Experts’ predictions of further threats to media freedom don’t reflect the whole story.
Repeating an observation made over the last few years by media analysts, the media watchdog for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has dire predictions for journalistic freedom.
Teresa Ribeiro, the OSCE’s media freedom chief, told the organization’s permanent council in her biannual report last month that there is a “shrinking space for media freedom and a declining safety of journalists in the OSCE region.”
Among former communist countries in Europe, she singled out 12: Armenia, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czechia, Hungary, Montenegro, Poland, Russia, Slovenia, and Ukraine.
Unfortunately, Ribeiro failed to mention Romania.
That European Union member country has experienced 30 years of extensive politicization of the media; barefaced, self-serving exploitation by politician-businessmen media owners; brazen state and government manipulation; and an unmistakable spoliation of the hoped-for professionalization of journalists.
That makes Romania’s media’s undeservedly lofty 48th place among 180 nations in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) 2021 World Press Freedom ranking a concerning demonstration of RSF’s injudicious dismissal – or willful nonobservance? – of reality.
It’s an enduring truism that accurate description and assessment of actuality hinges not on the answers given in a study but on the questions asked.
The political invasion of “the free space of the press” is worsened by the media’s “obedience and silence” in the face of state, governments, media owners, and politicians’ draining their independence and professionalism, writes media analyst Brindusa Armanca.
How can Romanian media be assigned such an elevated ranking when their journalists practice a “transactional,” sensational journalism devoid of ethics, as Armanca believes?
Furthermore, Romanian journalists live on the “knife’s edge,” writes Sabina Fati, former managing editor of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Romanian service. The state of the profession is “on the verge of extinction,” she says, because the so-called news media are no more than public relations outlets and entertainment purveyors.
To make matters worse, journalists are intellectually lazy and have their own agenda “paralleling” the public interest, Fati says. The recent departure of many of the more experienced professionals has further reduced the quality of Romanian journalism. It is a downward spiral helped along by the decline in journalistic “conscience” and the attendant rise in “superficiality” among many left in the industry.
Journalists often self-censor, thus perverting a profession that cannot survive without chasing the truth and shining light on “the corrupt mechanisms of power and the imbalances” in what is meant to be a state of laws.
In fact, many media moguls ensure their outlets sabotage anti-corruption policies. The justice system as a news topic is marginalized by media conglomerates in order to give the impression that “anti-corruption is either a fad or a political weapon excessively used against big-name criminals, who deserve more deference,” Fati says.
Besides the less than transparent policies of privately owned media conglomerates in Romania, the “politicization and general lack of performance” of the public broadcasters is a perennial topic of discussion, Armanca observes.
These are no small peccadilloes by those in power, or by the journalists. The mirror that media are expected to hold up to society is “dirty,” Armanca says.
In the face of this sleaziness, a handful of journalists “retain both their courage and independence” and refuse to bow to the pressures from politicians, the legal system, “or even from the big intelligence services,” Fati argues. They “continue to write in detail about the bad odors in the bowels of politics … about the interconnections of politics with [the legal system], or even about the press that serves politics.”
But anomalies do not justify Romanian media’s high perch on the RSF media freedom rankings, nor permit media freedom watchdogs to ignore troubling indicators.
Indeed, other post-communist countries with media mirrors “dirty” enough to fail their audiences should not be overlooked either; or those with media inhibited from carrying out their centrally important task in societies precariously balanced between democracy and illiberalism or autocracy; or countries where journalists are harassed, threatened, and hindered from carrying out their vital métier.
The OSCE report also should have included countries placed in the lower half of the RSF rankings: North Macedonia (ranked 90th), where government officials insult and threaten media outlets, and journalists are harassed and verbally attacked; Moldova (89th), where oligarchs have unrestrained influence, and media owners ensure the editorial line of their outlets parallels their political and business interests; Serbia (93rd), where government-backed media spread fake news and the ruling elite and pro-government media insult journalists daily; and Slovakia (35th), where journalists and their sources lack protection and editorial independence is limited, thanks to oligarchs’ increasing grip.
Peter Gross, Ph.D., is professor emeritus in the School of Journalism and Electronic Media at the University of Tennessee. He has written extensively on the subject of East European media and their evolution since 1989.