Romania: Gunning for the Media

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Romania: Gunning for the Media

Defense minister pushes through constraints on the press days
after document suggests a plan to limit the media’s “harm” to the
country’s image.

Romanian journalists’ protests over a perceived
campaign to limit media criticism gained force this week after
parliament’s upper house on 6 June approved a new law on the right
to reply to charges published in print publications.

The law, which is seen as the latest in a series
of measures aimed at countering media charges, gives anyone
offended by an article the right to publish an equally visible
response in the same publication. Newspapers and magazines that
refuse to print the objections face fines of up to 100 million lei
(about $3,000). The publication can also be taken to court even if
it publishes the response.

The press has protested strongly against the
draft, arguing that minister who championed the law, Defense
Minister Ioan Mircea Pascu, intends to quash free speech. For his
part, Pascu argues that “Romania will be more democratic with this
law than without it.”

President Ion Iliescu was similarly positive on
7 June, praising the law as a “good” one. He argued that the right
to respond is a fundamental right, and that many publications have
been acting “undemocratically” by not publishing replies. At the
same time, though, he added there was no need for a law on the
press, saying that a code of ethics for the media business would be
enough.

Though Iliescu argued that the press, as “the
voice of public opinion,” would always win in a “war of politicians
against the media,” he himself launched a harsh attack on the press
for “distorting” his statements, suggesting that “a lack of
information, lack of culture, or malevolence” could explain what he
views as the repeated distortion of his words. His outburst was
spurred by repeated questions about the possibility of early
elections next year while he was visiting the western Romanian town
of Timisoara on 4 June.

Journalists, on the other hand, consider the law
to be an attack on free speech and announced that they would appeal
it in the Constitutional Court.

Journalists are also up in arms over a recent
scandal surrounding a document attributed to the Romanian Supreme
Defense Council that called for a plan to be drafted to challenge
the press for “harming” the country’s image. Initially, the
authorities denied all knowledge of the leaked document’s
existence. However, presidential advisor Ioan Talpes later admitted
to have read the document, though he said it had never been
discussed by the council. The press considers the document to be “a
strategy to combat democracy.”

There has also been international criticism of
these measures. In a letter addressed to Iliescu and Prime Minister
Adrian Nastase and dated 30 May, the journalists’ organization
Reporters sans frontieres protested against the “fierce anti-media
campaign,” arguing that the campaign “tarnished Romania’s image
much more than the news stories themselves.” The letter also
touched a sensitive nerve as it hinted that Romania could, unless
the situation improved, fail to achieve one of its basic targets:
accession into NATO and the European Union.

Apart from the strong reactions against measures
to silence it, the Romanian media seems unaffected: most outlets
relentlessly continue to criticize authorities for unjustified
spending or questionable decisions.

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