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The right price: what can('t) you buy with one billion Euro?

Ada MESEŞAN

Romanian journalists' independence is threatened. The freedom of expression and, more importantly, the journalists' freedom to inform citizens on the actual Romania they live in are on the verge of being suspended just now, when authorities should pass an (acid test) prove to European officials that the country is capable of joining the European Union in 2007. Censuring the free press in Romania are the leaders of the ruling party, the Social-Democrat Party (PSD), headed by incumbent Premier Adrian Năstase. The reason: the few editorial offices which managed to stay unbiased in the four years of PSD ruling continued to keep the public opinion informed on the all-encompassing corruption instituted by the Social-Democrat leaders, a corruption which impoverished the population.



The climax of attempts at censuring the press was reached in August-September, when the country's most important and critical central dailies, "România liberă" and "Evenimentul Zilei" made public, on their front pages, the political pressure they are subjected to by the ruling party, via foreign owners.

The mass-media industry in Romania proved to be very dynamic after 1989. Dailies, weeklies, political, economic, cultural, entertainment magazines, radio and TV stations created in Romania as well, the self-evident reality in developed states: the press is the fourth power in the State. Which could only be bothering those who planned to forcefully dominate the other powers in the State. Ever since the beginning, since 1990 when, during the marathon-rallies in Universității Square in Bucharest, protesting against the newly installed "Ion Iliescu post-communist regime," the secret services covered by the staged miners' assaults were ordered to liquidate the first independent dailies, "România liberă" included. The journalists' sin: they had exposed, to their readers, the way former dignitaries in Nicolae Ceaușescu's communist regime were sticking to power after the December 1989 coup d'etat, and their sheer lack of interest in turning the country into a truly democratic one.The strike schemed in Cotroceni by Ion Iliescu and his cronies, including those who are currently heading the ruling party, PSD, against the civil society and the free press failed into a bloodbath known under the name of "miners' riots," which cut off Romania from the rest of Europe- for two years.

Since 1990, all attempts to restrict the journalists' freedom made by the dignitaries today grouped up in PSD have been more or less successfully counteracted by editorial offices. Essentially, damaged by the conflict launched back in 1990 between Ion Iliescu and Adrian Năstase's "Social-Democrats" and the free press was the image of PSD (former FSN, FDSN, PDSR), identified as a party made up of corrupt politicians, who would not take mass-media criticism.

In 1990-1996, Iliescu and Năstase's Social-Democrats were in power and amassed fabulous wealth by thefts from banks and the State Budget, insistently exposed by "a certain part of the media," according to a famous line of the then and now President, Ion Iliescu. In 1996-2000, when the country was ruled by a right-of-centre coalition, the media operated without any perceivable political censure attempts, although the media's massive criticism as to the respective Governments' incapacity to operate in-depths reforms on the Romanian society played a key role in the right wing's failure in the general elections in 2000 and PDSR (PSD) returning to power.

Shortly after winning the Parliamentary and Presidential elections in 2000, Adrian Năstase and Ion Iliescu's Social-Democrats resorted to strict political and financial control on the mass-media, which led to the restoration of an era which many believed had gone, at least in 1996, if not in 1989: the personality cult of the Premier and PSD president Adrian Năstase, similar to the one developed by communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu. The first to give in: the national TV, forever obedient to the Social-Democrats, and most of the private TV stations. Step two: controlling radio stations, be they State-run or private. Step 3: putting the print media to silence, as this was the most critical and independent in the industry. Censorship means used by the PSD power: financial pressure, the Government turned into the main co-ordinator of the specialised industry; the financial "blackmail" employed by the Năstase Cabinet in particular on TV stations, which had higher debts to the State Budget; political pressure, either by PSD leaders' directly threatening journalists, or through phone calls made by dignitaries to editors in chief, to ask for too daring journalists to be sacked or for certain investigations on corruption deeds to be terminated. It is not by chance that in the last 4 years of PSD governance the highest number of cases (none of which solved by public authorities) of aggravated assault on journalists and the highest rate of suits filed by the power - ministers, parliamentarians, and "local barons" have been registered. Under these circumstances, the mass-media criticism substantially decreased. Only two or three newspapers continued to write about the corrupts in PSD whose practices are virtually undermining both Romania's EU entry and the very national security, as their illegal business have long ago expanded over the Romanian border.

All these practices, specific to totalitarian regimes, were detailed on in annual reports on the freedom of the press and compliance with democratic norms, issued by the USA Department of State, in Country Reports issued by the European Commission, in reports issued by the European Parliament and other international institutions.

After PSD's electoral failure in the local elections in June, the party leaders, fearing that the underachievement will be reiterated this November as well, gave a heavy blow to the most important two dailies which remained relatively independent: "România liberă" and "Evenimentul Zilei". As no bargain was possible with the Romanian senior editors, the foreign owners of the two dailies, German press holding WAZ, and Ringier, Swiss mass-media group, were contacted. This is why the journalists in the two dailies began to receive from representatives of the foreign employers increasingly insistent suggestions to soften criticism targeted at PSD and to adopt a mainly positive approach in covering Romanian facts. The position of the two press holdings, WAZ and Ringier, gave rise to questions and debates both domestically, and abroad. According to the central media, apparently the explanation has to do with personal business interests of the managers of the respective holdings. At least in the case of "România liberă", it is well known that Bodo Hombach, general manager of WAZ, is a member of the Strategy Council of the Governmental Agency for Foreign Investments, on an invitation issued by PM Năstase and Ion Țiriac. Moreover, Bodo Hombach, close to the Social-Democrat PM of Germany, Gerhard Schroeder, who backs Adrian Năstase, is this way directly involved in the "EADS deal" related to the security systems for the Romanian borders, a deal which costs the State Budget approx. EUR 1 bn, and which has made the headlines of Bucharest publications. The contract signed by the Romanian Government with EADS has been criticised even by EU Commission officials, on grounds of a lack of transparency. These business interests make a very likely explanation of Ion Țiriac's attempts to "mediate" the conflicts between the two editorial offices and the foreign employers.

What remains certain is that the Adrian Năstase Government was by no means shy as to taking a public stand in favour of the newspaper owners, in a statement signed by the Government's spokesperson. At the same time, foreign media, the German ones in particular, questioned the fairness of the WAZ and Ringier holdings' position, in particular after Bodo Hombach, in a purely Romanian manner, stated publicly that the OSCE representative for freedom of the press, Miklos Haraszti, referring to the conflict in the "România libera" editorial office,said no evidence was produced on the employer interference with the editorial policy. Within 24 hours, OSCE and Miklos Haraszti categorically denied Bodo Hombach's statements, labelling them as "fiction." In other (less diplomatic) words, lies.

 

To be continued

Publicat în : English  de la numărul 20

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