Men bite watchdogs, media clean-up in Romania continues

Răzvan Martin of Active Watch - ECPMF'S member in Romania (copyright: Active Watch)

The media landscape in Romania is becoming as rocky as the Transylvanian mountains, as owners face corruption charges and outlets close. ECPMF’s local member organisation Active Watch is monitoring the situation and Răzvan Martin gives an update in his interview below.

by Jane Whyatt

Meanwhile, the Centre for Media Transparency (CMT) has published a research report on five major TV, radio and newspaper chains. It’s called “The men who bit the (watch) dogs“ and exposes a culture of commercialism, linked to a communist past and continuing political influence of media owners. The title refers to the old journalistic saying that “Dog bites man“ is not an interesting story, but “Man bites dog“ is a newsworthy headline.

CMT quotes an online comment from one media owner Sorin Ovidiu Vântu as an example: “In 1990 I had only one thing in mind at the time, my friend, to make money, nothing else. In 1989 I had a four-roomed flat (…) at the end of the year 1990 I had 100 million US dollars in cash in my unfurnished room. I celebrated with my wife at that time drinking a bottle of champagne and making love on 100 million US dollars in cash.“ Sorin Ovidiu Vântu was the owner of the Realitatea-Cațavencu TV network. In July 2016 police officers he was finally convicted by the Bucharest Court of Appeal that upheld the sentence of six years and two months of imprisonment for his part in the Petromservice gas company bankruptcy case.

Romania’s Anti Corruption Directorate (DNA) set up in 2002 before Romania became a member of the European Union is pro-actively working to clean up the media and business in general. Headquartered in the capital Bucharest it also has 15 regional offices. Its Chief Prosecutor is supported by 145 prosecutors, 170 police officers and 55 experts specialised in economics, finance, banking, customs, and information technology working in DNA.

In an interview for BNE Intellinews, Răzvan Martin of Active Watch commented on the latest situation:

Q: Do you expect to see media changing hands or closing down given the legal and financial difficulties of several of the major media owners in Romania?

The Romanian mainstream media is plagued by corruption. Most of its owners are criminals/crooks/corrupt business people or corrupt politicians who use the media as an instrument to gain different kinds of advantages, from political influence, blackmail of magistrates to public funding etc. Almost all of the owners of these media groups are sentenced, charged or under trial for various crimes, including blackmail, extortion, embezzlement, money laundering. Their media outlets have not only perverted the mission and the idea of journalism itself, but they have also strongly distorted the media market, as they benefit from a huge chunk of the advertising. This suffocates the small, independent and honest media initiatives. Our annual reports on the situation of press freedom in Romania have been stressing this problem of media being controlled by corrupt owners since 2005. In the past three years, some of these media owners have started a strong PR campaign abroad, hiring private ”experts” or lobby organisations to support their cause and to portray them as victims of the Romanian justice system. Therefore, the fate of these toxic media outlets and of their owners is not a major concern to us as a press freedom organisation. We are more concerned with the fair functioning of the media market, with promoting professional standards and ethics codes, with enabling the public to understand the private interests these media outlets promote whilst abandoning the public interest, etc.

Q: There is a connection between the financial problems faced by the sector and the economic crisis of a few years back — are they likely to resolve themselves as economic growth accelerates?

The media market keeps growing, but its size is still rather small compared to the market’s potential and the country’s dimensions. The problem is that over two-thirds of the advertising money flow into the TV market, where the public agenda is set and which is largely controlled by the kind of people described above. The online advertising is also growing constantly, but most of the money goes directly to Google/Facebook, with the local media benefiting little from this growth.

Q: Is there a chance for independent media — whether traditional media or online — to challenge the large politically-connected media holdings?

Yes, there is a chance now. The social, political and economic contexts are favourable. There is a significant part of the public, especially the educated part, that is hungry for quality independent reporting, and this appetite is not satisfied by the market. The problem is that these new quality media initiatives must find a proper business operation model to help them survive (most of them are currently functioning as NGOs not as business outlets, with funding coming from private individuals or international donors, more like project-based organisations). Therefore, there is a need for alternative means of financing for such quality media outlets in order for them to survive and increase their public reach. Their audiences are not that large, as they are all online media. The positive aspect is that some of their products have managed to enter and influence the public agenda, having a major impact on social and political life.

Răzvan Martin is co-ordinator of the FreeEx program at the Active Watch Media Monitoring Agency, an ECPMF member organisation. He is also a member of the Reporters Sans Frontiers and IFEX networks.

The Centre for Media Transparency report by Manuela Preoteasa and Andrei Schwartz is available here

The article was republished from ECPMF with permission.