The AEJ Congress theme, “Europe in Turmoil- Reflections in Politics and Media” was timely, as Romania has been plunged into deep political uncertainty following the deadly fire at Bucharest’s Colectiv club on 30 October which killed 41 people. Large-scale public vigils and protests against political corruption and mismanagement have taken place in dozens of Romanian towns and cities.
Opening the Congress, the mayor of Sibiu, Astrid Fodor said that journalists had a special responsibility for investigating and uncovering the reasons that lie behind the tragedy that forced Prime Minister Victor Ponta to resign.
Former Romanian justice minister and MEP Monica Macovei was more blunt. It was widespread corruption that galvanised street protests in the capital and provincial towns, including Sibiu. “Corruption kills” she said.
At a later session, chaired by the AEJ President Otmar Lahodynsky, panellists Nicholas Kralev, Adrian Sturdza, Evgheni Demenok and Firdevs Robinson debated “Europe in turmoil”, the continent’s response to the recent refugee crisis, and the coverage of it by the media as well as shortcomings of global and European diplomacy. Firdevs pointed to the ferocious crackdown by the government and its allies on independent media, and the dismissal or criminal cases brought against hundreds of respected journalists, as part of a wider suppression of civil society and free media. The political and military situation in Ukraine, widespread corruption, and Russia’ increasing reliance media propaganda and distortion as a core part of its attempts to dominate and oppose democratic movements in Ukraine and the rest of the ‘near abroad’.
In another debate moderated by Teodora Stanciu, President of the AEJ Romanian Section, two prominent names of the Romanian culture scene, Constantin Chiriac and Professor Nicolae Manolescu gave valuable insights into today’s vivid art scene in Romania and argued for priority to be given to maintaining a robust cultural media in society. The third panellist, Catalin Ivan MEP called on the European Union to pay more attention to culture and media in order to improve communication and a sharing of common European values. “If we were to start again, the European Union would be based on common culture first, common market second,” he said.
The political, economic and legal pressures on news and editorial independence and how to counter them were discussed in detail in a roundtable titled: “Protection of Independent Journalism: Misinformation, Interference, and Integrity”.
Raluca Brumariu, former News Editor of the Romanian National TV station, who left her post a couple of days earlier, explained the circumstances that led to her resignation. On the night of the Bucharest night club fire, due to recent cutbacks and acute staff shortages the channel failed to report news about the disaster – in which over 30 died and 100 were injured – until the next day. There was widespread public indignation, and she took responsibility by resigning.
Congress participants joined in a lively debate about common problems that face independent journalism across most of the continent. Political interference, non-transparent, patronage appointments and financial pressures on public broadcasting were common complaints. Coercion from governments was described as worst of all in Balkan countries and Turkey, and public broadcasters were more vulnerable to these pressures. In Poland, the new government is proposing changes to the way appointments are made in public broadcasting. Hungarian public broadcasting has been weakened in recent years due to political interference, personal relations of media bosses with senior politicians and a brain drain from public to commercial media outlets. Even in Britain, the BBC, the gold standard of public broadcasting, has been under unprecedented pressure from the government.
A worrying trend of declining press freedoms were apparent in Media Freedom Representative William Horsley’s assessment and individual country reports presented at the Congress.
Government censorship to silence criticism, self-censorship, use of restrictive laws against the media, physical and verbal attacks on journalists were common threats faced by journalists in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Moldova and Bosnia. Italian journalists came under pressure from the judiciary and organised crime. Loss of employment, low pay, and erosion of trade union rights, increased surveillance powers by security and intelligence services posed further challenges to media everywhere.
AEJ Media Freedom Representative William Horsley urged the AEJ’s national Sections to make the best possible use of the Council of Europe’s newly launched Platform and its Early Warning System to promote the safety of journalists.
AEJ sections were also invited to participate in a council of Europe Questionnaire project called “Journalists at Risk: part of the job?: Unwarranted Interference, fear and self-censorship among journalists in Council of Europe member states”, which is being conducted as part of a variety of Council of Europe initiatives to counter the widely-recognised erosion of media freedom and the rule of law in a number of member states .
AEJ President Otmar Lahodynsky specially welcomed a guest from the Bosnian Journalists Association, Arman Fazlic. Arman spoke about the worsening harassment and violence against journalists in Bosnia and Herzegovina (B-H), and outlined plans for a group of journalists representing all of the country’s ethnic communities to form an AEJ Section, with the intention of becoming an official B-H Section of the Association at next year’s AEJ Congress and General Assembly.
Lieven Taillie, from the Belgian section has joined the Executive Board as the Brussels representative, replacing Peter Kramer following Peter’s long and distinguished service to the AEJ as Secretary-General and later as the Brussels Representative.