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Romania: Court Upholds Ban On TV Station Accused Of Ultranationalist Propaganda

  • Eugen Tomiuc

A Romanian court today upheld a decision by broadcasting authorities to pull a private television station off the air for what it said were programs that contained racist and anti-Semitic remarks. Officials banned OTV after they said the station repeatedly violated the media law, which forbids airing such programs. But the shutdown has triggered a dispute, with some human rights watchdogs and journalist groups saying the move was politically motivated and amounts to a violation of free speech. However, other media organizations say the decision was correct and in accordance with the law.

Prague, 18 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A Bucharest court today upheld a decision by Romania's broadcasting watchdog to revoke the license of a private Bucharest-based television station accused of broadcasting programs containing racist and anti-Semitic remarks.

The National Audiovisual Council, or CNA, decided to pull OTV (Mirror TV) off the air on 12 September, two days after the station aired a live talk show during which ultranationalist leader Corneliu Vadim Tudor made remarks deemed insulting to Jews and the ethnic Roma minority. He also accused Prime Minister Adrian Nastase's government of corruption and called the U.S. ambassador to Romania incompetent.

The court today rejected OTV's judicial action, but the station's management can appeal the ruling within two weeks.

CNA's decision was based on an article of Romania's new broadcasting law that bans programs inciting racial or religious hatred. It followed a complaint from President Ion Iliescu's office, which called for action to be taken against OTV.

The move has stirred contradictory reactions. While some journalists and media organizations have welcomed the decision, two rights groups have criticized it as an attack on freedom of speech.

The Association for the Defense of Human Rights in Romania (APADOR-CH), an affiliate of the Helsinki Committee, and the U.S.-sponsored Center for Independent Journalism issued a statement on 16 September saying the measure was "unacceptable in a democratic society in which freedom of expression is respected."

APADOR-CH representative Manuela Stefanescu told RFE/RL that the accusations against OTV were vague and unsubstantiated. She said the station should not be held responsible for what guests say on a live show. "We are defending a principle, because any other TV or radio station will risk finding itself in a situation where it could be, more or less, accused in a general way and be punished in the same way. So what are they going to do? Are they going to scrap live talk shows altogether? Are they going to introduce censorship or self-censorship? All these, in our opinion, are clear dangers for freedom of speech [in Romania]," Stefanescu said.

Stefanescu stressed that APADOR-CH does not support OTV's editorial policy. But she urged authorities to scrap the decision and let the issue be settled in court.

OTV started broadcasting in March 2001 and courted controversy from the beginning. At the time, some critics said CNA had allowed the station to broadcast despite its failure to fulfill all legal requirements.

OTV's main feature was a talk show hosted by station director Dan Diaconescu. Guests ranged from top figures in Romanian government and opposition politicians to witches and underworld figures, which prompted speculation that the station was selling airtime.

It was, however, repeated appearances by ultranationalist politician Corneliu Vadim Tudor, leader of the Greater Romania Party and runner-up in the 2000 presidential elections, that stirred the most controversy.

Tudor launched fierce attacks against the government while on OTV, accusing it of widespread corruption, and also against democratic opposition politicians, journalists, Jews, ethnic minorities, and gays.

The station also attracted criticism from media groups after airing a tape of a female journalist dancing half-naked at a private party. The journalist had been publishing articles accusing a local leader of the governing Social Democratic Party of corruption.

Many prominent Romanian journalists have welcomed the broadcasting body's decision, which they say is in accordance with the broadcasting law.

Journalist Cornel Nistorescu, director of one of the country's main dailies, "Evenimentul Zilei," said professional media organizations have repeatedly protested the low professional standards of OTV.

Nistorescu told RFE/RL that OTV practiced a type of journalism that was in clear violation of the law. "This is a TV station that from its beginnings has always been against the law [and] against democratic values, which it violates, attacks, or ignores. It was unbalanced and was serving extremist and nationalist forms of expression. This is a station that does not have any professional rule, a station from which the journalistic community in Romania has distanced itself on several occasions. This is a station that has generated fears among the media community that all Romanian press could fall to such a low level," Nistorescu said.

Nistorescu is also critical of the politicians who decided to appear on a television station that he says violated democratic norms and values. But he pointed out that many opposition politicians were compelled to appear on OTV to make their voices heard, since access to most of Romania's radio and television stations -- both public and private -- has lately been drastically restricted, and criticism of the government has been virtually suppressed.

But Nistorescu told RFE/RL that OTV's lack of professional standards played into the hands of extremists such as Tudor. "On the other hand, OTV has become more prominent because lately there has been an obvious shutdown of electronic media for the opposition politicians. Furthermore, because OTV did not impose any professional rule, did not attempt to observe any [journalistic] standards, and became a place where everything could be said, some politicians began appearing on this station on a regular basis," Nistorescu said.

However, human rights groups say that the broadcasting body's decision was rushed and could have been politically motivated, since it was made immediately after Iliescu's protest.

APADOR-CH and the Center for Independent Journalism say it is Tudor who should be put under investigation for violation of laws banning discrimination and hate speech.

At the same time, APADOR-CH representative Stefanescu said journalists' associations should come up with a professional code and enforce it themselves. "We are for a professional code made by journalists for themselves, which should also contain the necessary tools to ensure that this code is being observed. We are thinking of something along the lines of an honor council for journalists, or some intermediary body between those who consider themselves as being offended and the media. There should be some regulation within the profession," Stefanescu said.

The broadcasting body today announced it is suing Tudor for what it says was an instigation to violence against its members. Tudor yesterday published an article urging people to spit on "the rags from the CNA garbage can." However, it is unlikely that a case can be made against Tudor, who, as a senator, enjoys parliamentary immunity under Romanian law.

Meanwhile, some 700 people, including Tudor, staged a protest today against the CNA decision in downtown Bucharest.