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Don’t Shoot the Messenger

The arrest of a German journalist in Romania in connection to his work is a bellwether of the harassment whistleblowers face in Central and Eastern Europe.

by Peter Gross 11 July 2018

"I've been arrested in a similar way: in Zimbabwe. Without explanations," German journalist Paul Arne Wagner told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle in June, shortly after the Romanian police dragged him into a police van during an anti-corruption demonstration in Bucharest.  After facing some harassment at the police station, where they unsuccessfully pressured Wagner to sign a document stating he had grabbed a policeman, he was released.


Romania is certainly no Zimbabwe. However, that doesn’t mean Romania’s elites in the Social Democratic Party (PSD)-led government are unlike Robert Mugabe, the dictator who was deposed in 2017 together with his equally unprincipled African cronies. Since January 2017, the sustained anti-corruption rallies throughout Romania are, in fact, all about the Mugabe-like behavior of the country’s political leaders, particularly PSD members, and their overlord, party leader Liviu Dragnea. With already one felony conviction on his record for electoral fraud, Dragnea was sentenced last month to serve a three-and-a-half-year prison term for abuse of office.


But back to Wagner: his official press card was clearly visible around his neck when he was arrested while video recording both the demonstration and a fracas that broke out. The police said that he was arrested for breaking through a police line – a somewhat different accusation from the “confession” he was asked to sign at the police station – and stated furthermore that his press card was not an official document. The latter explanation for his arrest is a strange one given that the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs accredits all foreign journalists.


During the reign of the self-proclaimed “Genius of the Carpathians,” a.k.a. communist-era dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, foreign correspondents faced a number of restrictions and were subject to surveillance by the infamous Securitate, Romania’s version of the Soviet KGB. Romania’s new security services have to date infiltrated domestic editorial offices but have not been noted to interfere with foreign correspondents … as far as we know. It must be emphasized that until the Wagner incident there have been no recorded incidents of foreign correspondents being harassed or arrested by the authorities – despite the increase of American, British, Chinese, German, Italian, Russian, Serbian, and other European foreign correspondents covering the countless demonstrations over the last year and a half.


While Ceausescu and his totalitarian system are here no more, there are new “geniuses” with the same tendencies who have taken over some Central and East European countries. Foreign correspondents have a much tougher time doing their job in Hungary, for example, where they face harassment and have been denied access to governmental institutions and leaders if they are at all critical of Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his government.


In Poland, the non-governmental Polish League Against Defamation launched an initiative in 2017, backed by the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to enable people to report “suspected slander against Poland in the foreign press.” Could trouble for foreign correspondents be only one or two such reports away?


What foreign reporters face in Hungary, and potentially in Poland, is quite different than the status they now have in Russia where they are officially considered “foreign agents,” according to legislation passed by the Duma in 2017. The action was a bit of a tit-for-tat for the RT television and digital network in the U.S. having to register as an agent of the Russian government that same year. “Agent” is a mellow way of saying that RT is a weapon in Moscow’s extensive information warfare arsenal.


The threat to the freedoms of foreign reporters covering some of the region’s countries corresponds to the increased loss of freedom suffered by their local counterparts. It is part and parcel of an illiberal trend that in some instances has gone a step or two farther in some countries, coming dangerously close to sliding into the outright authoritarianism present in Russia. Six journalists are currently detained in the country for their reporting – “a figure that is unprecedented since the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991,” writes Reporters Without Borders.


The well-known tendencies of authoritarian or would-be authoritarian regimes to eliminate transparency in government, impose political and other types of corruption on their own societies, and concurrently fret about their international image, invariably ends with the harassment of both domestic and foreign reporters and the curtailment of their freedom to do their jobs.


Let’s hope the Wagner incident was a one-time occurrence carried out by overzealous police seduced by the spirit of the corrupt, illiberal political leadership. The point is, the anti-corruption fight by the still-growing civil society in Romania has not only attracted worldwide attention but also an increase in the number of foreign correspondents in the country. Ultimately, this is a way to draw attention to all regimes that are illiberal or outright authoritarian and put them on notice that their way of treating their own societies, citizens, journalists, and foreign reporters is not going to improve their image abroad.


Leaders and governments create the bad news. The messengers only deliver it. Central and Eastern Europe’s leaders need constant reminding of this simple truth.
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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