Press freedom in Romania: The success story of imprisoned media owners

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

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

Financially unsustainable and legally grey Romanian media have started to crumble, together with their corresponding tycoons, write Manuela Preoteasa and Andrei Schwartz.

Manuela Preoteasa is the Publisher of EURACTIV Romania. Andrei Schwartz is editor at EURACTIV Romania.

The main tycoons that have shaped the Romanian media landscape in the last decade, occupying leading positions in terms of ratings and audience share, are Adrian Sârbu, Dan Voiculescu, Sorin Ovidiu Vântu and Dinu Patriciu. All of them have been or are currently under criminal investigation.

The Romanian media landscape is a place of striking contrasts. Apparently marked by a rich diversity, the industry illustrates entirely incompatible situations. On one side we find internationally awarded investigative journalists, while on the other we are confronted with imprisoned media owners, media companies under criminal investigation, and high debts. What can explain this situation, and what are its consequences?

First and foremost, one has to understand that the health of the media sector is a very good indicator of the well-being of society. In this regard, democratic institutions heavily rely on journalists and media outlets to keep citizens in the political loop, and to enable them to make informed decisions. Consequently, whenever the ethical standards of the industry go off the rails, so does the overall democratic quality of the society.

Because of its importance, media freedom is considered as one of the most fundamental principles of the European Union. Together with pluralism and freedom of expression, it forms the nexus of article 11 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights. However, the protection afforded to media freedom in Europe is focused almost entirely on government interference. A direct consequence of this perspective is that most European citizens see government censorship as an unthinkable act. Having said that, the reality of media freedom is far more nuanced.

Luckily, there exists sufficient concern at the level of the European Union for various in-depth monitoring projects to be developed. The aim of such initiatives is to tackle the kind of masked constraints, mostly connected to ownership structures, which are challenging media freedom today. These are obstacles such as self-censorship, conflict of interests and editorial tampering, which produce troubling consequences with respect to the protection afforded to pluralism, free competition and democratic culture. Which brings us back to the Romanian case.

The main characteristics of the Romanian media landscape can be read in the first report issued by the newly-launched London-based Centre for Media Transparency. Focused on post-Communist developments, the study The men who bit the (watch) dogs illustrates the challenges that Romanian journalists have encountered over the past 25 years, as the industry has moved from blunt political interference to the aforementioned sophisticated forms of intrusion. The report offers a short summary of the main moments of change and five local ownership models from the past two decades.

From a general perspective, the current state of the Romanian media can be disentangled by reference to a series of challenges that have been shared across Eastern Europe since 1990. These are elements such as a high level of politicisation in the ’90s, half-closed oligopoly markets, unstable tax systems, high debt liabilities, connections of the owners to the former Communist secret police, and obscure business roots and financing structures.

Notwithstanding the effects of these factors, the unstable structure of the Romanian media also carries with it the pernicious effects of the aforementioned less observable trio of new problems. This is why, the Romanian media landscape, despite its complicated legacy, appears at first glance to be marked by a rich diversity, with numerous TV stations, newspapers and online publications to choose from.

However, when we take a closer look what we find is a highly contracted market. As the advertising industry is far too small to sustain the current number of stations and publications, most media ventures are financially unviable. Consequently, the industry is for the most part politically and economically concentrated and it is characterised by the absence of transparency with respect to ownership and financing structures, by a plethora of judicial problems, and by an impossibly low professional horizontal mobility.

What this means is that while Romania confronts the ethically troublesome financing structure of its media channels, media instrumentalisation, and the concentration of political and business interest affiliations, it leaves almost no room for journalists to avoid or resolve ownership interferences by relocating to a more transparent and free environment.

The caveat of the Romanian story is that an apparent diverse landscape can in fact hide a highly contracted market. In such a context, those who reach their ethical limits become at best unemployed. Naturally, there are some success stories, but a closer look will show that these come mostly from groups of journalists that have turned to civil society organisations in search of grant-based projects that have no real long-term prospects.

To be sure, the financially unsustainable and legally grey financing structures have started to crumble together with their corresponding tycoons.

Adrian Sârbu, former CEO of CME, was preventively arrested and is currently being prosecuted for tax evasion, money laundering and instigation to embezzlement. Dan Voiculescu, former member of the Romanian Parliament, was convicted to 10 years in prison for money laundering and fraudulent privatization. Sorin Ovidiu Vântu was convicted for blackmailing Sebastian Ghi??, at the time the manager of his TV station, Realitatea TV. Dinu Patriciu, founding member of the National Liberal Party, was investigated for embezzlement, money laundering, stock market manipulation and setting up an organized crime group. He died before the court reached a final decision.

The most recent addition to the group is Sebastian Ghi??. Currently a member of the Romanian Parliament, he is under investigation for tax evasion, money laundering, complicity to changing the destination of EU funds, and corrupting voters during the 2012 parliamentary election and the 2014 presidential race.

However, the air still remains to the most part unbreathable for honest journalists, as the success story of now imprisoned media owners still weighs heavily on what is still a young market.

Considering the immense importance that the media sector bears in reference to the quality of democratic life, the Romanian case calls across Europe for continuing monitoring media pluralism, ownership, and financing structures.

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