Attacks on the Press 2001: Romania

Widespread poverty, faltering political and economic reforms, and slowing progress toward European Union membership continue to inhibit the expansion of press freedom in Romania, where Ion Iliescu and his leftist coalition won presidential and parliamentary elections held in late 2000.

On January 10, 2001, Prime Minister Adrian Nastase’s government placed the official Rompres news agency–generally know for its objectivity–under the direct control of the Ministry of Public Information. Two weeks later, the government appointed journalist and party loyalist Ioan Mihai Rosca as the agency’s new director. Though no significant changes in Rompres’ editorial policy were reported, local press freedom groups were concerned that the new government moved so quickly to consolidate power over a respected public media outlet.

Soon after, Parliament took several initiatives that frightened press freedom advocates. On February 7, parliamentary deputy Ristea Priboi, a close adviser of Prime Minister Nastase, was elected chairman of the Foreign Intelligence Service Oversight Committee. Evidence then emerged that Priboi had worked for communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s notorious Securitate, or secret police, during the Cold War. Priboi was also involved in intimidating journalists from the Romanian service of the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), a U.S. government-funded radio network, when it was based in Munich. He was forced to resign in April.

On March 7, Parliament approved a vaguely defined and highly restrictive Law on State Secrets. The law would punish individuals who obtain or publish state secrets with up to seven or 10 years in prison, respectively. After Prime Minister Nastase, the Romanian Press Club, and the U.S. Department of State criticized the law, Romanian Radio reported that President Iliescu would return it to the Parliament for revisions. A new version was drafted, according to the Media Monitoring Agency, but there were no reports that Parliament had considered it by the end of the year.

Parliament also managed to pass a Freedom of Access to Information Law (FOIA), Rompres reported. Several local nongovernmental organizations, including the Media Monitoring Agency and the Center for Independent Journalism, participated in analyzing and revising the draft law, which was passed on April 18. Rompres reported that the legislation guarantees citizens and journalists access to information “of public interest,” but limits access to national security information and information on judicial proceedings. There are also sanctions for civil servants who violate the law.

Romanian libel laws favor plaintiffs, and politicians and government officials often use them to intimidate media outlets and discourage critical reporting. Estimates suggest that hundreds of libel cases are currently pending against journalists, and that the lawsuits themselves force media outlets to divert significant amounts of time and resources away from reporting. Cartoonist Marius Nitov, for example, was convicted and fined 8 million lei (US$400), a large sum by Romanian standards, for drawing a cartoon depicting his communist village mayor as a pig, the Cartoonists Rights Network reported.

Even senior politicians felt free to lash out at journalists in response to negative press coverage. On September 17, Romanian Radio news director Paul Grigoriu broadcast an interview with far-right parliamentarian Corneliu Vadim Tudor, who accused President Iliescu of having allegedly authorized government officials to provide military training for members of the militant Palestinian group Hamas in 1995. That same day, President Iliescu denounced the radio host for not defending his president, Romanian Radio reported. Grogoriu was suspended the following day.

In one positive case, a Bucharest court reversed a ruling against Alison Mutler, a reporter for the The Associated Press in Bucharest. She was sued for libel by Bishop Laszlo Toekes over a June 1998 story that cited a statement Toekes had made about his forced collaboration with Romania’s communist-era secret police. Though Mutler was acquitted of libel, she was convicted of having caused “moral damages” and was ordered to pay Toekes 700 million lei (US$22,000). On November 5, the fine was overturned.

On November 18, two men wearing ski masks and wielding iron bars attacked Lucian Valeriu of the Arad daily Observator after he published a series of articles about links between criminals and local police, The Associated Press reported. Valeriu’s editor said a police officer had recently threatened to kill the journalist if he continued writing articles on the police.