Thursday

23rd Sep 2021

New 'EU presidents' strangling free press

  • Romanian attacks on judicial independence, is reminiscent of Hungary and Poland, which are under EU sanctions procedures (Photo: Paul Arne Wagner)

Government attacks on free press, including police beatings, tax-related harassment, and threats of fines, have put an additional question mark over Romania's capability to be the EU's next presidency, a leading NGO has indicated.

"Romania's press freedom [is] in free fall as it takes over [the] EU presidency," Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a Paris-based NGO, said on Thursday (27 December).

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  • Liviu Dragnea said the country's president should be tried for treason due to his criticism of Romania's EU preparations (Photo: Partidul Social Democrat)

"We urge [Romania's] authorities to demonstrate responsibility by preventing any further decline in press freedom in their country," the NGO's Pauline Ades-Mevel said.

"The government must do everything possible to guarantee editorial independence, prevent journalists being exploited by oligarchs and their interests, and combat disinformation, so that Romanians can have access to the reliable news coverage that every democracy needs in order to function properly," she added.

Bucharest is due to take over the rotating EU presidency from Austria on Tuesday (1 January).

Its attacks on judicial independence, reminiscent of Hungary and Poland, which are under EU sanctions procedures, and its backsliding on anti-corruption reforms were already highlighted in a recent European Commission report.

Its lack of preparation to take on the EU role, which involves preparing and chairing member states' meetings, was also called out by its own president, Klaus Iohannis.

Its government, fronted by prime minister Viorica Dancila, but in fact led by disgraced ruling party leader, Liviu Dragnea, who has a conviction for electoral fraud, has so far reacted with venom.

The EU criticism was "revolting", Dancila said, while Iohannis should be tried for "treason," Dragnea added in recent weeks.

But RSF's new report poses the question whether average Romanians have any idea to what extent their country is becoming the next sick man of Europe.

"Problems with Romania's media include excessive politicisation, corrupt funding mechanisms, the subjection of editorial decision-making to media owner interests, and deliberate disinformation," RSF said.

"Investigative websites [are] now the only source of news," it added.

Government-linked oligarchs, who own media channels, as well as state-run media have waged "systematic disinformation campaigns", it said.

It gave as one example reports that anti-government protests in 2017 and 2018 were orchestrated by Jewish philanthropist George Soros, in a direct echo of antisemitic propaganda in Hungary.

The pro-government channel Romania TV was also behind a "smear campaign against the National Anti-Corruption Directorate and its chief prosecutor".

Oligarchs, such as Dan Voiculescu and Sebastian Ghita have set up TV channels to "attack [their] political enemies" after facing corruption charges.

Dragnea's party has also passed laws allowing it to fire managers and journalists from the national news agency Agerpress for not toeing the line.

Romania's media regulator, the National Audiovisual Council, has also been stuffed with Dragnea loyalists who "openly express their political views in the newspapers and on TV", RSF noted.

GDPR excuse

The situation has created a dangerous environment for independent reporters, 15 of whom were beaten up by police during protests in August.

But the reaction by interior minister Carmen Dan amounted to defending the police action and compiling a blacklist of journalists who incited revolt.

That left investigative websites, such as Hotnews or Rise Project, as the last few sources of genuine information to Romanian people.

But national tax authorities targeted both of them with sudden audits in revenge.

Rise Project was also threatened with a €20m fine if it did not reveal its sources.

Meanwhile, a new law on data protection, the so-called GDPR regulation, "has also led to abuses, with Romanian officials using it as grounds not to share information with reporters," the French NGO, which placed Romania 44th out of 180 countries in its last press freedom ranking said.

But when challenged by EUobserver on her recent visit to Brussels, the Romanian prime minister showed no sign of heeding the criticism.

"If there is transgressions on confidentiality and private life, these things need to be sanctioned according to European rules," she said on the €20m fine threat while in the EU capital on 5 December.

"This [freedom of expression] is guaranteed and every journalist enjoys it but at the same time, we do have a European regulation on data protection," she added, on the GDPR abuse.

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Prime minister Viorica Dancila told EUobserver that Romania's constitution guarantees freedom of expression for journalists - but insisted EU data protection rules must be respected. Her comments follow threats to impose a €20m fine on a group of investigative reporters.

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