I met Ioan Ghise almost 15 years ago when he was mayor of the city of Brasov, central Romania. I was a newspaper reporter trying to chase down allegations that Ghise was using his position for personal gain, and I must have annoyed him a lot, to the point that he once complained to my boss that I had followed him as far as the Black Sea town where he was taking a holiday. The truth is that I happened to be on vacation myself in the same resort. But it is equally true that I was as absorbed with the mayor’s political career as he was with my work.
In the end, following several investigations, I realized that Ghise was an honest and decent man, relatively coherent in his political thinking and possessed of a pleasant and reassuring openness with journalists. I appreciated him even more for the way he stood apart from a political scene personified by corrupt officials and their extremely intemperate behavior and language.
Ghise warmed the mayor’s chair in Brasov for eight years until 2004, then began a climb up the political ladder. He now represents his party, the National Liberals, in the Senate, the Romanian upper house of parliament. For several years he has been obsessed with the state of the media in Romania. He is one of the few politicians to consistently deplore the disturbing violence and rudeness in the Romanian media. And he wants to do something for the better. It’s just that most of the ideas he puts forward are off the wall.
ROUNDING UP THE SHEEP?
On 29 September, Ghise personally submitted to the Senate a proposed law aimed at “regulating the concept of journalism as well as at curtailing the abuse [of journalists] by authorities or private owners of mass media outlets.” Ghise believes, and rightly so, that journalists are in the intolerable position of not being able to do their job because of pressure from their owners. This pressure, often leading to self-censorship, turns reporters into manipulators guided solely by the owners’ interests, whether political, economic, or personal in nature. Ghise’s bill was not endorsed by his party, however. And his colleagues had good reason to distance themselves from his proposals.
According to the bill, journalists would be required to have official ID, be licensed every three years and checked psychologically every year. The journalist IDs would be issued by a national college of journalists comprising previously-vetted media professionals. People convicted of a raft of crimes from theft to treason would not be allowed to work as journalists.
Drawing on modern methods of media self-regulation from more advanced democracies, Ghise proposes a new institution of mass media ombudsman to monitor and sanction Romanian journalists. But his notion of media ombudsman, a Scandinavian concept at its roots, is somewhat eccentric, too. The office would consist of media owners, a representative of civil society, and academics with a media background. The office would have the power to suspend journalists found guilty of committing “press crimes.”
The better to keep journalists under close scrutiny, the bill proposes that they be affiliated to practices, like notaries or dentists. Anyone operating outside the established practices would be liable to a fine equivalent to three average monthly salaries. Moreover, editors and media owners who published damaging articles in breach of the profession’s norms as set out in the bill could be hit with fines of six average salaries.
Finally, in order to better inform the public about the process of producing news, Ghise’s draft distinguishes between rumors, news, and opinion, and calls on media outlets to ensure “full transparency” regarding their ownership and management.
This bill is not Ghise’s first dance with media policy.
SWEET AND SOUR NEWS
In 2008 Ghise proposed amendments to the broadcasting law that perplexed the industry in Romania and many journalists elsewhere. The proposal he initiated along with Senator Gheorghe Funar, a feisty nationalist and former member of the populist, right-wing Greater Romania Party, was simple. Romanian broadcasters would be required to air equal amounts of positive and negative news.
The controversial provisions were rejected by the lower chamber of parliament. Then, in the face of criticism from politicians, the broadcast regulator, and the media, the amendments were approved by the Senate as part of a larger package of legal amendments that was rushed through just before parliament’s summer break, only to be scrapped that same summer by the Romanian constitutional court. Ghise didn’t give up. In 2009 he said he would try again to submit the amendments, and even promised to come up with a set of criteria for “positive” and “negative” news.
Impractical as Ghise’s solutions may be, his arguments are indisputably solid. He says that journalists are tools in the hands of their owners. This is the raw truth and spates of surveys and studies in recent years have documented it. The Romanian media are controlled by a handful of powerful businessmen with close links to politicians and political parties.
Ghise says that savagery and bad behavior are wildly overexposed in the media, particularly in broadcasting. True. News reporters relentlessly chase rapes, beatings, and brawls. TV news shows allocate generous time to segments about thugs, populist politicians, and underworld heroes.
I would add here the sloppiness in reporting, partly because of the pathetic resources available for news gathering, partly because of the declining respect for journalistic integrity. Articles bristle with inaccuracies, repetition, contradictions, incomplete information.
The problem in this entire saga is not Ghise, but the journalism community in Romania. Ghise’s misconceived efforts to improve journalism through legislation are only underlining the point that the journalistic profession, to remain true to its principles, must regulate itself. Any move to clean up this profession must come from inside.
Marius Dragomir is a media analyst in London.