Attacks on the Press 2003: Romania

Since the Social Democratic Party (PSD) came to power in 2001, the Romanian government has repeatedly tried to silence its critics in an attempt to stabilize relations with Europe and the United States and thereby secure membership in the European Union (EU) and NATO. Rather than battle the corruption that jeopardizes its status within the international community, the government has opted instead to intimidate media outlets that expose widespread corruption.

Despite these efforts, Romania suffered a setback in late 2002 when EU member states voted to delay its entry into the union. Insufficient progress toward a free press was one of the reasons cited for the postponement. International pressure on Romania to bring its constitution–including media laws–in line with European standards did have some positive effects. Although Parliament stopped short of decriminalizing libel, media advocates welcomed amendments to the Penal Code eliminating prison sentences for libel.

A national referendum passed in October brought Romania’s constitution in line with EU standards. Press freedom supporters also welcomed legislation passed in January that removed the national news agency, ROMPRES, from government control. The agency now reports to Parliament rather than the Information Ministry, and its editorial independence is legally guaranteed.

Despite these positive steps, journalists continued to be harassed by individual libel suits that often resulted in heavy fines. In recent years, damage awards have ranged from US$400 to US$20,000–an enormous figure for journalists who earn an average monthly salary of US$130, according to an assessment conducted by IREX-ProMedia, a Washington, D.C.-based media training organization.

Journalists in the provinces are even more vulnerable to government pressure than their colleagues in the capital, Bucharest. Media advocates attribute heavy-handedness by local government officials to the “Berlusconization” of the regional press, referring to a strategy practiced by some local leaders in which they buy up local print, radio, and television stations and exploit their mini media empires for their own business and political gains, just as Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has done in Italy.

While intimidation of the press tends to occur in court or through more indirect pressure, physical intimidation is not uncommon. In July, in the northwestern town of Petrosani, unknown assailants attacked Carmen Cosman, a journalist for the independent Bucharest daily Libera, and Marius Mitrache, a journalist for Evenimentul Zilei, another independent daily also based in Bucharest. According to The Associated Press (AP), the attacks occurred after both journalists had published articles about local government corruption.

In December, several unknown assailants attacked Ino Ardelean, an Evenimentul Zilei reporter based in the western city of Timisoara, beating him unconscious. Prior to the assault, Ardelean had written a series of articles linking local politicians from the ruling party to murky business activities.

In 2003, there were also attacks against journalists in the northwestern towns of Sighet and Targu Mures. According to the Media Monitoring Agency, a Bucharest-based press freedom organization, Bucharest District Mayor Marian Vanghelie explicitly told Liviu Vulpe, a journalist for the daily Adevarul: “You should not follow me. Otherwise, I will ask my boys to follow you and then I will send someone to put you in the trunk of a car.”

Self-censorship is also a problem among state-run and private media outlets. In April, three journalists from Europe FM, Romania’s largest private radio station, resigned after accusing their managers of blocking reports criticizing the government, AP reported. This was not an isolated incident, and other broadcast journalists throughout Romania resigned in protest of censorship or reported pressure from managers to support the local government, said the Media Monitoring Agency.

Since the Ceaucescu regime crumbled in 1989, hundreds of newspapers and local independent television and radio stations have emerged, along with several private national television stations. While state-owned television and radio stations are likely to favor the government, private news outlets often reflect the interests of their owners or controlling parties. Indeed, in a February 2003 survey of media professionals cited in a report by the Media Monitoring Agency, 52 percent of all participating editors said they were under pressure to block certain kinds of information. That same month, the government gave the national broadcasting council the right to revoke the licenses of radio and television stations that harm national security or incite social disorder, racial, religious, or sexual discrimination.

In March, the worst fears of Iosif Costinas’ colleagues were confirmed when the opposition journalist’s body was discovered in a forest near the western city of Timisoara, where he worked. Costinas had been writing a book about organized crime when he disappeared in June 2002. The 62-year-old journalist had also written extensively on government corruption and other sensitive political issues. At year’s end, there was no progress reported in the case, and police were still trying to determine the cause of his death.