On Monday the European Union issued its first ever report on corruption, which caused a media sensation worldwide as it was the first time that people had hard numbers of just how bad the situation is.
Every member state was included in the report, including Romania (PDF), a lengthy document that deserves in-depth analysis.
However, I was immediately drawn to a paragraph (page 5) concerning the media in this country:
Media and access to information.
Objective reporting has deteriorated over the past years and journalism is ‘often overruled by the vested interests and political affiliations of the media outlets’ owners’, including at times intimidation of magistrates or anti-corruption actors.
Limits on media freedom further reduced access to information countrywide. This is compounded by the fact that Romania has the lowest rate of internet coverage in the EU.
Poor implementation of legislation regulating access to information also affects the capacity to prevent and control corruption. Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press 2013 index ranked Romania with a score that qualifies it as ‘partially free’.
As I’ve already discussed at length in the Black Hole of Romania, anyone who is getting their news from Romanian-language sources is already at a severe disadvantage. This fact, combined with the lowest rate of internet “coverage”, is truly discouraging.
It should be noted here that the EU report here is misusing the word “coverage”. I’ve traveled all over Romania and gotten an excellent signal for my mobile phone just about everywhere outside of a few mountain valleys. Therefore anyone with a “smart” or internet-enabled phone could easily access the internet, even from remote rural locations.
Furthermore, years ago I lived in an isolated village and used a wireless modem (from Zapp, now a defunct mobile provider) to access the internet without any problems in coverage. The three major mobile providers here in Romania offer this service both for tablets as well as “old-fashioned” computers via a USB device. Even a pre-paid mobile SIM card for a phone includes data transfer.
Again, this means that if Romanians aren’t accessing the internet, it isn’t because they are unable to, only that they are not motivated to do so. Romanians certainly have near-universal access to mobile phones, so it’s only the internet which doesn’t interest them (I should add here that low-cost used mobile phones with internet capabilities, even if not true “smart” phones, are quite abundant).
Freedom House, in their latest report, uses the more correct term “penetration” when discussing Romania’s astonishingly low rate of internet usage. From FH’s report:
The private media sector is dominated by powerful Romanian businessmen with political interests and holdings in other industries. Most major outlets display a strong bias toward one of the country’s main political blocs.
During July and August 2012, as Ponta and the USL sought unsuccessfully to oust Băsescu in a contentious impeachment referendum, government officials and their media allies publicly smeared a number of journalists who worked for foreign outlets. The correspondents, who included both foreign citizens and Romanians, were accused of spreading negative misinformation about Romania abroad and of being paid agents of Băsescu.
Senate leader Crin Antonescu, serving as interim president during the impeachment process, threatened to use the external intelligence service to investigate what he described as an organized effort to damage the country’s image through the media.
I certainly remember those heady days and these paragraphs are, sadly, quite true. But for me this paragraph is the telling one:
Individual journalists suffer from low pay and are susceptible to various forms of financial and editorial pressure from owners and advertisers.
I’ve done dozens of interviews with various newspapers and television stations over the years and spent a lot of time with those journalists. With one rare exception (Alex Dima of ProTV), all of the journalists I met were severely underpaid, poorly trained, utterly incurious about the current state of affairs (both in Romania as well as the rest of the world) and completely lacking in basic investigatory skills.
In fact, for the last two interviews I did in 2013, I was the one who told the journalists what to ask me and then I provided the same pat answers, precisely because I had correctly predicted what they wanted as the whole process has become tiresomely formulaic for me.
The decision of which stories to report and who to interview is in the hands of only a small group of people, all of whom are in Bucharest (answering to the “barons” who run the media as a vanity political propaganda unit because no one in this country can make a profit from the news).
There are no scenes of eager journalists telling their boss that they’ve got a “hot lead” on a story or clandestine meetings with deep cover sources. Instead, all the media (with a few, rare exceptions) are run as a top-down hierarchy, with a few career bosses telling an army of low-paid temporary workers where to go and what stories to cover.
Frankly there is an informational “black hole” in this country in which the inwardly-focused, autocratic views of a handful of people in Bucharest are being beamed out to the entire nation and only a handful of intrepid souls have the wherewithal or courage to self-educate themselves from other sources on the internet (that aren’t Romanian blogs, which are worse than useless).
It’s a sad and ironic fate for this country that what Ceausescu and the Communists had to do via censorship and the secret police is now effected simply by apathy and inertia.