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Romania: Threats On The Rise Against Regional Journalists

Concern is growing over a recent spate of threats directed at Romanian journalists responsible for exposing alleged corruption by the country's regional politicians. The issue came to a head last week, when a regional leader of the ruling Social Democrats publicly threatened to break a reporter's leg. Party officials have vowed to take action to discourage such intimidation. But some analysts say the incidents signal the growing influence of those the media is calling "local barons," businessmen and politicians who are exerting more and more control over some Romanian regions.

Prague, 24 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A recent rise in the threats leveled against journalists in Romania has media watchers and human-rights groups increasingly concerned about the country's commitment to press freedom.

Most of the recent threats have been directed against journalists and newspapers involved in exposing alleged corruption by regional politicians and businessmen.

The latest such incident involves Nicolae Mischie, the local administration chief and head of the governing Social Democratic Party, or PSD, in the southwest country of Gorj. During a news conference last week, Mischie threatened journalists responsible for articles alleging local corruption.

In his remarks, the local PSD head singled out Alin Ion, a local stringer for the Bucharest daily "Evenimentul Zilei." In addition to banning the journalist from attending PSD news conferences, Mischie also said of Ion, who was limping at the time, "He'd better not make me cripple his other leg."

Mischie, who is among the most influential figures in Gorj, has been targeted by the media in recent years for his alleged involvement in criminal activities. Among other things, it has been reported he has illegally redirected European Union funds to support private businesses run by him and his friends.

A second "Evenimentul Zilei" stringer has also been threatened. Dan Ielciu, who reports from the northwestern town of Cluj, published a series of articles that led to a police investigation into the business activities of the town's mayor, Gheorghe Funar.

Since then, Ielciu has received a number of death threats by telephone, with one caller warning him it would cost just $300 to hire a hit man to kill him and another advising him to check the brakes of his car and be careful crossing the street.

In Vrancea county in eastern Romania, local officials in the past four months have illegally destroyed some 25 newspaper kiosks belonging to the "Ziarul de Vrancea" daily, which is routinely critical of the activities of local PSD officials. Journalists in the county capital of Focsani chained themselves to the kiosks to prevent their destruction, but the demolition continued regardless.

Octav Cozmanca is the government minister in charge of local administrations. He told RFE/RL that Prime Minister Adrian Nastase has warned all local PSD officials to avoid using intimidation in their relations with the regional media. "The party leader [Nastase] directly warned Mr. Mischie as well in connection with this issue. We also formed groups that will monitor the party's activity in every county. They will go into action probably next week, analyzing the situation on the ground. We want to take concrete measures, not only give general warnings. We will analyze the situation [in Gorj]; we will investigate and we will consequently take the necessary measures," Cozmanca said.

Cozmanca, however, declined to say if PSD will punish Mischie for openly threatening journalists.

Cornel Nistorescu is managing editor of "Evenimentul Zilei" and also one of Romania's leading political analysts. He told RFE/RL that PSD should have already taken disciplinary measures against Mischie. "The governing party should have had a swift and firm reaction toward the 'local baron' from Gorj county [Mischie], [regarding] his shocking behavior and statements. It should have done the same thing in the case of the Focsani newspaper [kiosks]. In Cluj, it's true, following our reports, they opened a criminal investigation against Mayor Gheorghe Funar," Nistorescu said.

But despite Cozmanca's pledge to investigate intimidation by regional leaders, critics say the rise of such incidents reflects the government's true stance toward free media.

In May, the Romanian Defense Ministry -- in a communique widely attributed to Defense Minister Ioan Mircea Pascu -- warned Romanian journalists that "life is short, and their health too valuable, to endanger it by launching 'stressful debates.'"

The ministry's statement came after journalists warned that allowing former secret-police agents into intelligence structures could harm the country's NATO bid.

Pascu also initiated a much-criticized bill that would compel media organizations to publish a right to reply from anyone demanding such action.

Legislators sidelined the bill after President Ion Iliescu said it was inappropriate. But the draft is still in parliament.

Valerian Stan, a director of the Romanian Helsinki Committee (APADOR-CH) human-rights group, told RFE/RL that cases such as Mischie's are characteristic of PSD leadership. "We know very well the extremely controversial actions taken by PSD leaders and even the government regarding [freedom] of expression, regarding the legislation they proposed, such as the proposed law on the right to reply. Such initiatives show a certain mentality among the top leadership of the party and I don't think that we can say the Mischie case is exceptional and does not characterize PSD," Stan said.

Nistorescu said that while it is difficult for the government to control Bucharest's big media outlets, in many of Romania's regions, the media is under the control of local authorities and businessmen. "At the county level, in various towns, where newspaper editors are totally under control and under the permanent scrutiny of local authorities -- the mayor's office, the police, the county council -- there is a sort of economic pressure, and also a kind of self-control on the part of the editors and newspapers owners, who can't afford to anger the local officials. They live in circles that are too small to allow a diversity of opinions. Thus, the local journalists' powers are considerably limited by local interests, which provide the means of subsistence for these local newspapers," Nistorescu said.

Nistorescu called the situation "a peace dictated by interest." He said that local journalists who criticize such interests risk losing their jobs and even physical assault.

Some critics say that in many of Romania's regions, local businessmen have acquired considerable wealth and influence since the fall of communism, sometimes to the point of controlling virtually every aspect of the local economy.

Businessman Dumitru Sechelariu, who is also the PSD mayor of Bacau in eastern Romania, recently drew only mild criticism from the party leadership after celebrating his birthday with a lavish open-air festival, giving away free food and drinks and reportedly allowing citizens to kiss his hand as a sign of gratitude.

Nistorescu said the governing party cannot afford to get rid of people such as Mischie or Sechelariu because they are PSD's main financial and political supporters in their regions. "It is easy to assume and to understand, though most of the time there is no proof, that such people are the essential providers of votes, money, political support, and all the rest throughout Romania's regions and that the governing party does not yet have the power or the interest to temper and to limit such behavior, not only toward the media but also toward the economy, the law, and the local communities," Nistorescu said.

Nistorescu said that big newspapers in Bucharest have shown solidarity with the local media, detailing cases like those in Gorj, Cluj, and Vrancea.

Stan, in turn, said his organization has been closely monitoring the situation and will bring it to the attention of international human-rights groups and the Council of Europe.

Stan added, however, that local media-monitoring organizations should be doing more on their own to fight against the intimidation of regional journalists. Romanian journalism associations, he concluded, must also give additional support to local journalists and show more solidarity with them.