Romania does not come across as a shining example in any of the international indicators regarding press freedom and media pluralism. While the Russian threat is not absent in the country, domestic political competition and an overzealous, propagandistic state authority stand in the way of a better functioning media landscape.
Romania is on the eve of a presidential election, which will take place this November. Media activity has mirrored closely the current political atmosphere. Tensions in the form of protests, a manipulative referendum and the collapse of the ruling coalition, have had repercussions on the media environment.
The chief anxiety inside and outside of Romania is related to corruption. Both the authorities and their critics have relied on a anti-corruption narrative to build a campaign strategy. However, beyond the usual political propaganda, there is also a distortion of reality. This primarily concerns the provision of reliable information through the media.
The Protecting Veil
Romania and other EU members from the region, face crucial challenges in the informational domain. Part of these come from Russia, where the Kremlin considers that Western values and liberal democracy are ideologically hostile to its regional ambitions. Central and Eastern Europe, which has a limited ability in dealing with disinformation and interference, struggles to manage an increasingly hostile environment.
Romanian journalists still believe that their informational environment somehow is protected from external threats, although this is far from the truth. In terms of the spread of fake news, Romania ranks first among EU member states according to Eurobarometer data.
The Russian annexation of Crimea and attack on Ukraine went together with a new era of information warfare. Ukraine became a training ground for propaganda and media content that sought to provoke and divide society. In a similar vein, the Baltic States were subject to increased influence.
Russia has a wide range of tactics at its disposal to retain influence in the region. These include the provision of financial aid to fringe political parties, provoke civil unrest and the spread of “fake news” and propaganda. Even journalists are not safeguarded from targeted campaigns. The external threat is often sustained by internal actors, who are either manipulated or intentionally seek to damage the public sphere.
Romania is only now catching up with some of its more active neighbours, who have begun to expose and fight propaganda coming from abroad.
Romanian journalists have started to pay attention to such external threats. At the same time, the situation is complicated by the fact that the current government is itself an important producer of disinformation in the country.
Disinformation close to home
“The current Romanian regime cannot protect the public sphere from disinformation because it is a fake news generator in its own right,” notes Cristian Iohan Ştefănescu from Digi FM. “They spread propaganda, they share lies.” Ever since the fall of the dictatorship, back in 1989, the post-communist PSD party has controlled the state media and also the private outlets through political and economic censorship.
Most of the impact from disinformation in Romania has been provided in the form of manipulative campaigns and the distribution of fake news. The latter just took place during the preparatory period for a referendum on the definition of “a family”. The ruling party sought to fix a traditional family-model in the Constitution. The referendum was seen as a particularly toxic example of a disinformation campaign.
“There are two types of approaches, the one coming from the East and the other from the West,” explains journalist Iulia Lisman. The ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD) is more critical of the West, simply because the wide-spread corruption in its circles has exposed it pressure and accusations from Western partners. In contrast, Romania has felt no pressure from the East to change business as usual when it pertains to disinformation.
The result is high levels of fake news, which has an impact on uninformed and fearful citizens who mostly live in what is the so-called “Deep Romania”, the rural or post-industrial part of the country.
While the EU is combatting Russian propaganda, Romanian journalists claim that the main threat to ethical journalism and press freedom is the propaganda originating from the ruling parties.
“Most of the anti-democratic narratives come from internal actors, since foreign provocateurs and manipulators are well isolated in the public sphere”, claims Ştefănescu.
Romanian politics does not shy away from silencing journalists, by way of administrative mechanisms. State resources are used to cause difficulties for journalists, through pressure on their work conditions, repeated tax audits or unexpected charges. There are also examples when accreditation is denied due to “uncomfortable” questions asked by journalists in the past.
The Romanian Centre of the Independent Journalism blames the authorities for the obstruction of the journalistic activities and the limitations set on the right to information.
It also should not come as a surprise that 10 media owners are targeted, at the moment, for criminal proceedings by the Anti-Corruption Bureau (DNA) and national prosecutors.
While Romania has launched some modest initiatives aimed at improving the circulation of truthful information, they have not had a major impact. One of the problems arises from the fact that these initiatives do not involve any cooperation with academia or NGOs, and avoids engagement with practising journalists.
However, in the spring of 2019, an umbrella organisation of Romanian NGOs launched a “lie detector” project to reveal fake news, in collaboration with the University of Bucharest.
Ştefănescu considers that the Romanian society “lives through its democratic puberty, and like every teenager, it believes that nothing can go wrong, so it refuses to take lessons from the experienced ones.”
While the first steps are taken, many Romanian journalists have not yet set a clear goal to fight against disinformation.
Many Romanian journalists see no reason to contribute to a healthy media environment, because if the press would only be ethical and transparent, it would become hard for them to survive as propaganda tools for politicians and the authorities.