Attacks on the Press 2000: Romania

MEDIA REFORMS INITIATED AFTER ROMANIA WAS INVITED to apply to join the European Union in November 1999 achieved only limited progress, and the country’s politicians spent much of the year debating laws that would limit, rather than promote, press freedom. The parliament also failed to eliminate or reduce criminal penalties for defamation, and journalists in Romania continued to be frequently sued for libel. CPJ sources also reported several assaults by the police against journalists.

Throughout the year, Parliament debated a draft law on state secrets that media watchdogs said would restrict access to information and give government officials and the executives of private enterprises too much discretion in defining what should be classified as secret. The draft law also gave the state security service authority to both investigate and prosecute violators. At year’s end, the bill was still being debated. The Ministry of Justice admitted that some articles of the draft law violate international standards, and it had begun to draft its own Public Information Act designed to meet the standards of the European Union.

The upper chamber of Parliament failed to pass legislation introduced in the spring by the liberal minister of justice, Valeriu Stoica, and later by Prime Minister Mugur Isarescu, to decriminalize libel and reduce fines for slanderous articles. Under current legislation, journalists may be imprisoned for up to three years and fined if a court finds them guilty of libel.

While no Romanian journalists were imprisoned last year, dozens faced libel suits, mostly for uncovering corruption. Many of these journalists were found guilty and fined. In January, for example, Marius Stoianovici, editor of the Brasov daily Buna Ziua Brasov, was fined two-and-a-half million lei (about US$250) for publishing an open letter by a group of employees of the SC Postavarul Company accusing their manager, Vian Bobocea, of financial impropriety.

In some cases, however, courts did side with journalists. In May, the Supreme Court overturned the convictions of Ovidiu Scutelnicu and Dragos Stangu, reporters with Monitorul newspaper in Iasi, northeast Romania. The two had been earlier given suspended one-year sentences and fined 1.5 billion lei (US$56,000) for publishing an article charging a police colonel with corruption. In another case, editor Cristian Tudor Popescu and reporter Gabriela Stefan of the daily Adevarul were acquitted in March and February, respectively, of charges that they published slanderous reports about a politician and a businessman.

CPJ documented several cases of Romanian police assaulting journalists. Among these was the May 12 attack against Valentin Dragan of the daily Cuget Liber by four off-duty policemen who destroyed the journalist’s camera and broke his leg when he tried to photograph them at a party.

Attacks on the press intensified from the far right, which fared unexpectedly well in the December elections. A few days after the voting, the vice-president of the Greater Romania Party, Anghel Stanciu, said that journalists who “sold out to the West” could be sent to labor camps.

The outgoing liberal prime minister denounced Stanciu, but Greater Romania leader Corneliu Vadim Tudor, who came in second to Ion Iliescu in the presidential race, backed his colleague and promised criminal investigations against several journalists. After filing a story on Stanciu’s statement, Agence France-Presse correspondent Stefan Susai was threatened over the telephone.

MAY 12
Valentin Dragan, Cuget Liber

Dragan, a photographer with the Constanta daily Cuget Liber, was hospitalized with a broken leg after being attacked by four off-duty policemen while he photographed another officer at a private party in the nearby town of Mamaia.

Dragan and some of his colleagues had gone to the party seeking to recover a colleague’s camera, which had been confiscated earlier that day. He was attacked when he tried to photograph a police officer holding the confiscated camera.

According to Cuget Liber‘s deputy editor, Sinziana Ionescu, the four attackers destroyed Dragan’s camera and broke his leg. The injury required complicated surgery; Dragan was hospitalized for more than 10 days.

On May 26 CPJ wrote to Romanian general prosecutor Mirea Criste, urging an investigation into the beating. On June 20, Criste’s office replied that a case had been opened, but no progress had been reported at year’s end.