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AEJ finds press freedom crumbling across eastern Europe

Romania’s foreign minister, Teodor Baconschi, told journalists who gathered in Bucharest from all over Europe last weekend at the annual Congress of the Association of European Journalists that “there is a lot of corruption in politics and the press” in Romania.

The remark reinforced the analysis of Freedom House, an international media monitoring organisation, that the Romanian media are dominated by “a handful of owners with both political and business interests”.

Mr Baconschi blamed what he called the “dark side” of collusion between certain businesses and professional journalists for a general trend in Romania, in which, he said, journalists act like mercenaries, peddling propaganda and stirring up mistrust instead of reporting on matters of public interests in ways that strengthen democracy.

The minister’s comments echo recent findings of the European Commission, which last July said in a review of corruption in Romania and Bulgaria that failures to convict former ministers and others charged in high-level corruption cases meant that the rule of law was still not working as it should in either country.

Mediasind, the main Romanian journalists’ union, handed a petition to Mr Baconschi at the AEJ Congress, which asked the government to drop plans to change the legal status of journalists by placing them in the same category as workers in advertising, museums and libraries.

In Bucharest the AEJ conducted its own audit of the squeeze on press freedom in five other countries in the region, which exposed a pattern of the erosion of journalistic independence, and a corresponding decline in press standards, in Bulgaria, Turkey, Moldova, Ukraine and Belarus.

AEJ members from those countries made presentations to the Congress which amounted to a dismal overall picture of crumbling press freedoms, the stifling of legitimate criticism and debate, and frustration among journalists that safeguards for media freedom are being progressively undermined.

Bulgaria: The AEJ in Bulgaria conducted a survey of 113 journalists which highlighted serious concerns about the increase in unethical practises such as journalists being asked to write articles paid for by business or other interests. More than half the journalists surveyed said they had experienced political pressure over what they wrote. Most also indicated that advertisers were able to influence media outlets not to report in a critical way about their business activities.

Turkey: The AEJ’s Turkish vice-president, Dogan Tilic, said that 64 journalists were now imprisoned in Turkey and thousands had in recent years faced investigations that could lead to fines or prison terms. The Congress passed a Resolution calling on the Turkish government to stop abusing its laws to prosecute journalists, and asking member states of the European Union to press Turkey to repeal the restrictive laws under which journalists are forced to live in fear of being charged with offences under laws related to terrorism, state security and insulting state institutions.

Moldova: Aneta Grosu, the head of the AEJ’s Moldova Section, who is also a senior editor of an independent newspaper Ziarul de Garda, was obliged to miss the Bucharest meeting because she had to appear in a court in Chisinau to answer defamation charges against the paper brought by two prosecutors and a former member of parliament. Many formerly independent media organisations in Moldova have succumbed to pressures from various political interests to stop investigating and reporting on issues of corruption and influence-peddling in the country.

Ukraine: The AEJ Ukrainian section gave details of the ownership of the major media entities by oligarchs with political interests, including a 24 percent share of the TV market in the hands of persons close to Valeriy Khoroshkovsky, who is currently one of the heads of the country’s security service. As in Bulgaria, the Ukrainian media landscape is marred by the substantial number of paid-for materials – in effect advertisements -- shown on TV as if they were genuine news stories. The AEJ Ukrainian Section has partnered the Telekritika website and published English-language versions of Telekritika’s data monitoring Ukrainian TV channels. It shows a high and growing rate of self-censorship and of clearly partisan news stories.

Belarus: Andrei Aliaksandrau of the Belarus Association of Journalists reported that conditions for independent journalism there had deteriorated further in the past year. Dozens of journalists were harassed or arrested during the large-scale protests against alleged fraud in the presidential election last December. Journalists in Belarus are deeply concerned about government plans to further restrict the activities of civil society organisations, and draft legislation which, they fear, would deny citizens the right to legal redress in cases when the police use excessive force while making arrests.

The AEJ Congress welcomed recent expressions of concern by the European Commission and members of the European Parliament about the state of press freedom in some EU member states and in many European countries which are not in the European Union but which belong to the Council of Europe and the OSCE (Organisation for Security And Cooperation in Europe).

The Congress confirmed the AEJ’s intention to continue raising concerns about attacks on legitimate media freedom to European institutions. The AEJ is an Observer member of the Council of Europe’s standard-setting body, the Steering Committee on Media (CDMC).

More than sixty journalists from seventeen countries took part in the AEJ’s 2011 General Assembly and Congress in Bucharest on 12 and 13 November.