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A party that is toxic for press freedom. Dragnea has pushed censorship…

A party that is toxic for press freedom. Dragnea has pushed censorship and self-censorship in the media to new heights

On World Press Freedom Day we must be able to say loudly and clearly that PSD was and is toxic for the Romanian press. Whenever this Party has been in power, it has brutally mistreated the media, issuing threats and abusing its position, or buying out media outlets with a view to mishandle information. PSD rule, censorship and self-censorship of the press go together hand in hand.

For those who have forgotten how the press operated under the Nastase government (2000-2004) or are not familiar with the period, below is a Freedom House report dedicated to 2004, an electoral year.

The press was only partially free, as the Nastase government had bought media silence with state advertising or other gifts, such as waving the millions of euro of debts of the TV station led by Adrian Sarbu at that time. If these methods did not work, the government sent direct threats to journalists individually, or to the organizations that employed them

On state television and radio censorship was undeniable, just like today. These editorial offices experience real freedom of expression only when PSD is in opposition.

However, compared to 15 years ago, today we witness a notable difference. Foreign publishers have all but disappeared from the Romanian press ecosystem, while local moguls have reinforced their presence. Dragnea has pushed the Nastase era censorship and self-censorship to new heights .

Big moguls are today’s PSD’s most faithful partners. Antena 3 has officially become a party mouthpiece, after its leader’s wife appeared overnight on the PSD lists of candidates to the European Parliament. Fugitive Ghita’s TV station is the ideal ally in the fight against justice. Digi24.ro has toned down its critical stance, and several journalists have gone.

Some moguls have a common cause with politicians: the fight against justice. They agree on this without any money changing hands.

Journalists who investigated the affairs and wealth of the PSD leader (Belina, Brazil) have been abused, threatened with criminal investigations or fines by the Personal Data Protection Office.

Censorship and self-censorship are far more brutal than during the Năstase era. Stakes have been raised significantly. Politicians have more capital at their disposal and something infinitely more important than their image or party to defend: their physical freedom.

Journalists, in their turn, have lost something during all these years: inner motivation and the faith in a better future. At that time we had the prospects of joining NATO and the EU, and the Western world at large. Today the struggle is to avoid being kicked out.

Many feel captive in a more or less controlled press. Options are scarce, but there are still plenty of people stubborn enough to do their job and dig for the truth.

Compared to 2004 there is a huge difference: the expansion of the internet, which gives a lot of us the vital space to do our job as we know best.

Something has changed: the structure of the economy. State publicity no longer plays such an important role. Politicians can still drive big financial flows, but they cannot control the entire advertising market and, in particular, cannot prevent readers from donating to the publications they support.

The world has changed and this brings more hope compared to the closed universe of the 2000s. One more thing: even then, despite his tight control of the press, Năstase lost the elections.

We read below the Freedom House report on the state of the Romanian press in 2004, the last year of the Năstase government:

”Despite constitutional guarantees for freedom of expression, there is extensive political and economic control of the media, which has led to self-censorship,lack of pluralism, and decreasing media independence. As Romania moves towards European Union (EU) membership, the European Parliamen trepeatedly called on Romania in 2004 to guarantee press freedom.

A new penal code adopted this year and scheduled to take effect in 2005 removedthe libel provision from the code, but it remains a criminal offense subject to very high fines. The EU continues to criticize Romania for political interferenceand lack of independence of the judiciary. In January, a team of journalists and contributors left one of Romania’s most prestigious independent weeklies,Dilema, after the parliament ruled that the government should appoint members of the board running the magazine.

The ruling Democratic Socialist Party (PSD), anxious to make afavorable impression on the EU, did not appreciate criticism from the press and has become less willing to provide information to the media.Romanian National Television (RTV) canceled a show known for its coverage of sensitive topics such as shortcomings in Romania’s democracy.In October, the Romanian Senate withdrew the accreditation of Romania Libera, a critical opposition newspaper.

The Romanian Centre for Investigative Journalism claims that investigative reporting is disappearing in the local press and has declined in the national press. According to the Bucharest-based Media Monitoring Agency, pluralism is lacking and there are frequent attempts to manipulate information within state-owned media,especially the national radio.

State-owned broadcasters give little air time to opposition politicians or critical journalists. In the fall, coverage of the presidential campaign on state-controlled media was manipulated and reports were biased in favor of the PSD. An RTV reporter came forward and accused the station of censorship and conforming to government pressure. In March, a Hungarian journalist known for his right-wingattitude was banned from entering Romania for national security reasons,according to Romanian authorities.

In 2003, over a dozen journalists reported being assaulted because of their work, but there were noconvictions; instead, threats and physical attacks against journalists continued this year.Media ownership falls primarily among foreign publishing houses,former politicians, and businessmen, with half of all local television stations being partially owned by ruling party officials and businessmen.

Diversity of print media ownership is somewhat better, but individuals with close ties to the PSD control many local newspapers. Journalists at Evenimentul Zilei and Romania Libera, both known to be critical of the government,accused their respective foreign owners, the Swiss Ringier and the GermanWAZ, of editorial interference after they requested that journalists tone down critical coverage of the government. Ringier and WAZ collectivel yown three of the top-selling dailies. Foreign publishers say they are pressured to tone down criticisms to secure advertising revenue.

Government advertising in the media increased this year to US$8 million,up from US$2 million spent in 2003. The EU issued a critical report int he fall claiming the government writes off debts for some media outletsin return for favorable coverage and uses fear of official audits and punitive taxes as threats against unfavorable coverage.

An attempt at a parliamentary motion, introduced without success in October by opposition parties,condemned the government’s attempts to control the media. On December 12, Traian Basescu, an outspoken reformer, won the presidential elections and promised to reverse the previous government’s treatment of the media and to foster press freedom.”

Traducerea: Ruxandra Stoicescu

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