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Analysis: The 'Romanian Lesson' And Media Freedom

  • Michael Shafir

http://gdb.rferl.org/F4EFD2D3-426D-4D4D-B05F-E6CEFA4F8FCA_w203.jpg --> http://gdb.rferl.org/F4EFD2D3-426D-4D4D-B05F-E6CEFA4F8FCA_mw800_mh600.jpg On 25 October 2003 Cornel Nistorescu, editor in chief of the Bucharest daily "Evenimentul zilei," told readers in an editorial that the Expres publishing group, which he had helped establish in 1992, would soon change owners. In September 1998, Expres had been bought by the German magazine and newspaper publisher Gruner+Jahr (G+J), which is part of the Bertelsmann media-holding giant. G+J eventually decided to concentrate mostly on magazine publishing, and ownership of the Romanian daily was to be passed on to the Swiss Ringier group, Nistorescu announced.

Nistorescu used the opportunity to praise the manner in which G+J had acted in relation to Expres and its publications. While concentrating on financial management and organizational improvement, Nistorescu wrote, G+J had fully respected freedom of expression and the independence of the Romanian journalists. Even in cases where the German political line and the personal political persuasions of its German director, Thomas Duffert, strongly diverged from that of the "Evenimentul zilei" staff -- such as over the recent war in Iraq -- there had never been any attempt to influence journalists to change their line. That, Nistorescu concluded, is what might be called the "German lesson." The Ringier group, he wrote confidently, was surely going to pursue the same policies, because "in the civilized world, the German lesson is also the Swiss lesson, the French and the British lesson, and, to an equal extent, the U.S. lesson."

Nistorescu, a severe but fair critical observer of all Romanian governments regardless of political color, has seldom been more wrong. The Ringier group took over ownership on 1 January 2004. Ten months later, the daily's editor in chief resigned in an "amiable understanding" under which he agreed to write twice-weekly articles. The conflict was apparently prompted by the new owners' attempts to tone down criticism in the daily of the ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD). Almost in parallel, a conflict prompted by similar reasons erupted between the staff of the Bucharest daily "Romania libera" and its German owners, Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung (WAZ), which purchased a 70 percent stake in the newspaper in May 2000.

From the start, RFE/RL's Romania-Moldovan Service has covered these developments extensively. On 6 September, 48 journalists from "Evenimentul zilei" released a statement protesting what they said was the Ringier's failure to respect editorial independence. As was eventually revealed by two journalists interviewed on the private Realitatea TV channel, the statement followed an attempt by Ringier to sabotage the publication of a report on the alleged involvement in illegal business practices of Prime Minister Adrian Nastase's sister.

Under the pretext of organizational changes, they claimed, interference in editorial policy had increased and, purporting to pursue ways to increase the paper's circulation (currently about 110,000), "the new investor is attempting to tone down the newspaper's critical tone" toward the government. The journalists warned that the political line hitherto pursued "represents the choices of those who make it" and that "changing that line would be tantamount to abdicating from our principles and professional ethics in favor of other interests." Nistorescu did not sign the statement, and it was not printed in the daily itself. It eventually emerged that the owners tried to use their influence to prevent its publication elsewhere, too. It was nonetheless brought to the knowledge of the public by two other Bucharest dailies ("Romania libera" and "Cotidianul") and by RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service.

On 7 September, RFE/RL interviewed Thomas Landolt, Ringier's Bucharest administrative director, who claimed he had "never interfered in editorial independence" and had no intention of doing so in future. Landolt also denied having passed on to the daily "Libertatea" (also owned by Ringier) the material gathered for the envisaged investigation on the Nastase's sister's dealings, as alleged by the protesting journalists ("Libertatea" published a letter by Nastase's sister after "Evenimentul zilei" had announced the pending publication). As for preventing the protest's publication, Landolt told RFE/RL's Victor Eskenasy-Morosan that it would have been "incorrect" to publish it in "Evenimentul zilei," the more so as the journalists had refused to let management read it ahead of publication. At Eskenasy-Morosan's insistence, he reluctantly admitted to having tried to prevent the protest's publication elsewhere.

One week later, on 13 September, "Romania libera" published an article under the title "The Blackest Day." The daily's staff complained that despite an agreement signed when WAZ acquired the newspaper, the company's Bucharest representative, Klaus Overbeck, had been for some time attempting to influence editorial policies; again, what seemed to trouble the owners was "exaggerated" criticism of the PSD. Once more, under the pretext of improving the paper's circulation (estimated at some 40,000), management had recommended that politics be given generally less prominence and more prominence be given to more "mundane" coverage and "positive" news. Management went so far as to produce a "guideline" for coverage of events.

As "Romania libera" reported on 16 September, a "suggestion" dating back to 14 May told the newspaper's staff that priority on the front page should be given to a photo "illustrating positive news. Remember: a high-spirited reader is better for the newspaper than a low-spirited one," the suggestion stated. The daily's staff also complained on 13 September that the WAZ management intended to transform the newspaper into a tabloid, which went against its long-standing editorial policies. While having failed to make the investments agreed upon in 2000, the journalists wrote, WAZ was set to achieve what neither the communist Securitate (Editor in Chief Petre Mihai Bacanu and some members of his staff had been detained for trying to print an underground newspaper in the late 1980s), nor the miners who rampaged its editorial offices in 1990 had been able to do --silence critical voices.

Interviewed by RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service the same day, Bacanu attributed the pressures applied on "Romania libera" to the friendship alleged to exist between Prime Minister Nastase and Bodo Hombach, who is a former coordinator of the EU-led Balkan Stability Pact and now one of WAZ's four managing directors. The two "are hunting together," Bacanu said. On 14 September, Bacanu told Deutsche Welle that he had been present in Hombach's office as Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana called to complain about "Romania libera's" reporting on the PSD.

Following the printing of "The Blackest Day," Bacanu was threatened with dismissal, but he said in reaction that he would rather lose his job than his professional integrity. The threat (denied by WAZ) caused concern not only in Romania, but also abroad, where the media events in Romania were reflected in quite extensive coverage by international news agencies and newspaper reporting. Interviewed on RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service on 13 September, Oliver Vujovici, secretary-general of the South East European Media Organization and a Vienna-based veteran Yugoslavia correspondent, said it was "important that journalists work freely in every country, which means that editorial policies must be free. The owner has no right to exercise pressure on editorial policies and on journalists," he said, adding that journalists "have a right to protest "whenever they sense pressure being exercised on them or whenever the attempt is made to influence editorial policies."

On 22 September, RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service carried a 17 September statement by Aidan White, president of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), who spoke in similar terms, adding another important angle to the debate: foreign ownership aimed at maximizing profit might lead to "the deliberate sacrificing of journalistic standards," White said. The IFJ, he added, backs the protests of journalists from "Evenimentul zilei" and "Romania libera," considering that such pressures "place them under great risks in a country where labor rights are hardly respected" and where "professional unions are just emerging." Also on 22 September, RFE/RL interviewed Alexander Lupis, the European coordinator of the New York-based Committee for the Protection of Journalists, on the harassment of journalists.

WAZ was put in a rather embarrassing position when it claimed that it had asked the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe representative on freedom of the media, Miklos Haraszti, to rule in the dispute and that Haraszti said that the conflict at "Romania libera" was not about freedom of expression but an "internal dispute" between owners and employees. The former Hungarian dissident denied the claim, describing it as bordering on "fiction," and Hombach was eventually forced to apologize, though he attributed the incident to "journalistic misunderstanding." The German daily "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," which had also covered the protest of a Bacanu-led team in front of WAZ's offices in Essen, subsequently titled an article on the affair as "Bodo Muenchhausen," (Muenchhausen was a legendary liar). RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service covered this aspect as well, carrying an interview with Overbeck on 22 September and reporting on Haraszti's reaction.

Analyzing the two affairs, Romania-Moldova Service correspondent Traian Ungureanu concluded that both dailies are under siege because --with a readership larger than that of any other opposition dailies with countrywide distribution -- they are striking a dissonant tone in a servile media environment. The PSD, Ungureanu said, has a monopoly over television coverage. The influential Antena 1 private television owned by Humanist Party Chairman Dan Voiculescu was the last to join this monotonous orchestra, following the Humanists' recent return to the PSD fold after signing an electoral alliance. Ahead of the forthcoming elections, it was important for the PSD to transform the last vestiges of freedom of expression into what Ungureanu called "low-neckline publications" and thereby turn Romania's media environment into a "skating rink on which PSD stars slide without obstacle." With the exception of some low-circulation weeklies and local radio stations, the PSD had managed to achieve dominance mostly by using state-controlled advertising and selective enforcement of tax laws to influence media owners, as Media Monitor Agency Director Mircea Toma explained in an interview with the service on 28 September. And this was apparently the explanation for the attitude displayed by the foreign owners of the two remaining opposition outlets as well.

When Nistorescu announced his departure from "Evenimentul zilei" on 28 September, the daily's journalists were reportedly in tears. Ringier's Landolt, in an interview with RFE/RL, sought to alleviate their apprehensions, promising continued editorial independence while seeking to transform the paper into one meeting Swiss standards, as he put it. But according to "Evenimentul zilei" journalist Dan Tapalaga, what the owners had achieved was to introduce "capitalism without freedom" and former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu would have rejoiced. Capitalism without freedom, he wrote, was just as absurd as "communism without dictatorship." He added: "Nastase climbed on top of state advertising and distributes it to whomever he pleases. Televisions fabricate another truth every day, lying by committee, closing their eyes, taking shelter in 'neutrality' and entertainment, with criticism cut off, ready to air 'live' any propaganda gimmick from the governmental palace. The local press is in the hands of barons." While all this is happening, "the islands of freedom in the written press seem to sink day by day in the complicity of silence" and "some Western newspaper owners decided now, on the eve of the elections, to make their daily shinier" and readers "happier and more optimistic." After getting rid of Nistorescu, Tapalaga predicted, it was now apparently "the turn of...Bacanu." So, "what is left? The desperation of not being able to speak. the nightmare of nobody listening to you.... The pain of being alone.... The fear of a 'positive world' void. The disappointment. The agony before the end."

That, to return to Nistorescu's October 2003 self-defeating prophecy, is not the "German" or "Swiss" lesson. It is quite distinctly a Romanian lesson with heavy influence from places such as Belarus and, more recently, Vladimir Putin's Russia. What is saddest is that it is being taught by Germans and by Swiss "teachers."
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