Political shakeouts and instability once again plagued Romania, complicating its hopes for admission to the European Union (EU). In December, President Emil Constantinescu effectively ousted Prime Minister Radu Vasile from the government and replaced his entire cabinet. Often blamed for the country’s continuing economic decline, Vasile was also evicted from the ruling Christian Democratic National Peasants’ Party.
It was unclear how the new cabinet would deal with press freedom reforms promised under Vasile’s leadership. In November, the old cabinet approved an agreement with the EU to eliminate criminal statutes that abridged press freedom. This change was one of several reforms demanded by the EU before Romania could be included in the union and receive the EU’s much needed economic support.
At year’s end, the penal code articles in question (205, 206, 238, and 239) remained available for use against journalists and media. These articles set criminal and civil penalties for defamation and insult. Although the Romanian Parliament has denounced these laws, some members of the government–including Interior Minister Constantin Dudu Ionescu–want to increase the maximum penalties. Ionescu would set the maximum sentence for defamation at seven years, up from the current three years.
While the defamation issue remained unresolved, a few individual journalists won legal victories during the year. On January 29, President Constantinescu pardoned Cornel Sabou, the imprisoned, 26-year-old editor of the private news agency Trans Press, three months into a 10-month defamation sentence. Sabou was originally charged in 1996, in a case brought by Marian Iancu, a judge in Baia Mare. The case was triggered by an article that Sabou had published accusing Iancu of profiting financially from some of her judicial rulings.
In September, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in Dalbon v. Romania that the state had violated the free expression rights of Ionel Dalbon, a journalist with the local weekly Cronica Romascana, who was sentenced to three months in prison and fined 300,000 Romanian leis (approximately US$115) for publishing an article in 1992 alleging that the head of a state-owned agricultural company had committed fraud. Dalbon died in March; the court decision ordered his name cleared and awarded damages to his wife.
In November, courts in Bailesti and Dolj dropped charges against Mihai Barbu and Iulia Fagas, the editor in chief and managing editor, respectively, of the daily Matinal in Petrosani. A Romanian businessman, Grigore Patruica, had sued the two journalists for damages of 100 million leis (US$56,000) for publishing a series of articles that accused him of running a pyramid scheme. In another court ruling, Barbu was cleared of similar fraud charges brought against him by businessman Mihai Viorel Bonea.
The few court victories were outweighed, however, by new convictions of journalists on defamation and slander charges. In a November appellate court ruling, Claudiu Raus, editor of Monitorul de Iasi, was convicted of defamation and ordered to pay a fine of 20 million leis (US$11,000) to Mihai Panzariu, former head of the Romanian Customs Division. The suit involved a May 9, 1998, article that the paper had reprinted verbatim from a report by the national press agency, Mediafax, about an investigation brought against Panzariu for illegal business practices. Gabriel Gachi and Fanica Dumitrscu, two journalists with the same paper, were also found guilty of defamation, earlier in the year, for criticizing Iasi town council member Stefan Damin in print.
CPJ protested a number of violent September attacks against Romanian journalists investigating cases of corruption. On September 23, Marian Tudor, a journalist with the Journalul de Constanta, was assaulted and thrown from a moving train while he was delivering manuscripts to Bucharest for printing. The assailants took his manuscripts, which documented an illicit local business deal. Four days later, Lorena Boros and Dorina Tartaran of the Gazeta de Nord-Vest were attacked at a construction site they were investigating in Satu Mare. When they called police for assistance, the police responded by detaining them. The head of the Satu Mare police department publicly apologized after a story on the incident was published in the Gazeta de Nord-Vest.
Marian Tudor, Jurnalul de Constanta ATTACKED
On September 23, Tudor, a reporter with the daily Jurnalul de Constanta in the Black Sea port of Constanta, was assaulted by two unidentified assailants aboard a train travel-ing from Constanta to Bucharest. Tudor was delivering edited manuscripts for that day’s edition of Jurnalul de Constanta to a printer in the capital.
The attackers beat Tudor and stole the envelope containing the manuscripts before throwing the journalist off the moving train. Tudor suffered minor injuries and was back at work by year’s end. The attackers did not take his cash or other valuables.
Prior to the assault, Tudor had published articles on alleged corruption and illicit business deals involving the Ministry of Transport and several shipping companies in Constanta.
Lorena Boros, Gazeta de Nord–Vest ATTACKED
Dorina Tataran, Gazeta de Nord-Vest ATTACKED
A group of construction workers assaulted Boros and Tataran, both reporters with the daily Gazeta de Nord–Vest, at the construction site of a new gas station in Satu Mare.
Boros and Tataran were investigating accusations that the construction firm SC IMI SA Baia Mare had won the municipal contract in a rigged auction. Some half dozen employees from Baia Mare roughed up the reporters and took their equipment, including a camera.
Local police took hours to reach the scene. When they finally arrived, the construction workers claimed to have acted in self-defense after the journalists attacked them. Police chose to believe the workers, giving no credence to Boros and Tataran’s account of the attack.
The journalists pressed charges against the construction workers, accusing them of theft under Article 211 of the Romanian penal code. Local police in Satu Mare concluded that the workers had not broken any laws. However, the head of the Satu Mare police department publicly apologized to Boros and Tataran after the story broke.
CPJ protested the attack in an October 7 letter to President Emil Constantinescu. The local prosecutor’s investigation was ongoing at year’s end.