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Romania: Journalists Condemn Defense Ministry Intimidation, Officials Deny Threats

  • Eugen Tomiuc

Human-rights groups and media organizations in Romania have strongly criticized the country's defense minister for leveling threats against local journalists who last week republished a Western media article suggesting NATO is unwilling to share its classified information with Romanian intelligence officials, many of whom are former members of the Communist-era secret police. In a statement sent to several Romanian newspapers, the Defense Ministry reminded journalists that "life is short" and they should not "endanger their health by launching stressful debates."

Prague, 14 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Romanian newspapers and human-rights groups are condemning a Defense Ministry statement that they say amounts to a veiled threat against local journalists who last week republished a Western media article on NATO-Romanian relations.

The article, which appeared on 30 April in "The Wall Street Journal," suggested that NATO may be reluctant to share classified information with Romanian intelligence officials, some of whom are former members of the Securitate, the Communist-era secret police.

Romanian dailies last week translated and republished the article, warning that the presence of former Securitate agents in the intelligence structures could harm the country's NATO bid.

The Defense Ministry on 10 May sent a strongly worded statement to several newspapers that had republished the article. The statement said the Romanian army had managed "to assume the standards that make it compatible with NATO armies, not only technically and militarily, but also from a moral and educative point of view."

The statement also reminds the journalists responsible that life is short, and their health too valuable, to endanger it by launching "stressful debates."

The communique, issued by the ministry's press office, was strongly condemned by several Romanian journalists and human-rights groups, as well as opposition politicians.

Some journalists downplayed the Defense Ministry statement as an attempt at humor -- albeit one in bad taste. But Cornel Nistorescu, managing editor of the daily "Evenimentul Zilei," told RFE/RL that the statement amounts to a veiled threat.

"If [the Defense Ministry] is using such instruments for communication and in its relations with the public and mass media, it is logical for us not to think this is humor or an 'artistic performance,' but veiled threats and pressure. [The statement] reminds us journalists that 'life is short' and that health is for us too 'valuable' to endanger by launching debates. What are we supposed to understand from this?," Nistorescu said.

The Association for the Defense of Human Rights, one of Romania's most prominent human-rights groups, has urged Defense Minister Ion Mircea Pascu to resign over the incident.

Monica Macovei, who heads the group, also said she will forward the Defense Ministry statement to the Council of Europe and NATO, as well as the European Union.

Defense Ministry officials today said Pascu was out of the country and unavailable for comment.

But in a news conference today, the ministry denied that the statement was meant to intimidate journalists. Defense Ministry official George Cristian Maior said the comments were meant to be "satirical." Maior said they did not amount to a threat.

"We do not interpret this communique as a kind of attack or threat on the [physical] integrity of the journalists," Maior said.

Romania is stepping up efforts to meet NATO admission criteria in the run-up to the alliance's summit in Prague later this year, when the 19-member bloc is expected to admit new members.

Of the nine candidates, Slovenia and the three Baltic states -- Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia -- appear best-positioned to secure invitations to join NATO, while Slovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria are credited with 50 percent chances. Macedonia and Albania are believed to have little chance of securing an invitation in this round.

In Romania's case, widespread corruption and a challenged economy were generally seen as the main obstacles to the country's NATO bid.

But "The Wall Street Journal" article also points to the fact that NATO may be unhappy at the prospect of sharing its classified material with former Communist-era secret-police officers who may still work in Romanian intelligence.

Arianne Quentier, a NATO press officer, today declined to comment on whether the presence of former Securitate officers in Romania's intelligence structures is currently among the issues under consideration by the alliance in assessing Bucharest's bid.

Quentier mentioned respect for the rights of minorities and fighting corruption as two key issues for Romania.

She told RFE/RL that NATO regards respect for all democratic values -- freedom of the press included -- as being a very important admission criterion.

"The respect for democratic values in general is extremely important in the criteria that come into consideration for the membership action plans [MAPs]. There are a number of sections in the MAPs, and, of course, what we want -- not only technically speaking because it's in the sections of the MAP, but also because NATO is a union of nations that share common values and democratic values -- is, of course, the respect of these values, freedom of the press being one of them, certainly," Quentier said.

Analysts say that more than a decade after the fall of communism, freedom of the press in Romania is still frail and authorities are often irritated by media criticism.

Critics recently singled out Defense Minister Pascu as one of the most vocal adversaries of press freedom after he initiated a bill that would compel media organizations to publish a right to reply from anyone demanding such action.

Moreover, Pascu, during a parliamentary hearing last week, lashed out at the press, saying that some newspapers' refusal to be "controlled" showed that there was "no democracy" in Romania.

Journalist Nistorescu said the Defense Ministry and Pascu himself are exceeding their professional boundaries by coming out against press freedom.

"And if we also consider the defense minister's legislative proposal regarding the obligatory right to reply, we have the image of a strategy pursued by this ministry concerning the free press. We do not see the Defense Ministry's position regarding other important social phenomena, or major problems of the society. But the Defense Ministry is becoming the main player when it comes to freedom of expression. I find this extremely odd, even strange," Nistorescu said.

Romanian President Ion Iliescu today sought to tone down the dispute. Iliescu said that, in his view, the Defense Ministry's statement did not contain threats against the press, but referred to the "decent relations" that should exist between the media and the ministry.

Prime Minister Adrian Nastase has also said the "ironic connotations" of the communique have been exaggerated by the media.

But Nistorescu said the government's apparently unconcerned reaction amounts to a tacit approval of the Defense Ministry's position.

"The Romanian government, if it had an attitude contrary to that expressed by the statement, should adopt a drastic position regarding the slip or incident at the Defense Ministry. Or, as long as such a categorical position was not expressed, my feeling is that we see here a consonance, a similarity in positions. In the end, this is also the spirit that characterizes the attitude expressed by the Information Ministry, or the [governing] Social Democrat Party's parliamentary group, toward the liberty of expression," Nistorescu said.

Nistorescu said Romanian journalists' groups so far have not adopted a common position regarding the incident. He said it is possible that media outlets close to the government will try to play down the incident.

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