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25th Jul 2021

Romania data chief defends forcing press to reveal sources

Romania's data protection authority says forcing journalists to reveal their sources "is not likely to violate the professional secrecy of journalists" - because the leaked documents came from a suitcase.

The bizarre claim was made in a three-page letter sent to EUobserver on Tuesday (13 November), where it defended itself for threatening to slap a €20m fine on journalists probing corruption in the country.

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It cites the EU's recent data protection regulation, known as GDPR, as its basis to act.

It references the exemption for journalists in GDPR but then claims a European Court of Human Rights case involving an actress in Turkey requires them to uphold privacy rights.

"In this context, we mention that at present there is no law of the press in force in Romania," it said, without elaborating.

The defiant move is likely to set them on a collision course with the European Commission, which earlier this week demanded Romanian authorities provide exemptions in national law to protect journalists.

The suitcase

The fall out has hit the Rise Project, an award-winning investigative portal.

They had obtained leaked documents, stashed in a suitcase, proving a connection between Liviu Dragnea, the president of Romania's ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD) and Tel Drum SA, a firm.

Dragnea is accused by Romania's national anti-corruption directorate (DNA) of committing fraud of EU funds and setting up an organised criminal group, in a probe that also involved Tel Drum.

He has denied any links with the firm but his version of the events quickly unravelled when the Rise Project published vacation photos of him with Tel Drum executives.

They also published emails sent by Dragnea's son to Tel Drum's CEO, where he asks the CEO to pay off his debts.

The incriminating papers were handed over to the Rise Project in a suitcase, along with a hard drive, a USB stick and a Samsung tablet. The documents belong to Tel Drum.

Shortly after the story went live, Romania's data protection authority issued a subpoena demanding they not only reveal the source of the leaks but also hand over the contents of the suitcase.

The authority then told EUobserver that the Rise Project had itself cited the suitcase as its source and that because of it, believe that their request for information is not likely to violate the professional secrecy of journalists.

In its letter, it says that "we highlight that, as the article published by Rise Project itself indicated the source of their obtaining, namely 'a suitcase with essential information (...) was found in the rural area of Teleorman', we appreciate that the information requested by the supervisory​​ authority is not likely to violate the professional secrecy of journalists."

'We won't reveal our sources'

The issue is all the more sensitive because the head of Romania's data protection authority is Ancuta Gianina Opre.

Last year, she was charged by Romania's DNA for abuse of office in her previous job at a different state body.

She was appointed head of Romania's data protection authority by Dragnea's PSD party, the same currently under press scrutiny.

Despite these links, her office insists the authority is completely independent.

Rise Project journalist Elena Dumitru told EUobserver in a phone call they will not reveal any sources.

"We are completely open and transparent in talking to the authorities but in no way are we considering to reveal our sources or stop publishing material of public interest," she said.

Her comments follow statements also made on Tuesday by the European Commission.

Speaking to reporters in Strasbourg, Frans Timmermans, the vice-president of the European Commission, said media freedom in Romania must be respected and allowed.

"We need the media to be able to work free from pressure. It is essential in any European democracy," he said.

Timmermans' statements were linked to the European Commission's progress report on Romania, published on Tuesday.

The report found that Romania has regressed and even reversed in the past 12 months advancements made over the past ten years in its efforts to tackle corruption.

"To now see that we see forms of regress is really, really saddening," said Timmermans.

EU warns Romania not to abuse GDPR against press

Romania's data protection authority has threatened a €20m fine against reporters investigating high-level corruption. The European Commission has since issued a warning, telling Romanian authorities to give press exemptions when it comes to privacy rights.

Romania 'using EU data protection law to silence journalists'

An award-winning journalism outlet in Romania is being threatened with fines by the country's data protection authorities - for having disclosed connections, on Facebook, of powerful politicians and a firm embroiled in scandal.

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