News agency chief denounces ‘political takeover‘ of Romanian state media

The Stalinist building 'Casa Scanteii' is the home of many Romania media, including AGERPRES. [Unknown Bucharest]

The acting director of AGERPRES, the Romanian national news agency, denounced on Wednesday (11 October) new legislation which he described as a “huge step back” in terms of media freedom in Romania, and said he was “afraid of what could follow”.

Alexandru Giboi, acting director-general of AGERPRES, spoke of the “political subjugation” of the media outlet, following what he described as “a so-called debate” to which he was invited in parliament before the law was passed by the Senate. The definitive vote will take place in the Chamber of Deputies.

The new law foresees that any political majority in Romania could decide to dismiss the director-general at any time, no objective criteria needed. Under the current law the director-general has a five-year mandate and cannot be biased, meaning he cannot promote the ideas, programmes or activities of any political party.

Such provisions would have the same impact as on the management of the Romanian Radio Broadcasting Corporation (SRR) and the Romanian National Television Corporation (SRTV). Following each election, the SRR and SRTV administration boards can be (and usually have been) dismissed before the end of their mandates to reflect the new political forces. Many international organisations, including the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), had denounced this provision as an instrument to politicise public service media.

In a letter addressed to the Parliament, AGERPRES’ general-director and the Romanian trade union of journalists MediaSind said:

“We believe that the proposed modification opens the path to a political subordination of the AGERPRES management. (…) Any political force could find that the director-general is not ‘loyal’ enough to the government, regardless of the quality of the work, for political reasons only. It must be abandoned.”

Following a meeting with senators in the Culture Committee, Giboi said: “I was expecting a constructive, open discussion, based on sustainable and realistic for and against arguments, leading to the consolidation of the independence of the National News Agency from political control. Unfortunately, the very short discussion held in the Committee, followed by the approval of the draft law, made me realise that, in fact, we weren’t invited to debate, me and the MediaSind union president, Cristi Godinac, but, actually, we were invited to witness a formality.”

The European Alliance of News Agencies, alongside the European Federation of Journalists, also earlier expressed their concerns about the draft law.

The case has been published on the Council of Europe’s platform for the protection and safety of journalists, as a ‘category 2’ threat. As procedure in these cases states, the Council of Europe will notify the Romanian government, and the Romanian foreign ministry will have to ask the Romanian parliament for details. Then, the Council of Europe should receive an answer from the Romanian authorities and act accordingly.

Giboi commented after meeting the senators:

“Not even the alert published by the Council of Europe on its press freedom platform was able to stand in the way of the push for political control manifested by the draft law’s initiators. What is clear now is the politicians’ plan to further modify the AGERPRES law. If this first huge step back in time is presented as modernisation, I am really afraid of what could follow.”