Amendments were made during the year to laws affecting the media. The law on defamation, whose abolition the Council of Europe had been urging since 1997, was revised but still fell short of European standards requiring that no offence be punishable by a prison sentence.
Parliament voted on 23 June to reduce the jail term for defamation (article 206 of the criminal code) to two years. Article 238, which provided for between six months and five years for "offence to the authorities," was repealed. The seven-year sentence for "insulting and defaming a civil servant" (article 239) was reduced to four. On 25 June, parliament cut the five-year prison sentence for defaming a representative of the state (article 265-4) to three years,which drew strong protests from press freedom organisations.
The authorities also obtained the right to classify anything they wished as a state secret. At the end of May, President Ion Iliescu vetoed a law that would oblige newspapers to allow a "right of response" but refused five months later to approve a law applying to the state-owned news agency Rompress, recognising journalists’ rights not to reveal their sources.
The ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD) controls directly or indirectly many radio and TV stations. Paul Grigoriu, deputy head of the state radio, resigned on 18 April in protest at the radio’s new management, which he said was too close to the PSD. The day before, the government had named as the station’s chief Dragos Seuleanu, a PSD nominee who had been acting head since December 2001. The radio did not report Grigoriu’s resignation.
The lack of air-time allowed for the opposition was shown in September when the independent TV station OTV had its licence cancelled after broadcasting a programme in which extreme right-wing leader Corneliu Vadim Tudor took part. Rasvan Popescu, one of the 12 members of the National Broadcasting Council (CNA) called on the Council of Europe to intervene and deplored the overly pro-government bias of both state and privately-owned TV stations. He also asked the stations to allot at least of third of their programmes to coverage of the political opposition.
In the spring, the authorities stepped up harassment and threats against the local and foreign media for giving the country poor publicity or being in the pay of anti-Romanian interests. The daily paper Jurnalul National reported on 28 May that the Supreme National Defence Council (CSAT) had devised a whole strategy to "counter attacks on Romania."
A journalist disappears
Iosif Costinas, 62, an investigative reporter for the daily Timisoara, was seen in the town for the last time on 8 June 2002. Police launched an extensive search in the area but did not find him. The paper’s political editor, Flavius Donca, said Costinas had been very critical of the government and was writing a book about organised crime in the town. He had also investigated other delicate subjects, such as the mystery surrounding the supposed killings in the town that triggered the fall of the communist regime in 1989 and the presence of former Securitate secret police in posts of responsibility. By the end of the year, he had not been found.
Cristian Tudor Popescu, editor of the daily Adevarul, was insulted and threatened with death on 3 February 2002 in a Budapest cafe by wealthy businessman Gigi Becali, who owned the Steau Bucharest football team. The previous month, the paper reported Becali had bought up army land at rock-bottom prices.
Defence minister Ioan Mircea Pascu sent a warning on 9 May to newspapers that had reprinted a 30 April article from the Wall Street Journal that said NATO distrusted the Romanian secret police. The minister’s note said: "Life is too short and your well-being too precious to waste on tiresome discussions."
Pressure and obstruction
Distribution of the national daily Jurnalul National was prevented on 16 January 2002 by Conpress, which distributes the press in the region around the Black Sea city of Constanta and is part owned by the city’s mayor, Nadu Mazare. The mayor and business associates bought up all that day’s copies of the paper that had been distributed by the state-owned firm Rodipet. The issue contained an article mentioning the mayor’s suspected involvement in embezzlement of public funds.
The next day, the local offices of the paper were invaded by officials of the Democratic Party, who told them the paper’s lease, valid until 2004, had been cancelled and the offices handed over to the party. The journalists were expelled by force and had to leave all their computers and work material behind. Police did not intervene, despite appeals from editor Ema Valentina Belet. Mayor Mazare filed a suit for libel.
The upper house of parliament amended the law on protection of information on 8 April, giving the government a right to declare anything it wished to be secret and liable to harm the state or the secret services. This paved the way to self-censorship by journalists and restricted the right to be informed. The new measure also violated the law on free access to information which came into force in February.
The authorities in Focsani, northeast of Bucharest, used cranes on 22 April to destroy half a dozen newsstands belonging to the local paper Ziarul de Vrancea. A few days before, town officials had cancelled the contract allowing the paper to run the kiosks, which had been its only means of distribution since the state-owned distribution firm Rodipet cancelled a contract with the paper. Editor Alice Gheorghita said the authorities were out to get the paper because of its impartiality and its many investigations of the town’s financial affairs.
Foreign minister Mircea Geoana protested in writing on 15 May to the French TV station TV5 against its broadcast on 6 and 7 April a programme called "24 Hours in Bucharest," which showed homeless teenagers living at the railway station and children searching in a rubbish bin. The minister criticised the "dubious choice" of some subjects and regretted that the programme "did not manage to show the rich cultural heritage" of Romania and that the producer had refused to do an interview with Prime Minister Adrian Nastase.
Government secretary-general Serban Mihailescu threatened to prosecute Mirel Bran, Bucharest correspondent of the French daily Le Monde, for an article in the paper on 22 May headed "Is Romania ready to join NATO?" He accused him of being in the pay of anti-Romanian interests. The article quoted Bran’s nickname, "Mickey Bakshish," and questioned Romania’s ability to meet NATO’s membership requirements due to corruption and continuing power of the fallen communist regime’s Securitate secret police. It also reported threats made against journalists by defence minister Ioan Mircea Pascu.
The daily Jurnalul National printed a photocopy of a Supreme Defence Council (CSAT) document on 28 May headed "Plan to counter attacks on Romania," which accused the media of "harming the country’s image" and focusing "too much" on corruption, people-trafficking and international child adoption schemes. It said the government should target hostile Internet websites and "take action against them using sophisticated technology."
The document suggested combating attacks on Romania’s reputation by creating a national network, involving CSAT and all government ministries and agencies, and setting up a national centre to monitor media reaction run by the president’s national security adviser and former head of the external intelligence agency, Ioan Talpes. On 31 May, Talpa admitted the document was genuine, after earlier denying it.
At the end of May, parliament approved a law proposed by defence minister Ioan Mircea Pascu to oblige the media to provide a "right of response" within three days of the appearance of an article or face a fine of between 3 and 100 million lei (3,000 euros). In September, President Ion Iliescu vetoed the law and sent it back to parliament.
The senate passed a broadcasting law on 28 June allowing the government to force both state and privately-owned radio and TV stations to cover subjects that it considered very important. Until then, the National Broadcasting Council had established priorities. The law also limited advertisements on state-owned media to a maximum of eight minutes each and banned them from interrupting programmes. By the end of the year, President Iliescu had not approved the law.
A parliamentary commission was given the job on 2 August of investigating whether the phones of journalists in the northeastern town of Iasi were being tapped by the State Information Service (SRI), the successor to the communist Securitate secret police. A few weeks earlier, the European Union ambassador to Romania, Jonathan Scheele, suspected that the SRI had listened in to a phone conversation he had with a local journalist and asked the authorities for an explanation. The SRI denied the charge and the commission reported back on 22 August that neither the journalists nor the ambassador had been victims of phone-tapping.
The privately-owned station OTV broadcast a 50-minute video on 9 August showing Silvia Vranceanu, 26, the correspondent in Focsani of the national opposition daily Evenimentul Zilei, dancing naked at a private party eight years previously. The same week, the local paper Monitorul, which is close to the ruling Social Democratic Party, suggested in a front-page story that the journalist had made a pornographic film. Vranceanu had been the target of intimidation and anonymous threats since her paper ran articles criticising the Social Democrat authorities in the region, including the county’s top official, Marian Oprisan.
The National Broadcasting Council (CNA) cancelled the licence on 12 September of the privately-owned station Omega TV (OTV), which immediately went off the air. The CNA said it had broadcast material that was anti-Semitic and an incitement to racial hatred. President Iliescu had protested against a programme on 10 September presented by the station’s chief, Dan Diaconescu, and featuring extreme right-wing leader Corneliu Vadim Tudor. The station is one of the few to give a voice to opposition figures.
Lia Lucia Epure, publisher in the western town of Timisoara of the daily Focus Vest, and one of her journalists, Mariana Dineica, were fined five million lei (150 euros) and ordered to pay damages of 500 million lei (15,000 euros) on 27 September to Viorel Matei, a senator of the ruling Social Democratic Party, for libelling him a year earlier in articles that appeared in Focus Vest and the Bucharest weekly Academia Catavencu, accusing him of abuse power and financial irregularities. Both sides appealed against the verdict.
President Iliescu refused on 23 October to approve a law applying to the national news agency Rompress that recognised the right of journalists not to reveal their sources. He said they must reveal them at a court’s request to help investigations. Parliament passed the law on 26 November, ignoring the presidential veto, as the national constitution permits.