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Romania: Journalist's Suspicious Death Raises New Doubts About Media Freedom

The positive identification this month of the remains of a Romanian investigative journalist who disappeared last year has raised new questions about media freedom in Romania. Journalist Iosif Costinas was known for his investigations into local organized crime and the role of communist-era secret police officers in the bloody reprisals against demonstrators during the December 1989 revolt. Media watchdogs say that, while cases of violence against journalists are rare in Romania, economic and political pressure against independent media outlets has increased since the former communist Social Democrats came back to power in 2000.

Prague, 12 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Romanian authorities are investigating the death of a journalist whose body was discovered earlier this year after he disappeared in June 2002.

Police this month announced that DNA tests have identified a skeleton found in March as being that of journalist Iosif Costinas, 62, from Timisoara, a city some 500 kilometers west of Bucharest.

The disappearance and the recent confirmation of Costinas's death is again placing the freedom of the Romanian media -- especially outside Bucharest -- under scrutiny.

Although there is no confirmation so far that Costinas was murdered, journalists and media watchdog groups have expressed suspicions that his death may have been connected to his work.

Costinas was best-known for his investigations into the role of the dreaded communist-era secret police, the Securitate, in the killing of scores of Timisoara protesters in the country's 1989 anticommunist revolt. Costinas took active part in the revolt.

Only a few of those army and Securitate officers responsible for the more than 1,000 protesters killed throughout Romania have been identified, and even fewer have faced punishment.

Journalist Malin Bot, of the Timisoara newspaper "Ziua de Vest," told RFE/RL that at the time of his disappearance, Costinas was gathering documents for a book on local Securitate officers who fired into the crowds.

Bot said that after Costinas's disappearance, friends published a book based on his notes -- including a list of names of people who may have been involved in the 1989 killings. Bot said some names came as a shock.

"On that list, there are three names which are very important now in Timisoara: the head of the local police inspectorate, Dorel Andras; an officer who works in the local intelligence unit of the Interior Ministry; and a police officer, Adrian Cioara, who was a [noncommissioned officer] in December 1989, and who is the officer who dealt with Costinas's disappearance. This is a coincidence which struck us, a very odd coincidence, which we noticed after the book with Costinas's notes was published," Bot said.

Bot said Costinas's body was discovered in March, shortly after the book was published, and some nine months after his disappearance. Police reported there was no evidence to suggest Costinas died a violent death.

But the remains were discovered near a railroad in a relatively populous area outside Timisoara; journalists who went to the site have suggested it would be nearly impossible for the corpse to go undetected so long. Many suspect Costinas's remains were transported there long after his death.

Costinas may have also been targeted for his investigations into the dealings of the powerful local mafia, including gasoline smuggling from Romania to Yugoslavia during the 1990s Balkan wars.

Journalist Bot said many are frustrated by the lack of progress on the investigation. "For nine months, the police said they had absolutely no leads regarding Costinas's disappearance, absolutely nothing. After the remains were found, the police again said they didn't know anything, that the remains bore no traces of violence and that there was absolutely no indication about what could have happened, how the body could have ended up there, and what the cause of death could have been," he said.

Unlike other Eastern European countries, Romania is not known for violent attacks against journalists. But Mircea Toma, director of the independent Media Monitoring Agency and himself an investigative journalist, said that while violence is rare and the Costinas case has not been proven to be murder, pressure against the media, especially outside Bucharest, is omnipresent.

"The direct use of brutality against journalists is not characteristic for Romania. Much more frequently they use a simple method -- buying. There were several incidents involving physical violence against journalists, but none reached the intensity of the alleged Costinas case. In this case, however, we are mainly talking about suspicions," Toma said.

The Costinas case has also attracted the attention of international media watchdogs, among them Reporters Without Borders and the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Alex Lupis, CPJ's coordinator for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, told RFE/RL why his organization got involved in the case: "We felt like there was a credible motive, that there are people out there, powerful people who certainly had an interest in silencing Iosif Costinas and his journalism. It's still not clear whether his case is a murder, but we still believe that these are highly suspicious circumstances. And we're also concerned about whether the police in Timisoara will be able to investigate this objectively and how aggressively they will investigate the case again. Because certain people from the former [communist] regime still remain very influential in government positions and in other parts of society and may in some ways pressure the police not to look into it too deeply."

The CPJ, in its "Attacks on the Press 2002" annual report warned that all media in Romania was coming under increasing pressure and control from the former communist Social Democratic government of Prime Minister Adrian Nastase.

The report even cited veiled threats last year from the defense minister against journalists who, with their criticism, would "hamper" Romania's efforts to join NATO. The minister sent a letter to newspapers warning that "life is too short and precious" to waste time criticizing the government.

But, while big newspapers in Bucharest have been more difficult to control, reports say media in the rest of the country was easy prey for rich local oligarchs, known as "barons," who most often are either members or financial supporters of the governing party.

Journalist Mircea Toma explained the way local media are controlled: "Interest groups, either economic or political, take action against a [local] newspaper either by buying what is called "poisoned" advertising space -- that is, they also buy the silence of the journalist, or, on the contrary, threatening to stop buying advertising space, when they can afford to do that. There are also indirect actions, such as financial controls and so on."

Journalist Malin Bot said that in Timisoara, the independent media is also subject to psychological bullying in addition to economic and political pressure.

"There is a bimonthly magazine, called 'The Hoof,' in which journalists who the previous week wrote something 'bad' about the political power are attacked and insulted in the worst ways. I personally have been targeted by it. There is a person who writes this magazine, and who works for the president of the local council -- who is also vice president of the local branch of the governing party. This person reads every local newspaper, and if there are negative articles about his boss, the authors are attacked," Bot said.

CPJ's Alex Lupis says his organization is trying to call attention to the issue of Romanian investigative journalists who still face major problems with Romanian authorities -- especially in the form of lawsuits. Lupis warned that lack of action from the government to protect media freedom is becoming "disturbing."

"What's most disturbing is that, while Romania moves gradually toward joining the European Union, we really don't seem to see any coherent effort by the government to address this issue and it remains an issue of serious concern. Because, if Romanian journalists can't write freely about what is going on now and what types of individuals are in power, or what their past activities are, it really quite strongly limits the amount of democratization that can occur in society," Lupis said.

Lupis said it is in the government's interest to "aggressively investigate" the Costinas case and -- if they establish he was murdered -- to prosecute those guilty "to the fullest extent of the law," in order to prove to journalists that violence against them will not be tolerated.