Vladimir Mitev: Romanian journalists defend their name through their work

A look at the Romanian press and journalism in Bulgaria

Nikoleta Atanasova, Bulgarian National Radio, 20 October 2023

Vladimir Mitev, from the Romanian section of the Bulgarian National Radio, commented on the journalism and media programme Network, during the cultural programme Hristo Botev of the Bulgarian National Radio, what is similar and what is different between the Romanian and Bulgarian media, as well as what happened to the editor-in-chief of the Gazeta Sporturilor Cătălin Țepelin

Thank you for agreeing to comment on the Romanian media and their activity in general, how they are and are not similar to the Bulgarian media. But before we get into this part of our conversation, please provide some more context about the specific case that provoked our conversation.

Right. The context should go in different directions.

First, some of our listeners may have had the opportunity to see the film Colectiv. It was nominated for an Oscar and is a documentary that shows, among other things, the successes of Romanian investigative journalism. In this film, the media outlet that makes major revelations about hospital violations, disinfectants, leading to deaths, is Gazeta Sporturilor. That same newspaper is now the focus of our attention.

I say this because our colleagues at Libertatea and Gazeta Sporturilor, who are in one and the same building, in the same media group, have the self-confidence that they are really doing journalism, they have investigative teams. Libertatea is the newspaper with the largest circulation in Romania. And these people have the feeling that they cannot compromise what they do for work.

On the other hand, in Romania, as in our country, come the gambling companies. They are big advertisers. And, on top of that, the case itself is being circulated that the former now editor-in-chief Cătălin Țepelin was asked to provide articles related to the gambling business to the management, which, in the case of Gazeta Sporturilor, is Swiss-Bulgarian, because the Bulgarian company Sportal is also linked to Gazeta Sporturilor.

He refused to provide this information because he apparently thought that it would somehow perhaps get to the gambling companies or be altered and on that basis this conflict arose. The management itself says that the accusations of the editorial staff and journalists are false. For their part, the journalists, the newsroom and the former editor-in-chief claim that there was an attempt to interfere in their activities.

Well, that’s it in a nutshell. Ringier, the parent company, has said that separating commercial and editorial activities is a problem for themselves. I don’t know exactly what they put into that. But as a journalist, do you think it’s a problem that articles are solicited before they can be published? I mean, did our colleagues there react correctly by refusing to provide material in advance?

I tend to take their position based on what I know. Of course, I don’t have all the information, but it seems to me that journalists know what they are doing, and in a media organisation it is normal for journalists to have a lot of control over editorial policy. They probably knew what would happen if they allowed some of their publications to be vetted, so to speak, by management. Maybe there are some things that have built up over the years. In fact, even the editorial director of Libertatea, Cătălin Tolontan, mentioned that there have been such cases in their work.

So there are a lot of details and a lot of context that we have to take into account when we evaluate these decisions. But I think journalists know what they are doing. They do it every day and they are aware of things.

It was good to hear a few moments ago from Iulia Roșu that there is pressure on journalists there as well as in Bulgaria. It is clear that there are economic constraints, political constraints and all kinds of constraints which in turn reflect on how they do their work. From that point of view, it is obvious that these problems are similar to the ones in Bulgarian media. And how do they differ?

Yes, there are indeed common problems. Even the Romanian press itself points out the big problem that party funding, party subsidies go to the press, i.e. influence is bought. In this way, many media outlets also stop being critical of the parties that finance them in one form or another. But there are, I think, some differences.

For example, in Romania there is more developed investigative journalism. There just seems to be a demand and a desire in society itself to support journalists and the media who develop such journalism. One example is the Recorder. This is a medium that perhaps in the future we could explore even further with your listeners. This medium does quite serious investigations. There doesn’t seem to be anyone who has protection for it. And at the same time, it is funded by its readers themselves, which probably gives it more independence.

It’s interesting. Remember what you mean. I can’t help but interject here. There have been attempts at investigative journalism in Bulgaria too, more than one or two, but none of these journalists currently have a national circulation, so to speak. They have all been pushed into a corner. And this is clearly not the case in Romania. Society supports them. How will they cope with the pressure? Because no politician likes to be investigated. That’s clear, isn’t it? The question is: who is protecting the journalists there?

My feeling is that there is indeed more public support. Journalism is not seen as such an offensive profession, as it often seems to me in this country. And there doesn’t seem to be so much division in this country, where it seems to me that the media is very divided and polarized. Broadly speaking, who’s with Soros, who’s with Russia. We ourselves, journalists, put such labels on each other and look at each other with a knife in our paws.

It seems to me that in Romania there are more people than in the press who are somehow universally accepted and respected. They go beyond the boundaries of one group or another and maybe that also gives them self-confidence. I think when you work as a professional and you see that you do things in a good way and you see public support for your work, I think you can’t help but have more self-confidence and want more.

A little while ago, I was talking to Nikolay Tulechky in the studio about the various hidden doors through which attempts, often successful, to have a divided society in Bulgaria by all sorts of opinions, including the promotion of the most obvious nonsense, slip through. This phenomenon is the subject of the study by Nikolay Tulechky and Ralitsa Kovacheva, who call bullshit the rattling of nonsense also on serious topics, such as the wars we are currently witnessing. I am referring to the one in Ukraine and the one in Gaza.

How do you think they should defend their journalists, knowing that there are forces, let’s call them that in general, although it sounds rather conspiratorial, that are willing to divide society, how do you think they should defend their journalists’ names so that this society respects them and trusts them?

I think hard work is the first thing. It has to be as accurate and perhaps as honest as possible. I think if journalists are honest with their readers, if they are clear about the limits of their knowledge and at the same time have the courage to ask uncomfortable questions or tackle difficult subjects, that can only gain trust, and it seems to me that trust is the main problem for many journalists in our region.

I understand that at this point we are entering a kind of speculative slippery slope. But anyway, there are journalists in Bulgaria who have honestly asked uncomfortable questions and whose voices are almost nowhere to be heard at the moment. And this is the paradox in society as well. The journalistic community in Bulgaria does not take their side. But we see something completely different in Romania, despite the SLAPP cases, which force journalists to self-censor and feel cornered and so on. We know how they chased away the editor-in-chief of that Romanian publication with applause. The whole editorial board came out and supported him.

That does not happen here. That is the parallel I am trying to talk about.

Yes, it seems to me that in Romania the press that matters very much, at least the press that is somehow generally accepted and respected. Sometimes I do correspondence for Radio Romania. I have cases where a person, an acquaintance of mine in Romania, hears what I say and calls me as a form of reaction, a desire to communicate. And I have the impression that the media in Romania has a very strong influence on society. They just have an audience. I don’t know to what extent our media has such an involved, engaged, loyal audience.

I think that our society, the people themselves, the media users, often feel stressed, often have little time, little energy to do whatever they have in front of them as tasks. And this is also kind of the element of the whole thing. Somehow it seems to me that Romanian citizens feel perhaps more secure and more able to choose.

That was interesting. We’ll continue with you further on my discussions about the Romanian press. For now, thank you very much. Vladimir Mitev, our guest and colleague from the Romanian section of Bulgarian National Radio. Thank you again!

Photo: Vladimir Mitev (source: Bulgarian National Radio)

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