Iulia Roșu: Attacks on press independence are attacks on democracy

An interview about a concrete case and some principles in the journalism profession in Romania

Vladimir Mitev, Bulgarian National Radio, 23.10.2023

Vladimir Mitev interviewed the deputy editor of Libertatea newspaper Iulia Roșu for the emission on media and journalism The Network of the Hristo Botev cultural programme of the Bulgarian National Radio. The discussion took place a few weeks after Cătălin Țepelin – editor-in-chief of Gazeta Sporturilor, a sports media, which like Libertatea is controlled by the Ringier trust, was forced to resign.

What laws, rules and procedures are in place to protect the editorial independence of the Romanian press? How often do cases arise in Romania, in which journalists’ freedom is curtailed? How do colleagues at Libertatea and Gazeta Sporturilor (GSP) feel after GSP editor-in-chief Cătălin Țepelin was made to leave?

Ms Rosu, we are talking a few weeks after the editor-in-chief of Gazeta Sporturilor Cătălin Țepelin had to leave, as he refused to deliver some betting industry-related material to the company’s management. What provisions, what procedures, what rules are in place to guarantee independence and editorial freedom for journalists in Romania?

Indeed, first of all, it is worth mentioning that Gazeta Sporturilor in Romania is part of the sports division of Ringier, which is called Ringier Sports Media Group and has a Swiss-Bulgarian management (Sportal Media Group is the Bulgarian company that makes part of this sports division). 

The editorial interference accused by our newsrooms came from the managers of this sports division. But the journalist’s accusations of wrongdoings were declared by the management as false accusations, in a press release.

However, any interference in the editorial, be it of a political, economic, commercial or ownership nature, is prohibited under Romanian law. It is also forbidden, based on ECHR case law and, moreover, on the law recently adopted by the European Commission. In the case of journalists from Libertatea and Gazeta Sporturilor, this type of commercial or any other kind of editorial intervention is forbidden even by the rules of our own press group, the Ringier trust, laid down in the Code of Conduct and in this Editorial Mission Statement, where it is stated that, and I quote, “Our journalists are uncompromising in the face of influence from individuals, companies and authorities”. 

So clearly there are several laws covering and ensuring editorial independence, and journalists in the two newsrooms have primarily resisted attempts to alter editorial content in favour of betting firms or in favour of any other firms with which the company has advertising contracts. Journalism in the public interest cannot be subservient to economic and political interests or power. And that’s what European law says.

Can you say how many or how often such cases occur in the Romanian media?

I think there are different cases, depending on their subject, so to speak. If we are talking about SLAPP type lawsuits, Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, they are quite frequent in Romania, almost the order of the day, and their purpose is rather to make journalists censor themselves. Because often journalists, as a result of the articles they write – we are looking here at investigations, but als even at news – can be subsequently and are even taken to court. They can end up in lawsuits that are long, and costly, and exhausting, which can really lead to self-censorship.

Then, lately, we have also seen cases where the police or other state structures have intervened in the work of journalists or following the work of journalists. Better still, we have had cases in which the DIICOT raided a newsroom in Braila and accused a journalist of child pornography, only for his case to subsequently be closed and the indictment dismissed by the court, simply because the journalist had written a harsh article against the Braila police chief. We have had cases in which journalists at Romania’s public radio station have been disciplined by the institution where they worked because they publicly accused the station of politicising its editorial content. There is also the well-known case of investigative journalist Emilia Șercan, who accused the police of compromising her with intimate photos of her that were leaked to the press after she published an investigation in which she revealed that the then Prime Minister Nicolae Ciuca had plagiarised her PhD thesis. There are and have been cases after the Revolution (1989) in which journalists have either been intimidated or have suffered abuse at the hands of their employers. 

Maybe at that time there was not so much or transparent discussion about these things and that’s why it was important for us to talk openly about what happened at Gazeta Sporturilor and to bring it to public attention.

What is the spirit of Libertatea and Gazeta Sporturilor journalists now – a few weeks after the editor-in-chief of Gazeta Sporturilor had to leave?

You realise that the situation at the moment is quite difficult for all of us. But despite a year that was sad for Libertatea for several reasons, including the loss of two colleagues (the death of Iulia Marin and Mihnea Vasiliu, editor’s note), both teams continued their work with professionalism and showed that they work together and work as well as they have done so far. We see that, just while on one side, the removal of editor-in-chief Cătălin Țepelin was taking place, another Gazeta colleague was away in Canada to understand and reveal what happened in the case of Simone Halep. An investigation that would otherwise not have been possible without editorial freedom, would not have been possible if journalists wrote only this content, a content that would favour the betting companies. It would not have been possible if journalists only wrote texts that they wanted to turn their own readers into gamblers. Because that’s what we see is likely to happen and that’s a legitimate fear we have. 

And I think it is important for us as journalists to respect our editorial independence, whether we are talking about journalists at Gazeta Sporturilor or other journalists at Libertatea, from other editorial offices in Romania. Because, first and foremost, we serve the public interest.

And the public must know that an attack on the press is an attack on democracy and on their right to be informed correctly and honestly. And this is what we fight for, this is what we work for every day, and this is our aim – to defend this right, first of all, and to make a very clear demarcation between what is advertising – advertising contracts are normal in any trust, in any company, but they must never interfere in editorial; just as no one outside the newsroom has the right to see an article written, whether it is news or investigative. No one outside the newsroom should see the article before it is published. And this is a principle we hold very dear.

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