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The change of governments in Romania ushers in a new period of political meddling in the country’s media.by Marius Dragomir 14 May 2012
Back in the 1990s, as a journalist in my native Romania, the biggest challenge and frustration was to handle the often overt pressures of politicians who wanted good coverage, particularly before elections. Back then, the predecessor of today’s Social Democratic Party – a bunch of former apparatchiks and secret police collaborators – was the most aggressive and crudest of the political tribes; their interference with the media and journalists was notorious. I remember the threats directed at me and other colleagues through the publisher of the local newspaper I worked for. We were pressured to defend politicians’ friends at various institutions; cover boring, self-serving press conferences; drop investigations into businesses and affairs these people were involved in; and so on.
Years have passed and the political waters in Romania have changed dramatically. There are new faces in the Social Democratic Party, including some who in the 1990s were its fierce critics. Unlike then, when at least some media outlets were independent, now the media are overwhelmingly politicized, with very few independent voices trying to survive. Collusion between wealthy businessmen and powerful politicians has a disastrous effect on how the media operate, particularly in television, where each major player is a tool for a certain political group.
But with the fall of the government in late April and the Social Democrats’ return to power, a flavor of the 1990s is coming back. The new government quickly took aim at the heart of what it most wants to control, particularly in a period of cavalcading elections: the media.
A week after the old government collapsed, the new one put the squeeze on the public service broadcaster, TVR. The station’s governors voted 3 May to sack the director of editorial production and programming, Dan Radu. The move was made at the request of Claudiu Branzan, a member of the governing council nominated by the Social Democrats, who said Radu should go because programming changes he advocated were bringing down TVR’s ratings.
TVR journalists told me Branzan’s move was in retaliation for the refusal of General Director Alexandru Lazescu to hire the Social Democrats’ candidate as head of information and sports programming.
The attack is nothing new in the post-1990 history of the public service broadcaster. Run by a politically appointed council, TVR has seen managers come and go during changes in power, and over the years its independence and fairness have been seriously questioned.
The appointment in August 2010 of the current management team led by Lazescu was heralded by some media analysts as the beginning of a new era, given Lazescu’s reputation as an ethical journalist and skillful manager. He had a solid track record in the independent media, having started the Monitorul network of local newspapers, for which I worked briefly in the late 1990s. Many analysts expected his successful leadership style and ability to withstand political pressure to carry over into broadcasting.
But it seems that his firmness and refusal to obey political orders have cost him a close ally in Radu, who apparently became the victim of a political thrust to gain control over the crucial information and sports division, which produces its news programs.
Several TVR journalists admitted that Radu had made mistakes, such as uninspired investments into programs that failed to lure viewers and reverse the long-term trend in favor of private stations. TVR had a 38 percent share of the viewing public in 2000, a figure that had slipped to 7 percent by the time Lazescu came on board.
The main problem for TVR is not the performance of a certain employee. The public broadcaster and the media in general are neck-deep in a serious politicization crisis. For years, independent voices pushed for new laws to bar each new crop of politicians from sticking their fingers into TVR management. But parliament dropped the matter in 2005 without any action.
Newly elected Prime Minister Victor Ponta pledged that his government wouldn’t churn TVR’s staff on political grounds. But that is exactly what is happening.
Many signs of things to come are in the air. Days after taking over, the new government picked Andrei Zaharescu as its spokesman. Zaharescu is a news anchor at Antena 1, one of the biggest private stations in Romania and part of a media group controlled indirectly by Dan Voiculescu, a politician-businessman who supports the new government.
At the local level, smaller broadcasters are underfunded and remain under the thumb of city halls and politicians.
With three elections – local, national, and presidential – coming up, the use of media as a proxy for political fights is likely to take unexpected turns.
The first of these battles has already started. A total of 188 TV and 142 radio stations have informed the state media regulator of their intention to cover the 10 June local elections and to offer advertising space to political parties. How they will do this, given who is behind these outlets, is not hard to imagine.
One thing is easy to predict: the Romanian media are going to be drawn into new political wars.
The fall of communism brought with it expectations of an unfettered press safeguarding the young democracies of Central and Eastern Europe. But for the region's media, the past quarter-century has turned out to be much less uplifting. From oligarch-controlled television stations to politically partisan newspapers, from woeful ethical standards to outright corruption, the media often fall far short of acting as independent watchdogs over their societies, despite the existence of some scrappy publications and feisty reporters willing to uncover official wrongdoing and expose poor governance. If that weren't enough, the region's press has been hit hard by the same trends transforming the media around the world, including an explosion of alternative forms of entertainment, the growth of social media, decreased advertising revenues associated with the rise of the Internet, and general economic malaise. Get your copy here.