Thursday, December 17, 2009

TOL: Politics by Other Means

by Marius Dragomir
14 December 2009

As the presidential election showed, media moguls are largely at fault for the continued frailty of Romanian democracy.

During a campaign rally in Timisoara on 1 December, Romania’s national day, presidential challenger Mircea Geoana said the event was a “moment of historic reconciliation.”

Most Romanian media reported Geoana’s proud claim. But they failed to report that many locals booed Geoana and his Social Democratic peers.

The next day, in Bucharest’s central University Square, more than 200 people shouted their protests against Geoana and his party. Not much of this was seen on television. And even those who wanted to watch what was happening in the capital online were disappointed, as street cameras were shut off during the demonstration.

These are just a few of the incidents that colored the media scene in the first week of December, when Romanians witnessed a full-scale media cannonade against the incumbent president, Traian Basescu, who was running for a second five-year term in the 6 December run-off.

“It reminds us of the miners’ attack on the opposition,” an independent journalist from Bucharest told me at one point that week, referring to the anti-communist protests in June 1990 that were squelched by miners. Invited to Bucharest by Ion Iliescu, the former communist apparatchik who was elected the first president of post-socialist Romania, hundreds of miners rode trains to Bucharest, where they broke their bats on the protesters’ heads.

But with most of the media in the hands of a few oligarchs, there was no need for bats and miners this time.

MOGULS AND POLITICS

Much ink has been spilled over the stranglehold on the Romanian media by a small group of powerful businessmen. Just how dangerous this state of affairs is for democracy and free access to information emerged once again during the presidential election as the media were reduced to little more than a political battering ram.

The crusade against Basescu was initiated by a group of powerful businessmen, all with significant control over the country’s largest media outlets and all with urgent reasons to try to influence the outcome of the election. Two of the most prominent are Sorin Ovidiu Vantu, owner of the media group Realitatea-Catavencu, and Dan Voiculescu, who transferred his ownership of the Intact media conglomerate to his daughter after becoming a senator.

Realitatea-Catavencu runs the news channel Realitatea TV, one of the most influential stations among urban viewers, and the daily Cotidianul. Intact owns the Antena cluster of TV stations and one of the largest daily newspapers, Jurnalul National. Vantu and Voiculescu were joined by Dinu Patriciu, an oil magnate who, according to Forbes magazine, was worth $2.5 billion last year. His Adevarul Holding operates a number of newspapers and magazines.

What do all these men have in common? The answer is a slew of court investigations. Voiculescu, who collaborated with the Securitate under Ceausescu, has been hit with a handful of indictments in the past few years for money laundering and fraud. In 2008 he won a seat in parliament as a representative of the Conservative Party.

Vantu’s involvement in one of post-communist Romania’s biggest financial scandals was proved in court, although he escaped punishment because others had made the actual transactions that led to the collapse of a mutual fund. One of them, Vantu’s right-hand man, Nicolae Popa, was arrested earlier this month in Indonesia, three years after fleeing Romania after being found guilty of fraud in the mutual-fund scam. Vantu, like Patriciu, has collected several other indictments, including one in which he is charged with falsifying documents to gain shares in a bank.

Two days before the run-off, Basescu said on television that the three businessmen allied against him after he refused to make any compromises over their criminal cases.

But despite this media onslaught, on 6 December Basescu won the election by a paper-thin margin, gaining 50.33 percent of the votes. The problem of media control, however, remains.

CAN ANYONE CLEAN UP THE MESS?

The nonprofit Media Monitoring Agency condemned the “irresponsible” behavior of the major television stations during the electoral campaign, when they apparently ignored the political issues to instead aggressively target “a sole candidate.” The agency charged that reporters gathered opinions instead of facts, so that they themselves became the target of attacks from politicians.

Reporters from oligarch-controlled media also launched attacks on their colleagues in other outlets: “They made their alliances and media war strategies public,” the agency said in an analysis released on 7 December. At the same time, the monitors found that reporters and moderators “overtly expressed the opinions and thoughts” of TV station owners.

The unbalanced coverage did not escape the notice of European media and democracy watchdogs, either. Election monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe accused the Realitatea and Antena stations of covering the elections in a “partisan and unbalanced manner,” and said the stations’ respective sister dailies, Cotidianul and Jurnalul national, came out openly against the incumbent president.

Before the first round of the presidential vote, the Media Monitoring Agency ran a campaign inviting the candidates to promise, among other things, to support legislation against concentration of ownership in the media. Basescu and eight others among the 12 candidates signed on.

It is hard to credit, though, that Basescu will manage to clean up the mess in the Romanian media. Far from being an angel, he, too, wooed the overt support of some smaller TV stations. But the unprecedented paralysis of the media we have just seen during the climax of the election was a serious warning that a cleanup of the media market is desperately needed.

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