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Romania Media Independence Controlled

Pat Robert  Larubi - 21/07/2014 15:31 CDT

Bucharest, Bucuresti, Romania

According to the latest report by Reporters Without Borders, Romania is the 42nd in the standings on Freedom of the press. The country has moved up five places compared with last year. What is your view on the "progress"? 

Iona Avadani (IA): Actually, I do not give much importance to such classifications, which are highly subjective. A country can progress only because others are down in the rankings. It is not the rank of a country that counts, but its score. Concerning Romania, if you look at the scores of the last two years, we see that the progress is actually minimal: only 0.5%. And this is what can be felt: progress is there, but progress is slow. 

O.B.C.: In Romania, as in many other countries, freedom of the press is enshrined in the Constitution. But in practice, it is weakened by the lack of financial independence of the media and by the political and economic interests of the people who control them. This was illustrated by the conflict between Traian Basescu and Victor Ponta in 2012. What is the situation today? 

A. The situation has not changed, it has worsened. Romanian media are financially unstable, they have been hard hit by the crisis. Advertising revenues have plummeted by € 540 million in 2008 to € 295 million in 2013. The role of the state has been strengthened. But its influence depends on EU funds. According to a study conducted by the Centre for Independent Journalism that I lead, almost 80% of the advertising contracts signed with the government are related to or funded by European projects. Anyway, it is clear that the economic and political interests influence newsrooms. But the resistance is not always fierce: sometimes political parties buys newspapers wishing to be purchased, to avoid putting the key under the door. 

O.B.C.: Since 2010, defamation is no longer a crime in Romania, following a ruling by the Supreme Court. Has this actually improved the situation of journalists in the country? 

A.I.: This is a somewhat complicated topic. In July 2006, sections 205 (public insult) and 206 (defamation) of the Penal Code were repealed to align Romanian legislation with the standards of the European Union (EU). But in January 2007, a few days after the entry of Romania into the EU, the Constitutional Court ruled that decriminalization of defamation was unconstitutional on the grounds that human dignity should be protected by the Criminal Code. 

The situation remained very ambiguous until 2010, when the Supreme Court finally issued a new decision calling for the repeal of these two articles. In 2014, a new Penal Code, confirming the repeal of the two sections was adopted. From a legal point of view, the subject is closed. But the decision of the Constitutional Court, noting that human dignity must be protected by the Criminal Code, is worrying because it has created a legal basis for those who wish to eliminate these achievements and reinstate the criminalization of defamation. 

O.B.C.: The National Audiovisual Council (CNA), which is responsible for ensuring "televisions and radios fully respect the freedom of the press", has been severely criticized for its "politicization" and incompetence.

IA: The members of the CNA are appointed by political parties, by the Prime Minister and the President. Personally, I do not think that political leaders directly control the work of the CNA, but I would say without hesitation that the political affiliations of members of the Board influence their decisions. In addition, certain conflicts of interest exist, for example when members of the CNA publicly express their political opinions in newspapers or on television shows. I am convinced that the council should have a more important role in a country where 80% of the population is informed by television. However, it has not demonstrated that it can operate in a completely independent manner.

O.B.C.: The media in Romania are mainly in the hands of entrepreneurs related to political and economic environments. Antena 1 is for example controlled by Dan Voiculescu, the founder of the Conservative Party and one of the richest men in Romania. Similarly, OTV is controlled by Dan Dianescu, considered the "Romanian Berlusconi." And online media lack the funds to conduct independent investigations. Is that a realistic picture of the situation of the media in Romania? 

IA: When I think that a few years ago, our main concern was the concentration of the media, I tend to smile. Where are the media moguls? One of them is in prison, the other is bankrupt, a third convicted and waiting for the decision of the Court of Appeal. Foreign investors have left the country or are doing so, or they are interested only in uninformative magazines.

The major media empires have been destroyed and scattered into large numbers of small businesses trying to stay afloat. Online news is not economically viable. Romanians were accustomed to receiving information for free, and there is no indication that they are now willing to pay for it. Some crowd-funding projects have met with some success, but these are limited in scope. They were launched by young journalists experienced in communication techniques, and have received the support of a public looking for quality information. I hope that we will succeed in promoting quality journalism.