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2004 | 2005

May - 2005



Deadline for disaster

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.

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.”

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.



Road rage

In a country with less than 200km of motorway, two routes are under construction linking Hungary to Bucharest through Transylvania, but can the country afford it?

Mures County in Transylvania has low and undulating hills ideal for pastoral and arable agriculture and without any trace of a gold mine or oil field.
Yet the price of the land in certain areas has sky-rocketed.
The fields surrounding the Chetani village district is one of these lucky places.
“There are three or four hundred of us here who were asked by Americans to sell the lands which were crossed by the motorway and there wasn't a single one of us who said no,” says Dionisie Gherman, a peasant-farmer from Chetani.
In December 2003 the Romanian Government signed a 2.5 billion USD project for the construction of the 415 kilometre-motorway between Brasov, in the centre of Romania and Bors, one of the exit points to Hungary, with American firm Bechtel.
This was reputedly the largest contract of its kind in Europe.
However the deal was made without a tender and this disqualified the cons-truction from receiving EU funding.
It also, arguably, placed the construction in conflict with an EU plan to build a motorway between Bucharest and the Hungarian border near Arad, part of the Pan European Corridor IV.
The Bechtel motorway will cross nine kilometres of the lands surrounding Chetani, from Cluj County to the Mures River. Gheorghe Pantea, the mayor of Chetani, recalls that two years ago, in autumn 2003, when Bechtel representatives came to the village hall, all the villagers agreed to sell their lands through which the motorway would cross.
“After all, why shouldn't they be pleased to do so? It's a nice price that they receive for their lands,” says Pantea. “I mean, five to seven Euro per sqm is a nice price, right? Even though I've heard that Bechtel offered the villagers of Ciurila, in the Cluj County [which will also be crossed by the Bechtel motorway], eight Euro per sqm.”
Normally one sqm of good quality land in the Mures County is worth between 0.15 and 0.30 Euros. The problem is that the villagers of Chetani still do not know exactly how much they will get, even though they signed the sales deal with the Bechtel representatives two years ago. Either way, the American company has already started various preconstruction studies of the land and begun digging.
Dionisie Gherman hopes to make it big with his land, where he now grows potatoes, but has not seen a penny since he signed the agreement with Bechtel. He should receive around 35,000 Euro for half a hectare. That is 17.5 times more than the 2,000 Euros he would have normally received, had he sold the 5,000 sqm at a normal price of 0.4 Euro per sqm. The maths is simple for any agriculturalist: 500 sheep instead of 28 sheep.

When Tariceanu recently declared that the construction of the Bechtel motorway is not a priority, whereas developing the Pan European Corridor IV is, the heat rose between the governmental alliance groups supporting the Bechtel motorway and among foreign investors.
State Minister Marko Bela, president of Hungarian coalition party the UDMR, one of the supporters of the Transylvania motorway, declared that his party had prepared a resolution requesting the Government not to delay the works and the completion of the Brasov-Bors motorway. If they failed to do this, it could be the “break up test”, which meant it was a condition of the UDMR's remaining in the ruling coalition.
Cluj officials have also already expressed worries concerning the effect of this delay on foreign investors' appeal to the city and the county.
“Delaying this project can only damage Tran-sylvania's economic develop-ment, taking into consideration that the [motorway] project triggers the construction of hotels, gas stations, farms, commercial centres and industrial parks,” Emil Boc, Mayor of Cluj and PD president told The Diplomat.
“The more it is delayed, the more foreign investors are discouraged to come to our county,” adds Nicolae Beurean, Executive Director of the Cluj County Chamber of Commerce. “The exploitation of granite and ballast carriers will create jobs, then again Bechtel will employ Cluj subcontracted SMEs for construction activities and will also need the Cluj County's working force, which will of course contribute to the economic development of the county.”
However such advantages are triggered by the construction of a motorway wherever it is built, such as in Valcea County, which will be crossed by Corridor IV. “This will give Valcea numerous social and economic advantages,” says Dumitru Buse, president of the Valcea County Council, “such as an increase in the county dwellers' living standards through the development of mountain tourism and agrotourism. This would put a stop to the depopulation, due to the exodus of young people.”
Although there will be a need for motorways in the future, there may not be the demand for two routes to be constructed simultaneously, especially when both compete for public funds.
“Both motorways are a priority,” argues minister delegate for the coordination of public works and territory management Laszlo Borbely. “We are more obliged towards the European Union concerning one of them [Corridor IV], whereas the other one [the Transylvania Motorway] is an investment taken up by the Romanian Government and it appears as a priority in the 2005-2008 governing programme.”
On the other hand, the construction deadline for Corridor IV is 2020, argues the minister, while the Brasov-Bors motorway should be completed in 2012, so they will not interfere in the other one's progress.
Meanwhile, in late 2006 a Hungarian motorway via Debrecen will approach the Romanian border, which will meet the Brasov-Bors motorway in 2012, according to Borbely.

The Bechtel contract was not awarded through an open tender, but by the PSD Government directly to the American company. This lack of a fair auction means the project will not receive European financing, as both the European Commission and the European Investment Bank (EIB), the financing arm of the EU, requests the strict implementation of EU public procurement rules.
But that is not the case of the second motorway.
Currently, the EIB is financing two sections of the Pan-European Corridor IV in Romania to the tune of 410 million Euros, Bucharest-Constanta with 210 million Euro and Arad-Timisoara with 200 million Euro, and work is on schedule for the Banat section.
“With the Bucharest-Constanta motorway, for example, 197 million Euro has already been provided,” Wolfgang Roth, Vice President of the European Investment Bank told The Diplomat, “and the first loan disbursement for the construction of the Arad-Timisoara motorway section is according to the plan scheduled for the current year.”
EIB financing can reach up to 75 per cent of the total project cost, depending on the quality of the projects submitted for financing, as well as the implementation of EU rules regarding procurement.
This means that, if the tender had been fair, the price remained the same and the project deemed necessary for Romania's infrastructure, in the case of the 3.8 billion Euro total costs of the Bechtel motorway, the Romanian Government could have lost out on a potential 2.85 billion Euro EIB loan.
Borbely says that the possibility of applying for an EIB loan for the Brasov-Bors motorway was never taken into consideration. But there are still questions over how billions of dollars of the contract will be funded, especially without the EU backing.
For the moment, the first part of the Brasov-Bors motorway costs up to 800 million Euro and this amount will be funded by the Romanian Government under the guarantee of the American Eximbank. In the budget for 2005 over 200 million USD will also be allotted for the Transylvania Motorway.
Borbely says audits have proved that the contract was obtained in 'fair conditions'.
“Because even if there hasn't been an open tender,” says Borbely, the acquisition was made within the legal framework that existed at that time. Anyway, the question over the fairness of the Bechtel contract still remains, as an enquiry from the Ministry of Transport is in progress.
“Cutting the contract,” says Borbely, “or stopping the construction of this motorway is out of the question.”