In Other Words
Romania’s Too-Free Press
Dilema, Bucharest, August 18-24, 2000 The last decade started well for Romanian mass media. Former communist President Nicolae Ceausescu’s propagandists apologized for their years of manufactured reporting, and the country as a whole seemed ready to adopt a Western-style free press. Ten years later, however, Romania is besieged by tabloids — free, perhaps, but hardly ...
Dilema, Bucharest, August 18-24, 2000
The last decade started well for Romanian mass media. Former communist President Nicolae Ceausescu’s propagandists apologized for their years of manufactured reporting, and the country as a whole seemed ready to adopt a Western-style free press. Ten years later, however, Romania is besieged by tabloids — free, perhaps, but hardly nobler or better behaved than their communist predecessors. When Adrian Sârbu, Romania’s main media mogul, told the bbc that nobody can compel him to abide by a bad tax law, Romanians did not know whether to celebrate the power of the free press or shake their heads at Romania’s nonexistent rule of law and feeble civil society.
A whole issue of Dilema, a Romanian intellectual weekly, focuses on the Romanian media’s abuses of their newfound power. Mircea Toma, an independent media analyst, discusses Sârbu and the Romanian government’s inability to keep up with his new breed of media elite. Sârbu, who got his start in 1990 as a spokesperson for Ion Iliescu’s authoritarian government, has turned into a champion of the new, capitalist press. He owns Romania’s major press agency, a daily newspaper, a chain of FM radio stations, and parts of two TV channels. Plus, he recently acquired the country’s only movie studio and its only newsprint factory. Such moguls, and their tabloids, have their way in Romania’s corrupt state, Toma argues. Some of them not only refuse to pay taxes, but blackmail a range of government officials: mayors in order to escape paying rent, directors of privatizing agencies to win bids at favored prices, and enforcement agents to look the other way.
Cornel Nistorescu, editor of the daily Evenimentul Zilei, partly owned by German media giant Bertelsmann comes to the same conclusion. But he blames weak politicians, not an overpowering press. The government has never supported actively decommunizing the media. When former apparatchik Iliescu came to power in 1990, he opposed any kind of purge based on former Communist Party membership, arguing that too many Romanians had a communist past. Romania’s state television, whose staff remains virtually unchanged since Ceausescu’s time, survived even the more liberal regime of Iliescu’s successor, Emil Constantinescu. Nearly all of Romania’s current mainstream media managers held important positions in Ceausescu’s time. The young anticommunists who invaded the press in 1990 have either languished low on the masthead or given up journalism altogether, frustrated by politics, corruption, and low salaries.
Political scientists claim the media never swing public opinion more than 5 percent in any direction. But influence over 5 percent seems enough in Romania. The entrepreneurs running Romania’s new media appear savvier than the politicians they elect. And the press need not worry about majorities; it can bully whoever is in power. Criticize the media, and how do tabloid entrepreneurs like Sârbu respond? That you can’t expect the press to behave any better than its government.