From: Alice Taylor
Romania Joins EU Black Sheep Over Declining Media Freedom

Romania’s independent media community are feeling increasingly pessimistic over a series of journalistic violations and what they consider backsliding coming from political figures, making it the latest in a line of EU countries to experience problems with media freedom.

The black sheeps of the EU in terms of journalistic rights have long been Hungary, Malta, and Greece, as well as the Netherlands where the unsolved murder of a journalist has left an unmistakable stain on its history. But Romania, a bloc member since 2007 is now experiencing its own issues.

On Wednesday 29 June, Reporters Without Borders sounded the alarm over the coordinated harassment campaign against investigative journalist Emilia Sercan who revealed that Prime Minister Nicolae Ciuca plagiarised his doctoral dissertation.

“Although the principle of confidentiality of investigation applies, the law enforcement authorities seem to have failed – according to available information – to make significant progress four months after Emilia Șercan became the target of harassment and a smear campaign through the publication of her private pictures and the alleged leak of key elements of the criminal investigation into the matter amplifying the exposure of her private pictures,” they said in a letter sent to Romanian political and law enforcement leaders.

In February 2022, Sercan was informed by an unknown person on Facebook that five personal photos of her, taken 20 years ago, had been published on 24 porn websites. She filed a complaint with the police over the theft of the pictures and their uploading to porn sites.

Days after filing the report, she found a Moldovan website had published the five pictures, plus the screenshot of the Facebook message she received and had given to the Romanian police. She deducted that the article was published around 40 minutes after she left the police, and was subsequently reposted on 74 other websites.

She filed another complaint over a possible leak by the police. The police presented her with their report on the media publications, which cleared them of all wrongdoing. Sercan said it was implausible and “fabricated”.

“It is all the more crucial to prosecute these offenses given that they specifically target a journalist who has been threatened for her investigations into the practice of plagiarism by heads of the highest state institutions, including military educational institutions,” the letter says.

But these threats come amid a worsening climate for Romanian journalists, mainly at the hands of politicians, prosecutors, and the police.

Over the last few months, there have been incidents such as threats against the wife of G4Media editor in chief from an employee of the Ministry of Defence, the detention of Italian journalists after a senator locked them inside her office during an interview, attacks on journalists at the congress of the National Liberal Party, and SLAPPs and judicial pressure from the Mayor of a Bucharest district. 

In addition, a judge in Iasi asked a journalist who exposed possible corruption involving a Romanian MEP, to reveal his sources.

In the case of the revelations by Sercan, judicial procedures against the prime minister over the plagiarism were stopped without further investigation.

This all comes as independent portals are struggling to survive. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the government doled out funding to media, which soon stopped reporting on government scandals. In addition, freedom of information requests continue being blocked by claims of “GDPR” or in many cases, deadlines and even court rulings are ignored.

An oped from the Editor in Chief of G4 media, Christian Pantazi said, “It feels like the state has been taken hostage.”

He added that “Romania has joined the ranks of countries with authoritarian manifestations the likes of Poland and Hungary, where democratic slippages are already sanctioned by the European Commission.“

This year, Romania fell down the RSF World Press Freedom Index from 48 to 56. While methodology changed in 2022, the “aggressive political discourse against journalists”  and “prosecutors’ interference with journalistic work” raises “serious concerns”.

Left unchecked, the EU could soon find itself with another problematic country in terms of media freedom and subsequently, the rule of law amongst its members.

Last week, Vice-President of the European Commission Vera Jourova visited the country and on the topic of media freedom, she said, “I see similar problems in some other member states, especially economic weakness… We also see the issues related to possible political pressure on media… I see the excuses based on GDPR, this is a country specific Romanian issue.”