The Ringier Group purchased "Evenimentul zilei" from the German magazine and newspaper publisher Gruner + Jahr (a subsidiary of media giant Bertelsmann) in late 2003 and took over ownership on 1 January 2004. The previous owners reportedly refrained from interfering in editorial policies, and former Editor in Chief Cornel Nistorescu publicly expressed the hope that Ringier would act similarly. It was not to be. In October, Nistorescu resigned after an "amiable understanding" stipulating that he would continue to write twice-weekly articles (see "RFE/RL Media Matters," 11 October 2004).
There was speculation at the time that Ringier's intention might be to change the paper's critical stance toward the then-ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD). The owners denied the existence of any such plans, as they denied plans attributed to them to transform "Evenimentul zilei" into a tabloid. It would make little commercial sense, they said, to have two Ringier-owned publications compete with each another. (The tabloid "Libertatea" is also owned by Ringier.)
"It is strange to see Western companies behaving in Romania in a manner reminiscent of socialist-era methods. Above all, it is most grave that trust in Western values is vanishing."
New editor in chief, Dan Cristian Turturica, took the owners' pledge at face value. In the election campaign ahead of the parliamentary and presidential elections of November-December, "Evenimentul zilei" continued to be on the front lines among the few remaining media outlets critical of the ruling Social Demcrats, and such coverage arguably contributed to the defeat of its leader, former Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, by Justice and Truth alliance candidate Traian Basescu. It also contributed to the less-than-impressive performance of the Social Democrats at the polls by printing on the eve of the elections a series of transcripts purportedly stemming from Social Democratic leadership meetings and suggesting high-level corruption, interference in the justice system, and attempts at silencing the media.
On 23 December, Turturica was notified by Ringier's management in Bucharest that he would be "transferred" for a 60-day period to the Moldavian town of Bacau (a Social Democratic stronghold) ostensibly to explore the possibility of launching a local subsidiary paper there. The move appeared timed to trigger as little attention as possible, with most Romanians preparing traditional holiday celebrations. In his place, Ringier appointed journalist Razvan Ionescu, whose professional credentials were immediately questioned by colleagues. Ionescu is a former editor in chief of the television review "TV-Mania" and of the daily "Jurnalul national," and he was executive director of the sports publication "Gazeta sporturilor." The resulting situation was awkward, as there appeared to be concurrent editors in chief: Turturica, who had not been dismissed, and Ionescu. But Ionescu's appointment triggered protests within the cohesive "Evenimentul zilei" team, and the next issues were brought out by a small group of little-known journalists or journalists working for the sports and entertainment section who were now writing political analysis. Ionescu also threatened to discipline colleagues who refused the marching orders.Unpopular Changes
The protests went unpublished in the daily but were reported by other independent newspapers, including "Ziua" and "Romania libera." Following a protest by some "Evenimentul zilei" journalists and readers in front of the Swiss Embassy in Bucharest, the Ringier Group claimed in a statement that the changes at "Evenimentul zilei" were aimed at overcoming "management shortcomings" and at "positioning 'Evenimentul zilei' on the first spot among Romania's reference-dailies [sic]." The management said those objectives were agreed upon when Turturica became editor in chief and that the related agreement stipulated they should be met by the end of 2004. "Unfortunately," Ringier said, the goals went unaccomplished and, as a result, management decided to "downscale" Turturica's position at the company due to "irreconcilable differences over management style."
In his final editorial, published on 24 December, Turturica rejected the accusations against him. He wrote that revenue generated from advertising rose during his tenure despite the government's having deprived the daily of "hundreds of thousands of euros" by channeling advertising to less critical newspapers. He also wrote that circulation had risen despite the departure from the newspaper of its most prestigious journalist, Cornel Nistorescu, "the man who became the embodiment of its brand." Indeed, many readers asked the new management to cancel their subscriptions after the changes were imposed.
The nature of the changes was quickly demonstrated on 30 December, when, for the first time since he had joined the daily, journalist Traian Ungureanu was denied permission to publish an article. The article disputed reasons presented by the Ringier Group for the changes. It was "courtesy hosted" by the daily "Romania libera," and ended with the sentence: "I specify that this is the last article I will publish in the daily 'Evenimentul zilei' -- in its version without journalists."
Five prominent columnists from the daily promptly resigned after Ionescu's appointment, dozens of others followed their example once it turned out in negotiations that Ringier would neither pledge in writing that the newspaper's editorial line would be maintained nor revoke Turturica's demotion. The former editor in chief said he would join them as soon as the stipulations of his contract ran out in two-months' time. The journalists announced their intention to establish an independent new daily, based on the example of "Le Monde." According to that prestigious French daily's charter and in order to preempt any attempt to influence editorial policies, ownership by any single entity must not exceed 5 percent.
The sad moral of the story was summed up by Mircea Mihaies, a University of Timisoara professor of English literature and the editor in chief of the monthly "Orizont": "It is strange to see Western companies behaving in Romania in a manner reminiscent of socialist-era methods. Above all, it is most grave that trust in Western values is vanishing.... Ringier...has done an enormous disservice to the idea of Europe toward which Romanians move with such enthusiasm. I myself have heard many saying: 'If this is Europe, they'd better leave us alone.'"
Why the Social Democrats might want to silence critical voices is clear. Why Ringier might oblige is unclear -- particularly now that the Social Democrats are no longer in a position to simply do as they wish in Romania.