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In Romania, Even Good News Can Be Bad

  • Rupert Wolfe Murray

Romania's Senate has passed a law that obliges the media to present an equal proportion of positive news to balance the "bad" news they present. And the bill passed unanimously. What were the senators thinking?

Or perhaps they weren't thinking at all. Enforcing a "positive-news" rule on free media is technically impossible in an open society. Doing so would require a comprehensive system of censorship, a clampdown on expression that would be inadmissible within the European Union. It would debilitate the media and represent a throwback to the communist era. It would be unacceptable to the media, the government, the public, and the EU. It is unworkable, unthinkable, impossible.

Nonetheless, due to the peculiarities of Romania's constitution, it is very close to becoming law. In Romania, the Senate can pass laws pertaining to the audiovisual sector, even without the consent of the lower chamber. As it did in this case.

It is expected the president will reject the bill and send it back to the Senate, which has the right to pass the bill into law over the president's veto. It is hard to imagine, though, that senators won't come to their senses by then and give a little more consideration to the consequences of their bill.

But this bill's little story tells a lot about the Byzantine ways that democracy functions in Romania. Laws are often passed with a bewildering speed and abandon in a process locals describe as a "legislative conveyor belt." The government churns out "emergency ordinances," and they have the force of law until approved or rejected by parliament. The Senate has similar powers.

In the haste to make laws, ministers or senators often don't have time to read the bills that come before them. Each initiative has a sponsor who gathers support by promising, in turn, to vote for unread bills sponsored by other officials. It is an efficient system, with enormous numbers of measures passing sometimes in a single session and no time wasted on small print. Laws that prove unworkable or scandalous can be amended, rejected by the lower chamber, or -- as is most often the case -- simply forgotten and ignored.

The "positive-news" bill is a perfect example. It flew through the Senate in a matter of minutes with a gentle push from its sponsor, extreme nationalist Gheorghe Funar.

The bill, ironically, comes as a response to Romania's success at building a thriving media sector. Although media ownership patterns have raised some eyebrows, in general Romanian media are considered relatively free even by EU standards. But in this country as in others, that success has led to a rise in sensationalism and an increase in "bad" news. The airwaves are filled with stories of rape, murder, car crashes, and more. In short, Romania is becoming like the other EU member states.

But while the publics in those countries are used to media sensationalism, this is a new and unsettling phenomenon to many in Romania. Many -- particularly rural dwellers and the elderly -- see such stories as evidence that the country has gone to the dogs. They fondly remember the days when all news was good news, when dictator Nicolae Ceausescu's daily activities headlined every broadcast and "bad" news was generally limited to reports of natural disasters in the West or the exposure of "enemies of the people." It is rather shocking to see Romania's senators sharing this nostalgia.

This law is a pathetic attempt to roll back the negativity, a negativity senators claim is depressing Romanians. The measure shows the outmoded political reflexes and communist-era tactics of the senators. They are seeking to resolve a complex social issue through heavy-handed proscriptive legislation without even involving the public, other political forces, or the media.

The real "good news" in this instance is that Romania has clearly moved beyond such antediluvian means. It is no longer a country where the government can determine the news.

Rupert Wolfe Murray was the former team leader of the EU Phare Project to the National Audiovisual Council of Romania. He welcomes feedback via his blog: www.productive.ro/blog. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
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