In its annual assessment of Romania’s democratic reforms, the European Commission criticized the government’s press freedom record. Authorities’ use of lucrative advertising contracts and forgiveness of debts to the state to influence television news coverage, as well as provincial politicians’ acquisition of media outlets to promote their political and business interests, continued to erode media freedom, the report noted. The negative assessment could undermine Romania’s efforts to secure EU and NATO membership in 2007.
In September, 48 journalists from the popular Bucharest daily Evenimentul Zilei (The Event of the Day) protested efforts by its Swiss parent company, the Ringier group, to tone down government criticism. Ringier had ordered the paper to soften its coverage but claimed it was only implementing organizational changes. The newspaper’s editor, Dan Turturica, left the paper at the end of the month. In a statement, Ringier said the editor left on amicable terms because of differences with the company on how to restructure and modernize the newspaper. Western diplomats speculated that he was forced to resign because his daily columns sharply criticized authorities, according to The Associated Press. However, the editor had not made any public statements on the subject by year’s end and continued to write weekly editorials for Evenimentul Zilei. According to the Media Monitoring Agency, a Bucharest-based media watchdog group, his editorials remained as stinging as they were before his resignation.
That same month, staff at the opposition daily Romania Libera (Free Romania) published an article lambasting its parent company, the German media giant Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung (WAZ), because it had ordered the paper to print more “positive” news and entertainment. Some local press freedom watchdogs viewed these two instances as unprecedented cases of ownership meddling in editorial policy. The two newspapers are among the few Romanian publications that criticize the government—a situation that might have caused authorities to press the publishers, they said. Several local sources told CPJ, however, that WAZ did have a valid reason to try to change Romania Libera, which had lost 40 percent of its readership in the last two years.
Journalists generally avoid investigative reporting due to politically motivated defamation lawsuits and poor access to basic government information. The government approved a new Criminal Code in June that eliminates imprisonment for libel and allows for truth as a defense. The code will take effect in 2005. In addition, fines for journalists convicted of libel remain substantial and are registered as a criminal offense, according to a report by the U.S.-based media training organization IREX. Journalists convicted of criminal defamation face fines of US$5,000 to US$20,000—a large figure in Romania. Meanwhile, the Civil Code does not list a maximum fine for defamation, leaving journalists vulnerable to crippling payments. According to a survey conducted this summer by the Media Monitoring Agency, 28 percent of all reporters and 60 percent of all editors questioned have been sued for libel at least once.
Romania has 18 daily newspapers in the capital, Bucharest, and three to four dailies available in many other cities. Media owners often strike deals with government officials and wealthy businessmen to exchange advertising for positive coverage, according to IREX. As a result, the press’s credibility has eroded significantly.
In October, the Romanian Press Club, a local media watchdog group, protested a decision by the Senate to ban Romania Libera from covering Senate sessions after the paper published an article on alleged sexual misconduct by a Senate administrator.
There were some 20 physical attacks against journalists in 2004, mostly in the provinces, according to statistics by the Media Monitoring Agency in Bucharest. By year’s end, no progress was reported in the investigation into the death of opposition journalist Iosif Costinas, whose body was found in March 2003 in a forest near Timisoara, where he worked. Costinas had been writing a book on organized crime prior to his disappearance in June 2002. The 62-year-old journalist had also written extensively on high-level corruption and other sensitive political issues.
In March 2004, Interior Minister Ioan Rus reprimanded three police chiefs for failing to make progress in the investigations into the December 2003 attack on journalist Ino Ardelean, who was beaten unconscious after reporting on the murky business activities of local ruling-party politicians in the western city of Timisoara. Ardelean filed a $1.5 million lawsuit in May 2004 against the government and police for their failure to arrest suspects in his attack. At year’s end, he continued to report for Evenimentul Zilei and was in good physical condition, while his lawsuit against authorities was ongoing.
In late February, the government also reprimanded officials for the lack of progress in the investigations into at least 16 serious attacks against journalists in the provinces in 2003. The statement came a week after EU officials criticized Romania’s press freedom record and urged authorities to ensure that journalists can work freely if the country is to meet criteria for EU entry in 2007. Regardless of the statement, the government has done little to identify and prosecute attackers of journalists.
Meanwhile, the state has tightened its grip on public broadcasting. According to a report by the Media Monitoring Agency, national and major private TV channels carry virtually no criticism of the government.
The opposition leader, Bucharest Mayor Traian Basescu, was elected president in a December 12 runoff against Social Democrat Prime Minister Adrian Nastase. Basescu will take over the presidency from Ion Iliescu, who ruled Romania for 11 of the 15 years since the collapse of communism. In his first public statement following his victory, Basescu pledged to protect the Romanian media’s independence.