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Critics Say Closure Of RFE/RL, BBC Broadcasts To Romania Coming Too Soon

  • Eugen Tomiuc

Former Romanian Prime Minister Radu Vasile (right) is interviewed by Nestor Ratesh, then-director of RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service, in 1998

Former Romanian Prime Minister Radu Vasile (right) is interviewed by Nestor Ratesh, then-director of RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service, in 1998

The recent announcement that RFE/RL's Romanian Service would be shut down after nearly 60 years on the air has prompted a debate over the role of the media in the country.

Many credit the broadcasts of RFE/RL -- as well as the BBC, which also will conclude its Romanian broadcasts on July 31 -- with contributing to the fall of communism.

Some fear the closures could not come at a worse time and will strip Romania's media landscape of the last remaining sources of objective, independent news reporting at a time when corruption and political intrigue are on the rise.

On July 23, just a week before RFE/RL and the BBC will air their final Romanian broadcasts, the European Commission is due to release a report on Bucharest's efforts to overcome shortcomings in judicial reform and the fight against corruption.

The report is expected to cast a highly critical eye on the government's sheltering of high-ranking officials from corruption charges. In particular, the Romanian parliament will come under scrutiny for blocking corruption cases involving former Prime Minister Adrian Nastase.

'Important Progress'

Nastase is a Ceausescu-era holdover, and for many Romanians his case confirms the belief that the collapse of communism and EU membership have not been enough to exchange a deeply entrenched system of corruption and favoritism for a functioning, transparent democracy.

Announcing the closure of its Romanian Service, RFE/RL on July 2 cited the Broadcasting Board of Governors -- the independent U.S. government agency that oversees all U.S. international broadcasting -- as saying the reduction reflected "important progress" made in the country's access to media alternatives.

But a group of Romanian civic organizations who this week in an open letter protested the end of the RFE/RL and BBC broadcasts say Romania should not be counted among the league of Western democracies and that the media landscape is far from even.

"Almost all media in Romania was and still is under the control of an oligarchy rooted in the former communist regime and its secret police [the Securitate]," reads the letter, signed by leaders of 15 civic associations and trade unions and addressed to top U.S. and British government officials, as well as the heads of both RFE/RL and the BBC World Service.

It adds, "RFE/RL and BBC Romanian broadcasts continue to be essential for the real democratization of Romania."

Carl Gibson, a Romanian who was the founder of one of the country's first free trade unions in 1979, echoed the sentiment in an open letter to RFE/RL President Jeffrey Gedmin. Gibson, who was imprisoned as a dissident under the Ceausescu regime, wrote: "I am fully convinced that there are no existing democratic functions in Romania, due to the fact that access to diverse sources of information have not been guaranteed. There are still countless members of the Securitate sitting in parliament in Bucharest who have no interest in perpetuating and spreading historical truths."

'Moral Conscience'

RFE/RL's Romanian Service, which began its broadcasts on July 14, 1950, is inextricably entwined with the country's tumultuous 20th-century history. Romanian President Traian Basescu has frequently paid homage to RFE/RL broadcasts as the "moral conscience" of the country, most recently in April, when speaking at a memorial service for Monica Lovinescu, a 30-year veteran of the service. (A 2006 presidential report acknowledged the country's communist rulers may have been responsible for the deaths of three RFE/RL Romanian Service directors.)

Basescu also contacted U.S. authorities to argue against an earlier proposal, in February 2007, to close the Romanian Service.

Hanna Ronzheimer, a cultural anthropologist and journalist for ORF Austrian Radio Broadcasting Online, writes a weekly series on the media in Central and Eastern Europe. She says while the RFE/RL and BBC broadcasts may no longer enjoy a large share of Romania's flourishing media market, which offers up to 70 daily newspapers and 300 private radio stations, as well as cable television and the Internet, they still fill a niche.

"A lot of people have said that the function of Radio Free Europe today is not as important as it was for people in communist times, because there are so many other commercial media. But they said its function is still important in that it's a reliable source of information, and this is very hard to find in the Romanian media landscape," Ronzheimer says. "There is a lot of corruption, a network between politics, economy, and the media. So there is not really press freedom in that way."

The announced closures have sparked debate in the Romanian press and blogosphere. Iosif Klein Medesan, the editor of the respected Bucharest daily "Romania Libera," formerly worked for the Romanian services of the BBC, RFE/RL, and Voice of America. (VOA closed its Romanian program in 2004.) In a July 4 editorial, Medesan credited the trio as keeping "millions of Romanians who were hungry for truth and justice connected to unbiased information and balanced commentaries throughout the communist nightmare."

'Instantly Recognizable'

Writing of his childhood memory of listening to broadcasts in his family's small apartment, Sever Voinescu of the Bucharest daily "Cotidianul" calls RFE/RL "Romania's most important media phenomenon until 1989." Comparing the contemporary crop of Romanian journalists to RFE/RL correspondents of the past -- broadcasters whose voices were "instantly recognizable" to him -- Voinescu added: "If I ever were to be called a journalist, I'd want to be like them. Not like the others."

The liveliest debate over the closures has appeared on the Internet. The Romanian news portal on July 6 co-hosted a roundtable discussion on the RFE/RL and BBC closures. The talk, which included three prominent former RFE/RL and BBC employees -- RFE/RL broadcasters Neculai Constantin Munteanu and Emil Hurezeanu and the BBC's Christian Mititelu -- prompted hundreds of phone calls and text messages.

Romanian novelist Cristian Teodorescu, a former RFE/RL Bucharest bureau chief and the current editor of the Romanian edition of the prestigious literary magazine "Lettre Internationale," used his blog to publish his commentary on the fact that many in Romania will be more than happy to see the demise of an independent media voice.

"The first to rejoice would be those [ex-]Securitate cliques who tried to muzzle RFE through attacks or intimidation," Teodorescu tells RFE/RL. "These attacks have been uncovered, and they are now part of RFE's history. The rejoicers also include all [communist-era] 'cultural' VIPs who were churning out outrageous propaganda during the Ceausescu era -- writers such as [ex-court poet] Adrian Paunescu, [playwright] Dinu Sararu, [ex-court poet and current ultranationalist politician] Corneliu Vadim Tudor, who shamelessly perpetrated Ceausescu's personality cult, and whom Radio Free Europe blasted, making history, and certainly influencing Romania's history."

Sense Of Hope

Teodorescu's blog post inspired hundreds of replies -- many sympathetic, some not, to RFE/RL's past role in keeping a sense of hope through the dark years of communism.

"Without Radio Free Europe, it would have been farewell, Europe!" read one.

"I am so happy for the disbanding of this radio station, and for the firing of the bastard spies who worked for it and destroyed so many countries and destinies through the bloodshed that they provoked and supported," wrote another.

A third, more moderate, voice wrote: "While no one is rejoicing, there is no tragedy is the disappearance of RFE. Its mission was accomplished with the fall of communism.... Romanians should erect a monument to the memory of those who, evening after evening, were informing them about what was happening in their own country."

Are such sentiments a sign that Romania and its media is progressing -- albeit slowly -- toward a stable democracy?

"Yes, in my opinion," says Teodorescu. "And not only because some of those who worked for the BBC and RFE continue to work today in the Romanian media, but also because the Romanian journalist has developed a conscience and sometimes would rather suffer and would do everything in his power to avoid being pressured into something. All this is proof that the local media are heading in the right direction. In this respect, both RFE and the BBC have been hugely important milestones."