Controversial business figure buys leading satirical paper
Controversial businessman Sorin Ovidiu Vantu has bought the Catavencu media group, which includes satirical weekly Academia Catavencu and daily Cotidianul, in a move which sees cross-media ownership in Romania consolidating into three groups of interests.
Vantu, who now owns media group Realitatea Media, was one of the founders of mutual fund Fondul National de Investitii (FNI).
About six years ago, FNI attracted investors to put money in stock, but collapsed when it could not offer full redemption, and after tougher regulations were instituted by a new regulatory body.
Around 300,000 investors reportedly lost savings totaling 394 million USD.
Last year, Capital magazine estimated Vantu was the third richest man in Romania, with assets of around 590 million Euro.
This move follows the purchase by media giant MediaPro of daily newspaper Gandul, further consolidating the Romanian national media in the hands of a three domestic media groups – Realitatea, Intact and MediaPro - and one international group, Ringier.
“Consolidation was overdue: this was predictable and is for the best,” says Ioana Avadani, executive director of the Centre for Independent Journalism.
But the problem emerges when one looks at who is buying the media and why, she adds.
When MediaPro bought Gandul, this was seen as business as usual, says Avadani.
But when Vantu bought the Catavencu group, there was a public outcry.
“The perception was that there was a discrepancy between the person who bought the publications – perceived as very corrupt - and the media, seen as a voice against corruption and clean,” says Avadani.
Vantu worried media analysts when he told Evenimentul Zilei he only wanted to fund journalistic investigations that were “profitable”.
But journalists working for the group and press watchdogs will not damn the media boss just yet.
They are waiting to see what will happen.
“Vantu probably bought the Catavencu group in an attempt to import some credibility from them,” says Avadani.
Thus, he should not interfere in the editorial policy of his new publications because of the saying that – if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.
“If they mess with formats, they may lose money and the market will punish them,” says Razvan Martin, coordinator of the FreeEx programme at media watchdog, the Media Monitoring Agency (MMA).
Realitatea Group has two television channels and will set up its own news agency, possibly in the Autumn, to rival Mediafax.
“We salute a new news agency on the market,” says Martin. “Having only one on the market is a danger. However, our enthusiasm is lessened when we find this is connected to one of the three largest media groups.”
Homegrown media power
Romania is unique in much of eastern Europe because the main three media groups are all homegrown.
Swiss-owned Ringier has less influence because it is confined to print. 73 per cent of Romanians receive information through the TV, while only eight per cent read newspapers: a figure that is not increasing.
Meanwhile Intact, which owns Jurnalul National and TV station Antena 1 and Antena 3, as well as Euforia TV, is indirectly owned by the leader of the Conservative Party (PC) Dan Voiculescu.
“It’s clear that this media exists to serve his interests,” says Avadani.
But journalists are not issued with daily emails, written by an invisible hand, telling them what they can and cannot right.
Instead, many anticipate their bosses’ needs in the stories they choose and the tone they adopt. Therefore, self-censorship is the new phantom that the free press must contend with.
All three major groups are dividing up the market of TV, radio and newsprint. Although they may not have a monopoly on one form of media, they have a staggering influence over total media consumption.
Mircea Toma, director of the MMA, says that consolidation should not allow audio-visual and print to mix.
“Print versus audio-visual is important,” he says.
This means there should be tougher cross-media ownership laws, argues Toma.
Wanted: donors for media monitoring
NGO Media Monitoring Agency (MMA), which was previously set up in collaboration with Academia Catavencu, is not part of Vantu’s deal for buying the group. This leaves the only agency watching media independence with a need for donors at a critical moment in the heated debate over media influence. “We will need donors to keep working on projects,” says director Mircea Toma. In terms of funding, Toma says there is not a culture of local business and individuals as donors yet. “Businesses are much more interested in visible NGOs – such as football clubs and humanitarian groups,” he says.
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