Romania: The power of the media moguls

Various members of Romania's media oligarchy have recently been sent to prison for corruption. Their media outlets are facing major financial problems and their credibility has been severely compromised.

Media mogul Dan Voiculescu. (© picture-alliance/dpa)
Media mogul Dan Voiculescu. (© picture-alliance/dpa)
At the end of 2016 the private TV broadcaster Antena 3 issued a wave of fake news reports in a drastic attempt to discredit then prime minister Dacian Cioloș by depicting him as an "agent of foreign interests". Cioloș, one of Romania's most popular politicians, kept his cool. In a talk show aired by the biased broadcaster he explained in detail why the reports had no basis in fact. For Antena 3's viewers this marked a turning point in the history of journalism: at last they had the chance to form their own opinion.

But Romania's oligarchs are not interested in encouraging people to form their own opinion, much less in promoting free, unbiased reporting. On the contrary, in the 1990s they founded their own TV channels and newspapers in order to do politics and business and become rich, powerful and influential. So it is all the more remarkable that most of the country's moguls are now being tried in court for dubious business practices. Dan Voiculescu, whose media trust Intact owns Antena 3, is among them.

But the oligarchs have not disappeared from the media business. They continue to direct their operations from prison. Now, however, they face fierce competition on the media market, which has come under enormous economic pressure. Advertising revenues have plummeted in recent years, with a number of media companies filing for bankruptcy. Delays in the payment of salaries are common at almost all media outlets. According to Romanian media watchdog Active Watch, this has created an environment where journalists in Romania are regularly accepting bribes from government authorities and companies not to give them negative coverage. In this way local authorities and private companies are controlling Bucharest’s entire press and behaving like despots.

As a result many media outlets are facing a major crisis of credibility as well as a financial crisis. Newspapers that had millions of readers shortly after the revolution in 1989 and became opinion leaders in the climate of newly regained press freedom have seen their circulation plunge. "Many readers don't see any point in spending money on press products given that they are manipulated anyway," said media journalist Petrişor Obae. Even at prestigious dailies the circulation is frequently below 10,000 copies and it is only thanks to their websites that they still play a role in the media market.

The well-established blog community is often the only serious alternative to the coverage provided in the traditional media. The bloggers are financed through crowdfunding, donations and other project funding and post critical commentaries on blog platforms like Contributors or CriticAtac, well outside the mainstream. The Rise Project, a Romanian NGO launched in 2012, provides a forum for investigative journalism.

Press Freedom Rating:
Reporters Without Borders: 46th place (2017)
Freedom House: 74th place – status: partly free (2016)

Updated: May 2017
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