the public debate on official abuse of power has declined since those pioneering days, he feels.
"We tried to make the public aware of what their leaders were doing," Hera said. "But increasing threats, political pressure and other hostile actions against the independent media make me fear for the future."
Hera points to the newspaper he works for, saying he fears for its editorial independence following the resignation of managing director Cornel Nistorescu earlier this month.
Reporters in Evenimentul Zilei say Nistorescu, well known for his independence, resigned owing to excessive editorial interference from the newspaper's owner, the Swiss Ringier group.
Journalists say their Swiss owners urged him to reduce critical coverage of the Social Democrat Party, PSD, government before parliamentary elections scheduled for November 28, when Romania is due to conclude EU entry talks.
Nistorescu, who continues to be employed by Evenimentul Zilei, refuses to comment, saying his contract forbids him from criticising the shareholders.
Thomas Landolt, manager of Ringier Romania, says reporters' complaints of interference are baseless. The group has never interfered with its newspapers' editorial independence, he said.
Landolt said Ringier merely agreed on a strategy with the paper's managing team to change the way information was presented in the newspaper, which required several measures, including streamlining the work of the newsroom.
Evenimentul Zilei is not the only Romanian newspaper where staff allege that their owners have been interfering in editorial matters.
Last month, the staff at another daily, Romania Libera, accused the title's owners, Germany's Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung,WAZ, of pressing them to write less critically about the ruling PSD.
"The Germans wanted lifestyle stories from the country instead of stories about the PSD. They are also pushing for more positive topics," read a protest letter, which most of the newspaper's journalists signed.
"This kind of involvement is intensifying before the elections, when the electorate needs more and more information," the letter continued.
Like the Swiss owners of Evenimentul, WAZ executives say their aim is not to interfere with their newspapers' editorial line but to boost circulation.
In a press release, WAZ said they have never stopped an article from publication or censored its content. Responding to complaints that the group also wanted to change the newspaper into a tabloid, WAZ representatives said it wanted Romania Libera to remain a quality newspaper.
Nobody seriously disputes the right of new private owners of media outlets to try to maximise profits from their businesses. But local media campaigners fear a distinct trend away from political reporting towards what some call "info-tainment" poses a subtle, long-term, threat to press freedom.
"Political and economic influences are common in the Romanian media today and have a direct effect on editorial policy," Georgiana Ilie, media analyst at the Centre for Independent Journalism in Bucharest told IWPR.
Ilie said control over the distribution of advertisements for government contracts posed a particular threat by hitting newspaper's finances.
The Romanian authorities buy advertising space in papers to publicise government works - ranging from the post office to shipyards, airports and tourism - and to advertise for jobs and tenders.
This official advertising can be used as a powerful weapon, however - for the purchase of substantial advertising space can determine the survival or death of media outlets, especially among the poorer-financed local press.
A good example of how withdrawal of official favour, in the form of advertising, can affect a newspaper's finances is afforded by the experience of Evenimentul Zilei.
Advertising revenue from state sources fell from around 500,000 euro in 2003 - which made up 20 per cent of the paper's total advertising take - to almost nothing this year. This dramatic drop is widely linked to the newspaper's critical coverage of the ruling party in an election year.
The government, naturally, fends off complaints that political favouritism affects the choice of advertising outlets. "It is not the government's job to command the way that these ads are offered to the media," a government spokesperson, Despina Neagoe, said.
But observers outside the country sometimes concur with the complaints of press freedom campaigners at home that Romanian officialdom exerts a subtle economic pressure on the media through the business of allotting advertising.
The latest European Commission progress report on Romanian European Union membership criticised a lack of commitment to press freedom on the part of the authorities. The report, made public on October 6, praised Romania's progress towards a free democracy but said, "Certain structural problems may affect the practical realisation of the freedom of expression.
"Many media organisations are not economically viable and their continued existence can depend on the support of political or business interests."
The report said the Romanian state tolerated the accumulation of significant debts by a number of the largest media companies, including most major private television stations.
"Such a situation may compromise editorial independence, and media monitoring studies have observed that the TV news is notably less critical of the government than the written press," it said. Finally, the report mentioned cases of local officials using their public office to influence the editorial policy of media outlets through the selective awarding of public advertising contracts. It noted additionally that few perpetrators of violence against journalists had been brought to justice.
This, the most blatant form of media intimidation, remains disturbingly common in Romania. According to the local Media Monitoring Agency, at least 29 journalists were threatened or attacked since the beginning of 2004, compared to 16 registered assaults in 2003.
Journalists complain also of the retention of libel laws that make it easy for offended politicians and officials to sue reporters. They want the government to follow the Council of Europe's recommendation to remove libel from the penal code, as a step towards reducing the power of libel actions to silence reporters in their work.
Marian Chiriac is a Bucharest-based IWPR contributor.
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