Romania Media ‘Must Defend its Independence’, Union Says

MediaSind Journalists' Trade Union president Cristi Godinac. Photo: George Calin/Inquam Photos

MediaSind president Cristi Godinac tells BIRN in an interview that journalists must unite to defeat the ruling party’s plans to clip the wings of the public news agency Agerpres. 

by Ana Maria Touma, BIRN, Bucharest

Moves by Romania’s ruling Social Democrats to give the country’s parliament more control over the public news agency, Agerpres, have mobilized local and international media freedom organizations, which call the move a direct threat to the agency’s independence.

The Romanian journalists’ union, MediaSind, is among several organizations that have strongly opposed the new bill – despite which the Senate passed it last week.

It now needs to pass through parliament’s lower chamber and be approved by the President.

MediaSind’s president Cristi Godinac told BIRN that while the public media in Romania in general has long been under state control, Agerpres in recent years had taken a more independent line, thanks mainly to a law passed in 2013 that curbed political influence on Agerpres’ management.

Among other things, the 2013 law prevented the removal of the agency’s management on political grounds before its mandate expired.

However, the law also contained some weak points, which have left the agency vulnerable to a certain degree of political pressures.

The general manager is nominated by the Prime Minister and then appointed by parliament, while the government determines the agency’s budget.

Agerpres employees are also paid according to the public servants’ wage law, not according to a negotiated collective labour contract, as is the case with the public radio and television, Godinac explained.

Bill would expand political control over state media:

The new bill that the Social Democrats are pushing through parliament goes further, empowering parliament to sack the agency’s management if MPs reject its yearly activity report three times.

MPs also do not need to provide any reasons for rejecting the report.

Romania’s public broadcasters have functioned under the same regulations for years, which has left them open to political interference.

Parliament sacked the management of the country’s public broadcaster at the end of September after deeming its 2016 report unsatisfactory, citing poor management and increased debts.

Over the past 17 years, only one executive director of the public broadcaster completed a whole four-year mandate.

The ruling party wishes now to expand the same system to the public news agency, Godinac said.

“The bill does not aim to modernize the law on Agerpres. There has been no analysis of how the agency functions, or of its needs to improve its activity. The bill is simply meant to change the way the general manager is dismissed,” he said.

Although parliament has replaced several public broadcasters’ boards in the past, he said no similar effort has been put into reforming public media organizations, despite the need to do so.

“Politicians, regardless of their party affiliation, have never been interested in reforming these institutions … When they come to power, they all think that it is their right to use them to fulfil their political interests,” Godinac said.

In early 2000s, the then Social Democrat-led government had the idea of uniting the three public media institutions – radio, television and news agency – under the same management, but gave up under pressure from civil society.

Then PM Victor Ponta’s cabinet attempted to impose the same model that Viktor Orban applied in Hungary. But Godinac says that some politicians recently started contemplating this model once again.

Growing political pressure is undermining public trust:

Godinac said the ruling parties have been tightening their grip over the media step by step.

The radio-TV tax was scrapped this spring, leaving all the three public media organizations completely dependent on government financing.

The management of radio and television was then replaced by people seen as close to the ruling party.

More recently, the ruling party moved to fire the news agency’s management after the general manager, Alexandru Giboi, refused to fire 70 employees at the request of the Ministry of Culture, Godinac said.

According to him, the position of the media has been weakened further by the lack of solidarity shown among journalists, by lack of self-regulation instruments, and by the fact that the politicians have scrapped the possibility of negotiated collective labour contracts, which has undermined journalists’ fundamental rights.

This political control that politicians have gradually established over the media has meanwhile damaged trust in them among the population.

Surveys conducted in 1990s put the media among those institutions that enjoyed the highest degree of trust among the public, usually just behind the Romanian Orthodox Church and the army.

More recent surveys show the media have since fallen far behind those two in terms of public confidence, Godinac said.

To fight more effectively against political influence, journalists need to unite and not act like lone wolves, Godinac told BIRN.

“They need to get involved in stronger organizations that can defend their independence and their rights,” he said.

He cited the example of the recent media strike in Greece in which neither state nor private media published any news for two days.

“They need to do all this if they want a real change in Romanian media,” he said.

The Romanian media also need a set of tools to self-regulate, such as an Ethical Code that all journalists apply, he said.

Even a collective labour contract would act as form of a self-regulation, because is sets out principles for labour relations in all media organizations, he said.

“We need these collective contracts over the entire sector, in every media organization, and it is our job as unions to fight for it. It is obvious now that we are divided, which has made it easier for the politicians to subordinate us and censor us,” he warned.

The latest perceived threat to the independence of the news agency has led to an unprecedented mobilization of Romanian and international media freedom organizations.

However, Godinac said the government looks determined to keep the debate under wraps.

The public radio TV broadcaster had avoided all mention of the debate and had “censored any news piece on the political attack on Agerpres’ independence”, he noted.

“What more proof would one need to see that these two organizations already serve their politicalmaster,” he concluded.

The article was republished from Balkan Insight with permission.