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25th Aug 2019

EU wants tougher media laws in Romania

  • European Commission president recommends tougher media laws in Romania to protect judicial independence. (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

The independence of Romania's judiciary is being threatened by media campaigns, European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso has warned.

Speaking in Brussels on Monday (4 February) alongside Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta, the commission chief said steps should be taken to ensure Romanian media cannot single out an individual prosecutor or judge in a smear campaign.

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“We cannot dismiss the fact that we have received complaints by the Constitutional Court, by the Superior Council of Magistracy, about campaigns orchestrated in the media against the independence of the magistrates, either prosecutors or judges," Barroso noted.

The same concerns were earlier raised in a commission report on Romania's rule of law published on 30 January.

The paper said that the Romanian government needs to "review existing standards to safeguard a free and pluralist media while ensuring effective redress ... against undue pressure or intimidation from the media against the judiciary."

The report raises doubt on the ability of Romania’s media watchdog, the National Audiovisual Council, to do its job under current rules.

For his part, Ponta said media freedom is a fundamental value, but added it requires a balance "with the independence of the judiciary and the working of the rule of law."

Brussels' ideas have not gone down well with pro-media freedom groups in Romania.

Diana-Olivia Hatneanu, from the human rights organisation the Romanian Helsinki Committee, told this website from Bucharest that the commission report effectively "recommended a complete ban on critising judicial decisions."

The committee and like-minded NGOs such as the Center for Independent Journalism, the Romanian Center for Investigative Journalism and Active Watch fear that Romanian authorities might mistake the EU intervention as a carte blanche to crack down on government-critical journalists, for example by making defamation and slander punishable under criminal law.

The two offences were removed from the criminal code six years ago following extensive pressure from the media and NGOs.

The Constitutional Court later ruled that decriminalisation of defamation is unconstitutional. But despite the verdict, both items have remained off the criminal register.

Hatneanu added that Barroso is missing the point.

She said the real problem in the Romanian media sector is business barons who use television, radio and print for their own political ends.

It is the media tycoons, she believes, who put pressure on journalists to target judges or for the National Audiovisual Council to turn a blind eye and who should be the focus of EU concern.

She noted the commission’s suggestions would also place additional barriers on the few truly independent media outlets that still exist.

“The wording [of the EU rule of law report] is too vague and leaves room for the authorities to take measures against independent media," she said.

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