IN an editorial-page article last year for the The Wall Street Journal, Tom Gallagher, an author and Romania expert, wrote
“Romania’s media—for a time one of the most independent-minded press corps to be found in ex-Soviet Europe—is once again in the grip of the old guard, who are given to laying off journalists en masse when they write something unpleasant. Television stations attract viewers to their nightly tirades against reformists or independent politicians by wrapping political content in trivia and sleaze.”
The recent coverage of the death of a Romanian celebrity was more illustration of how the standards of Romania’s media are deteriorating. Images of his coffin, a grieving crowd, dramatic funeral bells, close-ups of old ladies crying their hearts out intermingled with sound bites of politicians expressing their regret for the nation’s great loss and melodramatic live reports of correspondents struggling to glorify the recently departed. Back in the studios, journalists were in hot debate: “Should he be cremated, as he wished to, or should he be buried, as the Romanian Orthodox Church wants to?” “Did he really have an illegitimate son?” “Why was his wife wearing white at the incineration?” “If he really is the one inside that coffin, then they should keep the lid open so we could see his face. We want to see his dead face!”
The celebrity in question was Sergiu Nicolaescu (pictured above), a famous filmmaker, who died on January 3rd at the age of 82. He directed more than 60 films glorifying the country’s history, which earned him recognition especially during the communist regime.
Although his family publicly asked the media to respect their privacy, journalists didn’t stay away. Instead of limiting their coverage to Mr Nicolaescu’s professional life in Romanian cinema and politics, they speculated about the director’s personal life. In some cases, they didn’t even make the smallest efforts to verify the facts such as the (false) story of Mr Nicolaescu’s illegitimate son, which appeared in the press after his death and was spread all over the media in a few hours.
It is not the first time the Romanian media is losing its decency. Over the last couple of years, the death of almost any celebrity was treated in such a manner. Why is this happening?
Ioana Avadani, boss of the Centre for Independent Journalism in Romania, says it's a combination of factors that has led to the downward spiral of editorial content in Romania. One is the quality of the reporters, which reflects the quality of the education. Reporters not only lack knowledge of journalistic ethics, she believes, but they have not learned to think critically. A second problem is the editors in the newsrooms, who push reporters to go for lowbrow and gossipy topics. A third problem, Ms Avadani thinks, is a lack of dissuasive measures. The National Audiovisual Council of Romania, the regulator for the audio-visual sector in the country, has not been consistent in sanctioning sensationalist coverage and the fines it imposed were not effective deterrents. This time, the Council only issued a short statement expressing their disapproval for the way the media covered Mr Nicolaescu’s death.
This is just another chapter in the decay of the Romanian media landscape, believes Ionut Codreanu who has been monitoring previous sensational coverage for ActiveWatch, a media-monitoring agency in Romania. “Over the last years we gathered irrefutable evidence that proved that, in order to survive through the economic storm, Romanian media and journalists took the easy way. Our yearly research on ethical standards in media discourse clearly state the lack of manner and rules in dealing with sensitive issues. Journalists pay no respect to privacy or human dignity and take every opportunity to exploit vulnerable individuals or tragic events.”
After being forced to consume only censored media during the communist regime, Romanians now live in a society where they can choose their media freely. To help them make the right choices Romania should implement media education programmes that could enable future generations to develop a critical capacity for interpreting information in the media. But “unfortunately, Romania never considered launching a media literacy programme and every delay is wasted time,” says Ms Avadani. “What we have now is the confluence of an uneducated public, uneducated journalists and poor quality editors.” It’s a recipe for disaster.