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Evolution Gone Wrong

Predicting media development in Romania after it happens.

by Peter Gross 30 January 2017

The media’s performance in Romania’s recent parliamentary elections proved, once again, that Darwin was right about evolutionary processes moving at a snail’s pace. Media professionalization in this long-suffering Balkan nation – where a big bang created an opportunity for democratization when communism was violently rejected in 1989 – has yet to reach the stage of walking upright.

 

With very few exceptions, news on television and radio, internet sites, and social media, as well as newspapers and magazines, feed voters “Propaganda packaged as journalism of information,” stimulating “fears and anxieties in society,” as journalist Brindusa Armanca concludes in the weekly Revista 22. She is right about that (insert many exclamation points).

 

Just days before the 11 December 2016 vote, then-Prime Minister Dacian Ciolos justifiably accused television station Antena 3 of lies and disseminating false news. ActiveWatch, a Romanian human rights organization that lobbies for public interest-oriented independent media, charged another television station, Romania TV, with abuse of fundamental rights such as freedom of expression. And the country’s controversy-ridden public service television, TVR, got into hot water for the nth time since its establishment in 1990 for blocking the transmission of an interview with Ciolos immediately after its director, Irina Radu, met with parliamentary deputies from the Social Democratic Party (suggesting the prime minister wasn’t happy with how the interview had turned out).

 

The Media Dinosaurs: Creatures of the Elites 

 

Romanian media have developed into impressive dinosaurs since December 1989 – when Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu were executed, and former communists took over the first post-communist government. The press is somewhat decimated now by the economic downturn that began in 2008 and the well-deserved lack of trust among their readers. Television, the principal information source for nearly 90 percent of the population and, therefore, the most preponderant shill for political parties and politicians, continues to exert its distortive spells. There is as yet no critical mass of new media followers to make these modes of news and information dissemination critically important, not that they are wholly reliable either.

 

To date, the un-evolved DNA of both traditional and even new media largely excludes any internal and external pluralism, reflecting not only their willingness to be herded but also the enormously powerful grip the political-business establishment’s elites has over them. The control of these elites over the media, the quid pro quos in the clientelistic media relationship with them, and the media’s reflection and representation of political parties and politicians are hyper-developed. They are collectively a gigantic, malignant tumor in the body politic.

 

As the establishment elites see it, the media are there to serve them in their gluttonous pursuit of political power, wielded like a battle ax in the pursuit of economic gain. These well-armed elites are the highwaymen robbing the media of their responsibility and responsiveness to their publics and to the democratic process that demands credible, reliable, complete news and information. It does not help, of course, that most of the media’s elites – editors, directors, and star journalists – are themselves seduced by money, career prospects, and political ambitions, and eagerly corrupt their own institutions.

 

The elites have yet to be weaned off the self-centered, authoritarian, feudal mentalities inherited from the communist era. Their unchanged attitudes toward the media were best expressed in 2011 by Sorin Ovidiu Vintu, the former owner of the Realitatea-Catavencu Media conglomerate who was later sentenced to prison for blackmailing his former business partner. He was quoted as saying, “I need an organization to respond to my orders like the Audi I own. I turn the key; it starts. I turn the key back to the left; it stops.” Another exemplification of the lingering sentiments and values is the statement made by the president of the Vrancea County Council, Marian Oprisan, who told a journalist in 2004, “Someone should shoot you for what you write.” Notwithstanding such visceral feelings, that has not happened. Romanian journalists, however, are routinely threatened, insulted, sued, barred from covering some governmental and parliamentary meetings, bribed, and in some cases recruited to infiltrate their work places on behalf of Romania’s security services.

 

 A Deceptive Kind of Progress

 

Progress in this Jurassic Park is painfully, frustratingly, maddeningly slow, with a few very good people clawing and scratching their way to a better society and independent, professional media in a one step forward, two steps back process called “progress.” Despite their best efforts, Romanian institutions, according to one of the most eminent political observers, Andrei Plesu, suffer from near fatal overdoses of “corruption, incompetence, and stupidity.”

 

Yet we should not entirely dismiss the palpable, baby steps taken with the development of a few decent media outlets and journalists, among them investigative journalism sites, and those that Armanca names in her article – namely, Digi24, PRO TV, Prima TV, HotNews, Adevarul, Romania libera, Gandul, Republica, and Dilema Veche. 

 

We should also not ignore the fight against corruption in the last few years. Dozens of politicians and businessmen – among them local, regional, and national media owners, editors, and journalists – were indicted, convicted, and sentenced for various acts of corruption. The victorious Social Democratic Party that has formed the new government is led by Liviu Dragnea, who was convicted of bribery and forging ballot papers in the 2012 parliamentary election. Another of the party’s members, former Prime Minister Victor Ponta, was indicted for forgery, money laundering, and tax evasion in 2015 and was forced to resign. 

 

Romania’s problem is the two-steps back part of its “progress”: corruption convictions have not changed the way society, politics, business, and the media function. They have not altered the way the elites, in particular, think and behave. Ultimately, the media and the journalists that have evolved on the professional continuum may regress – they may still be manipulated, or simply subdued by the elites. The unexpected triumph of Klaus Iohannis in the 2014 presidential election hinted at a change in values and attitudes; the 2016 parliamentary election hints at the fleeting nature of this change.

 

This is Romania. Its evolutionary path, including that of its media and their journalists, is not predictable. Rather, as the Romanian-French playwright for the theater of the absurd, Eugene Ionesco, famously said, “You can only predict things after they have happened.”  We can predict this may remain true until the evolutionary process runs its slow course, or by a miracle proves Darwin wrong.

Peter Gross
, Ph.D., is a professor in the School of Journalism and Electronic Media at the University of Tennessee in the United States. He has written extensively on the subject of East European media and its evolution since 1989.
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