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Romania: Balkan Stability Pact Criticizes Control Of News Agency

The Stability Pact for Southeastern Europe is calling on Romanian authorities to ensure greater freedom for news agency Rompres, which was placed under government control earlier this year. The pact says in a letter to the government that by subordinating the news agency, Romanian authorities are not in line with internationally accepted standards on public media. The letter comes after some observers recently expressed concern that Romanian media give disproportionate coverage to Prime Minister Adrian Nastase.

Prague, 9 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The Stability Pact for Southeastern Europe says it is concerned about a Romanian measure that brings news agency Rompres under direct government control.

Michael Zenner, chairman of the Pact's Media Task Force, sent a letter on 7 November to Romanian Information Minister Vasile Dancu that calls for the Social Democrat government to renounce its takeover of Rompres.

The Stability Pact for Southeastern Europe -- also known as the Balkan Stability Pact -- was established by the European Union to aid in the political and economic reconstruction of the countries in the region in the aftermath of the Kosovo conflict. The pact promotes and finances regional projects aimed at economic reconstruction and development, as well as the consolidation of the region's security and democratic institutions.

In his letter, Zenner points out that Romania endorsed the pact's Charter for Media Freedom, which states that "publicly owned media should serve the interests of the public and not the parties in power."

Zenner said the Romanian government -- by subordinating Rompres to the Information Ministry -- is effectively making the news agency director accountable to the information minister, who would have powers to approve editorial content.

Zenner warns that "such subordination would not contribute to the independence of Rompres, nor would it be in line with internationally accepted standards on publicly owned media."

But the Information Ministry today rejected the Stability Pact's accusations. Deputy Information Minister Dan Jurcan says that under the new rules, the information minister has no editorial power.

Jurcan tells RFE/RL that Rompres's editorial independence is clearly defined by the government regulation: "They say that under this formula, Rompres would not have editorial independence. It is false. The government regulation itself clearly stipulates that Rompres has editorial independence."

Rompres has enjoyed a certain degree of autonomy since the collapse of communism but has never acquired complete independence. In 1994, it was for the first time placed under partial government control, a measure reinforced by the center-right government in 1998.

But after the Social Democrat government led by Prime Minister Adrian Nastase came to power in January this year, the newly created Ministry of Public Information acquired financial control over Rompres. In September, the government decided to place the agency under the ministry's direct control.

Jurcan says bringing Rompres under the Information Ministry's wing is only part of an overall reform of the government administration. He points out that Social Democrats are not against a bill launched in parliament by the opposition Liberal Party that calls for Rompres to be placed under legislators' control.

But Jurcan says the government wants to launch a public debate on the issue and study the experiences of other countries.

Journalists and civil rights groups warn the news agency is being turned into a mere government department.

Mircea Toma, a journalist with the "Academia Catavencu" weekly and head of a media-monitoring agency, tells our correspondent that Information Minister Vasile Dancu will have total control over Rompres: "Simply, the director of Rompres becomes a state secretary under the direct supervision of the Public Information Minister. Journalists become public servants and their activity is directly regulated and supervised by the minister himself."

Toma says the government wants to turn Rompres into a propaganda tool. He says the Information Ministry -- whose official objective is to facilitate the spread of information about the government's activities -- was established as a means to conduct a permanent campaign to improve Prime Minister Nastase's image.

The protest from the Stability Pact comes after a recent independent survey found that Nastase enjoys disproportionate coverage in the Romanian media compared to opposition politicians and even to members of his own cabinet. The survey, conducted by the monitoring agency headed by Mircea Toma, covered the news broadcasts of Romania's four main TV stations over a seven-day period.

"Over a week, the prime minister [Adrian Nastase] appeared 37 times on the four monitored TV stations, while the three opposition leaders -- [Democrat Party leader Traian] Basescu, [Greater Romania Party leader] Vadim [Tudor] and Liberal Party chief Valeriu] Stoica -- have each appeared twice," says Toma.

Deputy Information Minister Jurcan says Nastase receives more media coverage because his schedule is busier and he leads a one-party government. He says it is up to each media organization to decide how extensive its coverage of the government is: "It is our legal duty to inform the public about the government's activity. We are not responsible for the course the news takes from editorial rooms to the public. If a news organization considers that a news story about an action conducted by the prime minister or the government is worth being broadcast, it is their decision. We can neither order nor control what they broadcast."

But Toma points out that Information Minister Vasile Dancu was Nastase's campaign chief in the general election of 2000. He says that Dancu has already begun preparing Nastase's presidential bid for 2004 -- when incumbent President Ion Iliescu will complete his second and last constitutional term -- using public institutions such as the Information Ministry and now Rompres.

Toma says it is up to the independent media and civil rights-oriented non-governmental organizations to support the liberal bill, which would place Rompres under parliament's control. He says action to support media freedom must also include appeals to international organizations whenever Romanian authorities choose to ignore the voices of dissent.