Press freedom in Romania
Journalists under fire
Sep 1st 2012, by The Economist Online
TIMES are tough for some journalists in Romania working for the international media. They are victims of a fierce campaign initiated by government officials and Cotidianul, a news website. The allegations of ethical and other violations are widely reported in other media too.
Der Spiegel, El País, Deutsche Welle, CNN, The Economist, Le Monde, USA Today and France 24 are some of the media outlets involved. Their journalists have been accused of being “anti-Romanian agents”, paid by Traian Băsescu, the president, to misinform international audiences.
The furore erupted during a period of political turmoil in Romania, in which Mr Băsescu was suspended from office amid attacks by the government of Victor Ponta. The presidential camp says the government is attacking democracy and the rule of law. The government camp says they are defending it against abuse of power by the president.
Raúl Sánchez , a correspondent of El País, a Spanish daily, was accused in July by Cotidianul of working as an undercover agent for the Romanian Cultural Institute and Mr Basescu. These accusations follow an interview he conducted with the prime minister, in which Mr Ponta said for the first time that he was willing to resign if allegations of plagiarism against him turned out to be true. An ethics committee subsequently ruled that he had plagiarised his doctoral thesis, but he did not resign.
Cotidianul also accused Keno Verseck, a freelance who reports for Der Spiegel, a German weekly, and Deutsche Welle, the German public-funded external broadcasting service, of lying and misinforming his audience about Romania’s political crisis. In a report for Deutsche Welle he had criticised the government for “violating laws and rulings by the Constitutional Court” in an attempt to remove Mr Băsescu from office.
The site also accused Liliana Ciobanu, a freelancer who reports for The Economist, CNN and France 24 English, of being an “undercover agent” paid by Mr Băsescu to write articles against the government. Ms Ciobanu denies the allegations and has asked Cotidianul to show evidence for them; none has so far been forthcoming.
For his part, Mr Ponta during the recent upheavals said in a television interview of anarticle in Le Monde: “the person who wrote it was either paid to do it or simply has no clue about what is going on in Romania”. After a few days, Mr Ponta said he did not intend to offend any journalist, not even the ones from Le Monde, and assured the media of his friendship and support.
Yet during a press conference shortly after the Constitutional Court decided to invalidate the impeachment referendum against Mr Băsescu, Mr Ponta again attacked a journalist, this time Mihaela Rodina of Agence France–Presse. He accused her of ”misinformation”, being “unprofessional” and having “a strange and revolting attitude”. Ms Rodina had asked Mr Ponta questions about a controversy involving the Constitutional Court, which has been heavily involved in a recent (unsuccessful) referendum that sought to impeach Mr Băsescu.
Reporters Without Borders has condemned what it calls a climate of intimidation that has developed in recent weeks in Romania towards critical journalists. It urged other EU countries to note “the renewed use of paranoid, hate-filled rhetoric towards many journalists”.
The Foreign Press Association in Romania also urged the Romanian authorities to ensure “a civilised and responsible attitude towards journalists who are working for the international media”. But Crin Antonescu, the leader of the National Liberal Party and a Ponta ally (who served as interim president while Mr Băsescu was suspended pending the referendum result), said he wants the external intelligence services to “understand the mechanism by which the country’s image has been demolished in two weeks as part of an organised, coordinated and funded action”.
Whether or not the government truly believes it is fighting a global media conspiracy, its verbal onslaught against journalists has done little to promote its desired image of moderation and strict regard for political niceties.