Monday, October 25, 2010

Tapped phone calls put Romania media in tight spot

By Mihaela Rodina (AFP)

BUCHAREST — The publication this week of telephone conversations between a media mogul and several journalists in Romania has sparked a heated debate over media monopolies.

The tapped phone calls feature Sorin Ovidiu Vantu, owner of an influential media group including Realitatea television station, allegedly telling his subordinates what he expected from them.

"What I need today is an organization that carries out my orders.... You are not free, whoever is not happy with this can leave."

"Absolutely... This is what I'm going to tell the people when I go back" in the newsroom, one of the directors, Sergiu Toader, allegedly replied.

Transcripts of the conversations figure in Vantu's indictment for aiding a man sentenced to 15 years in prison for fraud, with prosecutors claiming they reveal Vantu's character. His trial is due to start on November 8.

"These transcripts show the extent to which a media owner can impose his personal will, to the detriment of public interest," Ioana Avadani, head of the Centre for Independent Journalism, told AFP.

"They threaten the credibility of the media as a whole," she said, adding that prosecutors should have taken steps to "protect the privacy" of the journalists involved.

Opposition leaders have condemned the publication of the conversations, saying they were being used as an "instrument of blackmail aimed at discrediting President Traian Basescu's opponents".

According to the transcripts, Vantu's explicit goal was to drive Basescu from power as he blamed him for the charges he was facing.

A first attempt failed in 2007, when Basescu was impeached by parliament but returned to office after a referendum overturned the lawmakers' decision.

"The impeachment was the result of the alliances I built in parliament," Vantu allegedly said.

In the December 2009 presidential campaign, Vantu backed the opposition candidate Mircea Geoana, who narrowly lost to Basescu.

At the time, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) had published a report blasting the "biased coverage" of the campaign by TV stations such as Realitatea TV and Antena, and their "aggressiveness towards the outgoing president".

Romanian best-selling writer Mircea Cartarescu professed in an editorial that journalists had turned into "shameful mercenaries", working for a "manipulative media group".

In an address earlier this month, US ambassador Mark Gitenstein said Romania needed "independent media, not simply independent of the state, but independent of powerful economic interests that use the media to manipulate the discourse".

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