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Always on the Agenda

The Romanian media has to constantly defend its freedom in the face of never-ending threats of encroachment from the ruling class.

by Peter Gross 28 February 2018

There are two things Romania’s political elites have done fairly successfully over the last 28 years and, from the looks of things, continue doing: holding the country’s evolution hostage to their own interests, and leashing and muzzling most of the news media. In a country where the laudably intense battle against corruption in recent years has still hardly made a dent, the cheaters, bribe takers, tax evaders, fraudsters, and other lawbreakers in parliament and government habitually try to inhibit the media from airing the symphonies of misconduct they orchestrate year after year, or the identity of their conductors.


A case in point is a proposal introduced in December 2017 in parliament, which is controlled by the Social Democratic Party (PSD) and its ally, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE). If it gets approved – no vote has yet taken place as of February – the suggested addition to the Criminal Procedure Code would effectively prohibit any “public communication” relating to facts and persons that are the subject of investigation by prosecutors, and to the judiciary’s preliminary proceedings. Failing to keep the legal institutions’ scrutiny of allegedly corrupt individuals a secret would be considered a crime and subject both public authorities and the news media involved to punishment. The pretext for the proposal was a 2016 European Union directive (2016/343) to member states regarding the strengthening of certain aspects of the presumption of innocence in penal procedures.


It takes little effort to figure out that with its proposals, PSD is attempting to operationalize the EU directive as a shield that would protect from media exposure its members who are now under investigation or indictment, or will be in the future. The PSD-controlled special committee in charge of judicial-related laws, however, suffers from self-induced amnesia when it disregards the same EU directive’s unambiguous insistence that a country’s protection of freedom of the press and of other means of communication must NOT be impinged upon.


An adulterating rationale exists for attempting to criminalize any public disclosure and news coverage in this instance. We should remember that American Mafiosi like Lucky Luciano and other capi di tutti capi made staying out of the media limelight part of their modus operandi, calculating that it would keep the majority of citizens ignorant of their crimes and public opinion against them to a minimum. Romania’s politician-crooks mistakenly reckon that the media’s legally enforced silence on investigations of their crimes will have the same effect (disregarding the impact of the few media that challenge them as well as the anti-corruption agency).


Part of a Larger Pushback Against the Anti-corruption Fight


These attempts to silence the media are not happening in a vacuum. In the two years since the PSD took power, the incessant attempts to water down anti-corruption laws, increase control over the judiciary, and in general protect the bad boys and girls of the ruling coalition and government have steadily increased. And no wonder. PSD members are the subjects of the majority of corruption investigations and convictions.  Good leaders lead by example and the PSD’s head, Liviu Dragnea, was convicted of voter fraud in 2015; indicted for abuse of public office and forgery in 2016; and, as of November 2017 is being investigated for criminal conspiracy involving more than 27 million euros ($33 million) in EU funds. The coverage of indictments and investigations into his alleged malfeasance, and strong anti-corruption laws that are coupled with an independent judiciary, have contributed to stifling his political ambitions.


But Dragnea and his merry band of legislators have made some progress in their anti-corruption counteroffensive.


Magistrates are now under political control. Parliament is also considering legislation that would leave unpunished those who are found guilty of abuse of office that causes financial damage of less than 200,000 euros, lower sentences for bribe-taking and other graft crimes, and even decriminalizing bribe-taking on behalf of someone other than oneself. Another proposal that parliament is seeking to decriminalize is using one’s position of power to procure sexual favors, which gives rise to the important question of whether Romania will become the favored immigration destination for Hollywood actors and American politicians?


Despite their legislative hyperactivity to try to control the legal outcomes of their self-indulgent corruption and their exposure in the media, Dragnea and his cohorts in the political establishment still have two nemeses. The first are those elements of the country’s media that are sufficiently independent to cover corruption and the corrupt – inclusive of a handful of journalists who have courage, skill, and professional responsibility. The second is the burgeoning and maturing civil society, which continues its gloriously stubborn fight against corruption and for a decent government that is responsive to the country’s needs. They have joined forces to resist attempts to restrict freedom of speech and of the press.


In Timisoara, a city in the west of the country that was the cradle of the movement that ultimately toppled the communist regime in 1989, two civic organizations, the Timisoara Initiative and the Timisoara Society, sounded the alarm in January about police investigations into alleged “public incitement.” Those accused are some of the organizers of civic protests who posted their anti-corruption messages and calls for public demonstrations on social networks. "Any Romanian citizen who dares to express himself against the kleptocratic policies of the current political power risks being harassed, incarcerated, or even condemned after the pattern established in Russia or Turkey," Florian Razvan-Mihalcea of the Timisoara Society wrote.


Romania is no Russia or Turkey, but to guard against such an evolution the media must stay free to report on those who would gladly turn the country into another authoritarian regime.

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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The Moldovan Diaries is a multimedia, interactive examination of the country's ethnic, religious, social and political identities by Paolo Paterlini and Cesare De Giglio.

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