Tuesday, October 19, 2010

MEPs voice outrage over Romania's media policy



A controversial Romanian government doctrine describing the media as potentially detrimental to the nation's well-being is causing a growing stir in the European Parliament.

Romanian deputy Rovana Plumb wrote to the EU's justice commissioner Viviane Reding on Monday (18 October) asking her to condemn the Romanian government's abuse of the media, following a demarche by three leading MEPs.

In an unprecedented move, leaders of three of the most important groups in the European Parliament – Martin Schultz (Socialists and Democrats), Guy Verhofstadt (Liberals) and Daniel Cohn-Bendit (Greens) – sent a joint letter last week to the speakers of the two chambers of the Romanian Parliament.

They asked for a rejection of a paragraph in the Romanian government's new 'National Defence Strategy' in which the press is described as a "weakness" for the country. According to the draft strategy, Romania faces a series of threats including press campaigns.

The new doctrine was announced before the summer break and triggered uproar among the country's media, which concentrated its indignation on President Traian Basescu. Mr Basescu is head of Romania's Supreme Defence Council (CSAT), which comprises the Prime Minister, the interior minister and the heads of the various intelligence services.

In their letter, the three leading MEPs reminded the Romanian Parliament that member states are obliged to adopt laws which do not conflict with the values and juridical norms of the European Union. Their letter also said that labelling the press a "weakness" for the country was: "not only an undemocratic gesture, but also an infringement of Article 11 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, as well as of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human rights, and of Article 6 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union."

For members of the Romanian media, the majority of which have taken part in a long-running campaign against the current coalition conservative government, the new security doctrine smacks of censorship and brings back memories of the Ceausescu era. During that time, the press was fully subordinated to the state and any act of criticism was considered an attack against the foundations of the country. The country's media fear the new strategy could be construed as encouragement for overzealous behaviour among the secret services.

The strategy, which will have to be validated by parliament, states that anti-government press campaigns represent a threat to the country's stability and that they are on a par with corruption, organised crime and terrorism.

The CSAT specifically refers to the phenomenon of "press campaigns aimed at denigrating or spreading false information about the activity of state institutions" and identifies "pressure exerted by media groups on political decisions with the purpose of obtaining advantages from the state institutions." The text of the strategy can only be adopted or rejected in its entirety; no amendments can be introduced.

Relations between the Romanian press and the government in Bucharest have recently been deteriorating. The media have been very critical of the government's austerity measures, which include a 25 percent reduction of public sector salaries combined with a 15 percent cut in pensions.

Since his re-election in December 2009, following an electoral campaign that garnered overwhelming press opposition, Mr Basescu seems to have begun to totally divorce himself from the media. He consistently refuses to give interviews and has put an end to the practice of taking groups of journalists with him when he travels abroad.

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