Government officials, wary of any media coverage that could potentially threaten the country’s efforts to join NATO and the European Union, used threats and intimidation to promote docile reporting–resulting in increased self-censorship in 2002.
In an October report, the Bucharest-based Media Monitoring Agency, a media rights group, noted that press freedom has declined significantly under the ruling Party of Social Democracy. The report pointed out that television coverage of government policies has grown less critical. “Everyone is being told to shut up at the moment, until we get into NATO,” said Mircea Toma, president of Freedom of Expression, a Bucharest-based press freedom organization.
The government also harassed foreign news outlets. In May, Secretary-General Serban Mihailescu threatened to sue the Paris daily Le Monde for libel in connection with a May 23 article highlighting corruption in Romania and criticizing Mihailescu. Also in May, President Ion Iliescu lashed out at The Wall Street Journal Europe over an article questioning the trustworthiness of Romania’s former Securitate, the country’s communist-era secret police, many of whose members remain in sensitive intelligence positions. Romania, said the president, “does not need the advice of journalists” to deal with such issues.
The president’s tongue-lashing of the Journal was mild, however, in comparison to an ominous government threat issued to several newspapers that republished the Journal article. On May 13, in a message sent to those publications, the Defense Ministry’s Press Office warned that “life is short, and your health has too high a price to be endangered by debating highly emotional subjects.”
Such threats undermined other efforts by Romania to convince NATO that the country is making needed reforms. In April, in response to concerns of Western military officials, the government approved the Law on Classified Information. The legislation is designed to reassure NATO officials, who are reluctant to share secrets with former members of the Securitate who remain in office.
During 2002, Parliament began debating the Law on the Right to Reply, a draft of which Defense Minister Ioan Mircea Pascu had initiated early in the year. The law would require publications to publish all letters from readers offended by an article. Failure to do so could result in a fine of up to 100 million leus (US$3,000). Those offended by an article could seek compensation through the courts even if their responses are published.
In early June, a 62-year-old reporter for the Romanian independent daily Timisoara, Iosif Costinas, disappeared while working on a book about local organized crime figures. Costinas’ journalism focused on highly sensitive political issues, including the continued presence of communist-era secret police agents in the government. Laurian Ieremeiov, the deputy editor of Timisoara, said he believes that the disappearance is related to Costinas’ work.
On September 12, the government’s National Audiovisual Council caused a political uproar when it accused the private, Bucharest-based OTV television station of promoting racism and revoked the station’s license. The decision came two days after the station, which is known for its sensationalism, broadcast an interview with ultranationalist politician Corneliu Vadim Tudor, who made anti-Semitic and anti-Roma remarks, criticized the U.S. ambassador to Romania, and accused the government of corruption.
Council member Rasvan Popescu criticized the closure, saying that the pro-government bias of public and private television stations makes OTV one of the few outlets that air opposition views. This was the first time the council had closed a television station, and the Center for Independent Journalism, a media training organization, called the ruling a “dangerous precedent.”
Libel remains a criminal offense in Romania, punishable by imprisonment or hefty fines that can exceed a journalist’s lifetime earnings. During 2002, hundreds of journalists faced charges of libeling government officials. On June 25, the lower house of Parliament passed a bill to reduce the sentence for libel from five to three years in prison, but President Iliescu vetoed the legislation on November 1.
The country’s harsh media landscape led more than 300 journalists to register with the Romanian Online Editors’ Association, a nongovernmental organization that publishes articles on its Web site that other media outlets have refused to print.
Iosif Costinas, Timisoara
Costinas, a 62-year-old reporter for the independent daily Timisoara, disappeared from the western city of Timisoara in early June. The journalist’s work focused on sensitive political issues, including a number of unsolved murders that occurred during the 1989 anti-communist revolt, which began in Timisoara, as well as the continued presence of communist-era secret police agents in the government. Prior to Costinas’ disappearance, he was working on a book about organized crime and government corruption in Timisoara, according to The Associated Press.