BY VALENTINA POP
BERLIN - The European Commission last week said Romanian media have made a “step forward,” but leading journalists disagree.
Media freedom is not something which Brussels normally looks at in its so-called Co-operation and Verification Mechanism (CVM), which tends to focus on judicial reforms and the fight against corruption.
But, given that judges and prosecutors in high-level cases, as well as their families, have faced co-ordinated press attacks, not to mention death threats, the issue was flagged up last year.
Last week, Mark Gray, a commission spokesman, said when presenting the latest CVM report: "We do feel that there is less pressure, there has been a reduction [of the attacks] and this is clearly a step forward. But again it's important to remain vigilant while ensuring that the important principle of media freedom is respected.”
The CVM paper itself notes that "examples [of abuse] continue,” especially on the eve of high-level verdicts.
It says: "This contrasts with practice in many other member states, where respect for the principle of separation of powers and judicial independence, whether through rules or conventions, limit the extent to which politicians comment on judicial decisions.”
But, like Gray, it says there is a “decrease" in the problem.
The EU comments sit alongside other opinions on Romania’s media landscape.
The Paris-based NGO, Reporters Without Borders, last year ranked it at number 42, behind Latvia, Botswana and Papua New Guinea.
The US-based NGO Freedom House described Romanian media as "partly free" and ranked it 86 in the world, on the same level as Burkina Faso and Mozambique.
Independent journalists in Bucharest have also indicated that the EU is painting a rosy picture.
Liviu Avram, a leading investigative reporter and deputy-editor-in-chief of the Adevarul newspaper, acknowledged that the verdicts themselves, which come after years of delays, are a “positive development” which shows that the media attacks are having less impact
But he told this website: "I was surprised by the EU commission's statements.”
He noted that whenever an important court verdict is due, such as the recent four-year jail sentence on former PM Adrian Nastase, media campaigns still try to discredit the decisions as being politically motivated.
"A large part of Romanian media is politically controlled by owners with clear interests," Avram said.
He added that journalists and media chiefs who carry out the attacks face few consequences, giving the profession a bad name.
“With journalism as a profession having a bad reputation [in Romania], there are fewer and fewer young people who even want to take up the job. The selection pool is becoming totally deplorable.”
For his part, Dan Tapalaga, the editor-in-chief of Romania's main online news site, HotNews, said the EU commission is flat out wrong.
“There was no step forward" on media freedom in 2013, he told EUobserver.
"We can say the atmosphere is even worse due to the electoral cycle,” he added, referring to the European Parliament and Romanian presidential elections later this year.
"Romanian media is dominated by tycoons, two of whom are politicians who support the ruling coalition: Sebastian Ghita and Dan Voiculescu," Tapalaga noted.
He said that Voiculescu - the owner of the most-watched TV news channel in Romania and a former senator - was himself sentenced to five years in jail for corruption and money laundering.
The final verdict on his appeal is expected in the next few weeks.
"He and other influential politicians are struggling to avoid justice, to keep their freedom and to preserve their power, influence and immunity. The opposition is weak, the media is under control and the whole democratic system of checks and balances has been distorted," Tapalaga explained.
He was one of seven journalists who were recently listed by Voiculescu media as "propagandists” due to their work on the rule of law.
"We initiated a protest against bad media practices, signed so far by some 600 journalists from all over the country. Pointing out the abusive behaviour of tycoons remains an effective tool [of raising awareness]," Tapalaga noted.
He is considering a lawsuit against the media baron to defend his reputation.
"The EU must understand that Romania is a distorted democracy, not a functional one. A few tycoons and a number of corrupt politicians hope to demolish a whole country in order to avoid justice," Tapalaga said.