Main opposition and journalists voice their concerns
In an effort to help the Romanian press cope with the crisis caused by the coronavirus, the government will be allocating a total of 200 million lei to launch a communication campaign on tackling the spread of COVID-19, which will take place over the next four months according to reports. The funds will be shared between television, electronic and local press.
In the last two days, several teleconferences have been held in the presence of representatives of the media industry and government officials at the level of the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the head of the Prime Minister’s Office. The government wanted to be briefed on the positions of the press on a regulatory act that would provide for the creation of a state-funded communication campaign on COVID-19 that would be advertised by the national, local and regional press.
The amount provided is 50 million lei per month for four months, and concerns the entire Romanian press. The talks focused on the criteria to be taken into account when allocating resources and the mechanism of signing public contracts.
Admittedly, the local press has been hit hard since small businesses – restaurants, shops, hairdressers, agriculture or processing – closed all at once. The local press has been absent since 2008-2010 since the onset of the economic crisis, when it became captive at the hands of the local barons or was exploited with ease for political purposes. For those who resisted by maintaining their independence, the critical moment has come.
During a discussion moderated by Ionel Dancă, head of the Prime Minister’s Office, Raluca Turcan, Deputy Prime Minister and Prime Minister Ludovic Orban, it was underlined that the independence of journalists and media outlets would not be affected, and no additional obligation would be imposed other than to publish, according to a contract, information material on the crisis of the coronavirus.
The criteria agreed with all representatives of the media sector are the uninterrupted operation of the media for six months before the crisis, the absence of any pending debts to the state, and for at least two full-time employees or four part-time employees to be on the payroll.
Media outlets that have an electronic and printed version can request that the communication campaign be advertised in both forms of publication, receiving twice the amount provided. Local TV stations and radio stations will receive funding based on an audience analysis, the number of employees and the percentage of participation of the production itself in the amounts allocated, and with a fixed amount equal for everyone.
The BRAT Romanian Bureau of Transmission Control has summarized some of the requirements, which concern the press as a whole. The proposals of the BRAT and the Romanian Communications Regulatory Authority (ARCA) were presented at the end of March during preliminary meetings with the government on the issue of Press support.
The BRAT proposal also includes ethical criteria for future tax breaks: “Those affected are legal publishers, who focus on providing objective information to the public and do not resort to false or misleading news”. Those who promote “fake news” with misleading headlines, on the contrary, are favored during this period: they do not have ads from large companies and “moral” investors in advertising; they accept any kind of advertising through global or regional automated platforms, from non-real legal entities who often do not follow proper information rules or do not comply with their tax obligations.
As for the online press, the audience of which has grown during the COVID-19 crisis, it is difficult to resolve the issue of dealing with false competitors. Measures taken by military decrees to block sites that spread false information are inadequate. We are currently working on a draft regulatory plan that will be submitted to the government for approval next week, after being reviewed by representatives of the media industry.
It was suggested that the TV channels that produce news programs, that provide information, and include discussions and panels on current affairs be taken into account. Public television and public radio, channels funded by the church or universities, are considered ineligible because they are funded by the state budget anyway.
No ethical criteria have been discussed even though there is the CNA National Audiovisual Center, an authority that although flawed, indeed punishes deviations.
Hence the skepticism of several journalists who have shared their thoughts online and are doing everything they can. Significant amounts could be directed to channels owned by controversial businessmen with obvious political interests, such as the Voiculescu family, Sebastian Ghiță, the businessman sentenced to prison, Maricel Păcuraru, the publications of Dan Andronic or Bogdan Chirieac, for whom there is a significant portion that believes he embodies corruption, underground connections with undeclared interests and partisanship.
“We, G4Media.ro, did not participate in the negotiations because we do not agree, from a moral and ethical perspective, with the immediate distribution of money to the press, especially in view of double elections (local and parliamentary). Of course, we fully understand the difficulties, especially in the case of the local press, which has been particularly struck during this period, and a possible solution would be tax breaks for the payment of contributions and taxes for the media, instead of receiving money directly from the government”, Cristian Pantazi, publisher of G4Media, told Radio Free Europe.
However, the good news is that the prime minister has promised to pay some of the wages of those who are unemployed and used to work for companies, including the media, after the state of emergency is lifted, while the same time the unemployment measure will be abolished.
MEP and Vice President of the Union Save Romania USR Iulian Bulai asked for the opinion of many prominent officials in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) on the Romanian government’s decision to allocate € 42 million to the media via this form of advertising/communication campaigns, for the next four months. The MEP penned letters to Olivier Becht, Chairman of the Committee on Culture, Science, Education and Mass Media, and to Stefan Schennah, PACE General Rapporteur on the Freedom of the Press and the Safety of Journalists.
In the documents submitted, Iulian Bulai, who is also the USR’s representative at PACE and a member of the Monitoring Committee of the Assembly, drew attention to the fact that, although the pretext for funding is to support an awareness campaign around the coronavirus crisis, it could in fact be interpreted as a “latent inducement” granted to the press in the context of this year’s local and parliamentary elections, given that this method of media support can be found nowhere in other EU countries. “The timing of this awareness campaign coincides with the local and national election campaign. As a result, there is a suspicion that the government is trying to buy out the Romanian press, which has already been hit by the current crisis. In my view, this action will affect the independence of the Romanian media and will have implications for Romanian democracy during the election year. Through this approach, I would also like to know the opinion of some very important actors in this field of activity within the framework of PACE”, said Iulian Bulai. /ibna