Newspapers are going through a crisis and, as Ana-Maria Smadeanu investigates, everyone from journalists to the Government has to take some responsibility before the media can mature
The news press has suffered a shock in the last year.
Most of the papers indirectly supported the PSD to win the last elections, while arguments between press owners and journalists have led to an unprecedented number of closures, sackings and resignations, including some of the senior figureheads in the Romanian media.
Last year was the worst ever in terms of freedom of expression, violence on journalists and political pressure, reported the Media Monitoring Agency (MMA). Most of sector's leading lights now believe that the press is neither a responsible nor a professional force.
“The press shouldn't give judgments,” says Robert Turcescu, editor of the daily newspaper Cotidianul. “Only reveals what is going on in society.”
Because of journalists' enthusiasm to exercise their power, many reports convict individuals accused or rumoured of corruption in print, before they have a chance to plead their innocence.
“The 'not guilty' presumption has disappeared,” says Turcescu. “The press's status as the fourth estate must be forgotten. Such a title gives birth to monsters.”
But Andrei Postelnicu, a Romanian journalist working for the Financial Times in New York says this control is partly illusory. “[The Romanian media is only] powerful through the power of the rubbish it puts out and through the sensitivity of Romanians to what's said about them.”
The media has the ability to expose crimes and indiscretions, believes Ioana Avadani the Director from the Center for Independent Journalism, but lacks real efficacy.
“Its force to expose is large, but what happens if the right people in justice, police and administration do not respond?” she argues. A newspaper can carry out an investigation , but if it fails to force the hand of justice: “One can't write the same story seven times, because then one loses readers.”
After 1989 the press did not have a set of professional standards to follow and the newly liberated papers tended to subscribe to the opinions of their editor or publisher (sometimes the same man), mean-ing a culture of objective reporting has never been securely established. But in the last two years many newspapers have followed a more corporate and brand-led course. Market forces and the need to emphasise political independence, even if not in evidence, has now run this personality cult of the owner-editor out of town. Vice-premier and member of PUR Dan Voiculescu has tried to distance himself from his ownership of daily newspaper Jurnalul National, by handing over the business to his daughter, while the firebrand editors of national dailies Evenimentul Zilei and Adevarul, Dan Turturica and Cristian Tudor Popescu, have arguably been eased out of their positions by their Swiss and Romanian publishers.
“I would certainly hope this personality cult is dead and we should not mourn it,” says Postelnicu. “Unfortunately, I think Romanian society has a predisposition to strong personalities.”
In the last two years bosses of newspapers have demonstrated that reforming the paper is more important than the journalists' own opinions. At the same time, what has become clear is that a newspaper's brand value is as attractive to the readers as the editorial staff. This has lead to rampant infighting between former editors and bosses of newspapers. In September 2004 daily newspaper Romania Libera accused its owners, German group Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung (WAZ), of interfering in the editorial policy and transforming the paper into a tabloid.
Due to changes imposed from their owners, hoards of editorial staff from Pro Sport and Evenimentul Zilei resigned in bulk, threatening to wreck both papers. On the latter paper some 30 or so journalists left in solidarity with their editor Dan Turturica, who planned to set up his own paper. But neither Pro Sport nor Evenimentul went out of business and, in the second case, some journalists returned.
“Who went back?” Turturica told The Diplomat. “Two to three people? The basic nucleus is coming with me. There are at least 30 journalists that are coming with me to the new paper.”
Meanwhile at Adevarul the main shareholder threatened to change the board of directors in part due to their conflicting responsibilities of editorial and advertising. Four of them, including editor in chief Cristian Tudor Popescu, then resigned. Popescu went public to launch his own paper, Prezent.
But Dan Turturica then revealed he had chosen this name for his new paper and registered this officially. Popescu then changed the name to 'Gandul' (the thought).
However Turturica told The Diplomat he is now not convinced that he will keep such a name for his paper and says he has alternatives.
So this year can look forward to two new papers from eccentric public figures, but whether they will stop fighting among themselves and start combating injustices in society remains to be seen.
WHO IS RESPONSIBLE?
Senior members of the print media agree that the quality of newspapers and the level of professionalism is lacking in the print press, but there are arguments over who is responsible: Politicians and businesspeople who pressure papers to support their agendas, media owners who are maximizing the returns on their investment or journalists, who like to martyr themselves as victims of big business.
The press has been used by powerful businesspeople as a means of advertising their other business interests and gaining political capital. Cristian Tudor Popescu, former editor in chief at Adevarul agreed that his paper had on its website articles without indications they were advertising. Alex Ulmanu, cultural editor at Evenimentul Zilei claims that Romania Libera has also published these kinds of unmarked advertorials.
In Bucharest there are more then 25 newspapers, many selling only a small number, but financially supported by businesses with intentions independent of pleasing their readers. “The fact that they are on the market confirms there is something mysterious,” says Ulmanu. “They should disappear because they can't finance themselves.”
Co-ordinator of Free-ex programme at the Monitoring Media Agency Razvan Martin is worried that the press could further become a platform for commercial space with writing relegated to a secondary function. “For example, there was a test drive for a leading international car firm last April, where 50 journalists were invited,” he claims. “A man died at the event in suspicious circumstances and no one wrote about it.”
Governments and the press always have a strange relationship. When leaders put pressure on editors to secure support, the newspapers sometimes complain that they are being censored. However, often the papers are just not fighting back with the same muscle. But Governments can punish papers in their choice of media outlets for lucrative state advertising. In Romania, distributing public institutions and companies' advertising without transparency and in a preferential way has been one of the main mechanisms of press control, according to the MMA. Gardianul and Independent, two small circulation publications, received more money then other newspapers with a larger circulation and a more critical attitude towards the Government, according to the MMA. Since the elections, Independent has ceased to be published.
The PSD certainly retained a strong grip on the newspapers, but Postelnicu does not think they should be held responsible for bad writing. “[The PSD] certainly did their part in a rather disgraceful manner to ensure the press remained of poor quality and subservient, but they were more of an excuse, rather than a root cause,” he says.
Turcescu says that because there is a new Government, there is less pressure on the press, for the moment. “But of-ficials in power will always try to bribe newspapers,” he says, “what is important is the journalist's reac-tion.”
Journalists in Romania often see themselves as defenders of free speech and crusaders against editorial interference from their megalomaniac foreign bosses. While critics depict journalists as easy-to-bribe writers of advertisements posing as articles who only attend a press conferences at the promise of free food, and lots of it.
“In the last years freedom of expression has suffered and many use the excuse of needing to have freedom of expression for their personal aims,” says Razvan Martin. Journalists from Evenimentul Zilei and Romania Libera have complained that their bosses are dumbing down of the newspaper's serious agenda.
But this has not happened. Transforming Ringier-owned Evenimentul Zilei into a tabloid would be ludicrous, as the paper would compete with the same company's Libertatea.
“At Romania Libera, WAZ did not suggest that the newspaper should transform into a tabloid, but were asking to improve the standards,” says Ulmanu. “They just wanted western quality.”
There seems to be a trait of journalists playing victim.
“That's because the entire country likes playing the victim and has done for a long time,” says Postelnicu. “It's a very convenient way not to take responsibility for one's own actions and destiny.”
At present, there is also the lack of a professional and representative body.
“We don't have a strong guild, which is why the establishment will always win,” says Turcescu. “There is a strong fight between some journalists and the leading powers, and there is the so-called 'political pressure' from politicians on editorial, but if there is solidarity between journalists, they can resist.”
THE MEDIA OWNERS?
Every paper also needs to have a clear separation between editorial and advertising. The ex-boss of Adevarul has admitted that journalists at that paper were expected to bring in advertising. However there seems to be no clear line between when a newspaper owner is making changes to a paper and when he is interfering with the editorial content.
“Any owner can always look after his newspaper's economic interest legitimately, provided he does so within the confines of the law,” says Postelnicu.
Following the law of market forces, readers should punish a paper that is the mouthpiece of the owner. “But practice is another thing,” Postelnicu adds.