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Bought and paid for – how Romania’s media is pressured by corporate and political masters

Journalists in Romania failing to conform to pressure from private companies and advertisers face intimidation and risk losing their jobs.

Man holding a newspaper. Image: Nicolas Alejandro/Flickr. Some rights reserved.Journalists in Romania failing to conform to pressure from private companies – and from advertisers demanding editorial control – face intimidation and risk losing their jobs, according to the latest reports on the country’s media. 

With Romania’s cash-strapped private-sector media increasingly influenced by political interests, a Romanian media watchdog, ActiveWatch, has told openDemocracy that the situation has deteriorated to the point where the press risks becoming substantially financially controlled.

Mircea Toma, head of ActiveWatch, said: “we’ve put together a guide that shows from our press monitoring just how Romania’s media is being bought.”

Toma said private companies and politicians had been interfering in news coverage “for years”. But now with very few broadcasters or news publishers making a profit, there was an increasing reliance on advertising revenue.

With job-insecurity and low pay commonplace, many Romanian journalists face the stark choice between obeying orders that effectively come from corporate or financial masters, or – if refusing and asking too many questions – being sacked.

Silence is golden

Concerns over deteriorating press freedom in the country were initially highlighted in a 2010 joint report by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX).

A third of the journalists interviewed in the IFEX/RSF survey said what they wrote was influenced by advertising.

To look deeper into the state of Romania’s press freedom, Toma’s watchdog group launched a media monitoring project which surveyed the output of seven Romanian national newspapers and the public television broadcaster TVR. The project focused on a proposed gold and silver mine in Roşia Montană, which would be the largest open-pit gold mine in Europe.  

Anti-mining NGOs have been challenging the company and the government in court every step of the way for years. Plus, country-wide protests opposing the project spread across the country and through some diasporas. The riots peaked in 2013, pressuring the government to vote down a bill allegedly designed to greenlight the goldmining. 

In 2015, after approximately 14 years of trying and failing to reopen the ancient gold mine in Roşia Montană, Gabriel Resources, the company in possession of 80% of the mine's shares, filed a complaint against Romania to the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), which is still being addressed.

ActiveWatch's analysis – called “Silence is Golden” – examined coverage of the mine in western Romania, which had planned to use a controversial process involving cyanide to extract gold.

The survey followed on from Mircea Toma's own experience working for the satirical weekly magazine, Academia Caţavencu, which is known for its investigative reporting.

Seven years ago, one of Toma’s Academia colleagues was invited on a group press trip to New Zealand. This included a tour of a gold mine where journalists observed a specific extraction technique in action.

The New Zealand mine removed the precious metal using a process called “gold cyanidation”. The same process was intended to be used at Roşia Montană. The technique – banned in a number of countries due to the toxic nature of cyanide – aids the extraction of gold from low-grade ore by converting the metal into a water-soluble complex.

Cyanide spills near mines using this process have been proven to have devastating environmental effects on rivers, causing pollution which lasts years.

Major mining-related cyanide spills in the United States, Papua New Guinea, Guyana and Kyrgyzstan have prompted national bans on the potentially toxic process in the US, the Czech Republic and Hungary.

In Romania, there have been several attempts to ban gold cyanidation which have all been rejected by the Romanian parliament.

After the group of Romanian journalists returned from the trip to New Zealand, described as “extravagant” by those who took part, all their expenses were later proved to have been invoiced to the Rosia Montana Gold Corporation (RMGC), a subsidiary of Gabriel Resources, a company headquartered in Canada, and registered in the Channel Island of Jersey in 1995 for tax purposes.

Cârnic Massif may disappear if the mine reopens. Image: Caelainn Barr, Roșia Montana, Romania, 2013. Trip sponsored by Journalism FundGabriel Resources was founded by a Romanian-born Australian, Frank Timis. He began negotiations with the Romanian government in 1996 to advance extraction of the country’s gold resources. A geological survey in 2000 estimated around 300 tons of gold and 1600 tons of silver could be extracted from four mountains surrounding the town of Roşia Montana. A mining licence was granted to RMGC in 1999.

Toma began investigating the New Zealand trip, along with aspects of the mining process and the activities of the Romanian company. But the information he found and the articles he wrote were not published by Academia Caţavencu. 

Disinformation and censorship allegations

After Toma claims that a series of articles on the mine were spiked, the reporter accused the Rosia Montana Gold Corporation (RMGC) of involvement in disinformation and censorship. He left the magazine when he says a healthy debate in the newsroom on the mine became a taboo subject. 

The ‘Silence is Golden’ survey carried out by Toma's ActiveWatch revealed that six of seven national papers, and the state TV broadcaster, had either delivered positive reports on the gold mine development in Roșia Montană, or went silent, many accepting substantial advertising and paid-for press trips from the company.

Over the timeframe of the survey, which covered 2011, only one daily newspaper, Adevărul, had published neutral or unfavourable articles on the mine.

Other areas of concern have included a regional news website (www.cluj-am.ro) removing an article about the forced expropriation of property in areas linked to the mine.

Two open letters addressed to some of Romania’s most popular newspapers – Romania Libera and Capital – accused editors of censoring reports on the mining project by deleting articles or removing critical content on their linked websites.

Fake claims

Press investigations of RMGC revealed that the mining company paid for television and online advertising which purported to show that unemployment was high in areas near the mining operation and that jobs in mining would help offset economic hardship.

However, the accuracy of the advertising content was questioned by ActiveWatch. One spot featured a Roşia Montană villager who claimed to be unable to make a living from tourism. But subsequent field reporting found that the resident had a thriving business and was planning to build a villa for tourists.

Over the months of August to November of the same year, the survey also identified "a dramatic fall" in the presence of the topic at TVR: from 27 news items in August (26 of which on prime-time), to 15 in September, and only three over the next two months with just one on prime-time according to Toma. 

In one month, 12 out of 15 items were shown in peak-audience slots. However, in the month that followed, only one item was shown at peak time, and in the subsequent month, reports on the mine were downgraded to a TVR secondary channel.

ActiveWatch noted that the marked change in the mine’s coverage on main news programmes correlated with comments from the then Romanian president, Traian Basescu, who began openly offering his support for the controversial Rosia project.

Political influence from the top

According to a report by Freedom House, the US-based organisation that researches global human rights and political independence: “The parliamentary majority [in Romania] generally changes the leadership of the public broadcaster, ensuring a pro-government bias to its reporting.”

openDemocracy found that RMGC filed an official complaint to TVR in 2011, accusing the broadcaster of a having a “malicious attitude” towards its operations in its current affairs programmes. Former TVR news programme director Rodica Culcer said the complaint was “an attempt to intimidate” their reporting.

Roșia Montană Gold Corporation CEO Dragoș Tănase at Antena 3 TV, September 2 2013. Image: ANTI.USL/Flickr. Some rights reserved.Positive news coverage of Roşia Montană throughout 2011 coincided with the parent company, Gabriel Resources, almost doubling its public relations budget from 10 million Canadian dollars in 2010, to 19 million Canadian dollars over the following 12 months.

For its 2011 annual report, Gabriel Resources, said the increased PR budget reflected “the continued efforts by the company to provide relevant and timely information to the Romanian population to maintain the positive momentum of public support for the project.”

Educating the public

The mining company RMGC told openDemocracy that it did not have an effective communication programme before 2008 and that “a lot of the public knowledge was inaccurate due to misrepresentation and rumour.” RMGC previously stated its “on-going communication strategy” was “critical” to “educate the public on modern mining.”

The respected financial magazine, Forbes (Romania) reported in 2013 that the period covering 2011 was “pivotal” for the mining company’s PR operation. Over that year it had spent £538,000 in print media advertising – a 152% increase from 2010 and 86% above the 2012 spend.

Despite the jump in the PR budget and the aggressive national ad campaign, there were widespread demonstrations across Romania opposing the opening of the mine. The project has also faced organised resistance from environmental pressure groups and from countries along Romania’s border.

Protests against the reopening of the gold mine involving thousands of participants took place between 2010 and 2013, which influenced the government’s decision to halt the project.

However, ActiveWatch found that large parts of the Romanian media simply ignored the protests – such as occupations of important buildings, or profile support by leading pop stars – by devoting little or no coverage.

Romanians protesting against the reopening of the mine in Roșia Montană in University Square, Bucharest, 22 September 2013. Image: Andrei Tiut/Flickr. Some rights reserved. A 2013 investigation by Rise, a group of Romanian investigative journalists who are members of the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), looked at revenue from RMGC which went to television channels. It found that national broadcasters, academics, influential politicians and some prominent businessmen had all benefitted financially from RMGC’s PR operations.

Selling silence

A report by Naşul TV, a commercial channel in Romania, accused the country’s mainstream media of “selling their silence” by under-reporting anti-mining protests.

Naşul claimed that RMGC had spent 12 million euros over three years on advertising and PR. The channel alleged that RMGC had changed its ad-buying strategy and had moved from a 2009 campaign which focused on media ratings to, in 2010, prioritising its “political affinities” which looked beyond simple audience measurement.

As part of their new strategy, RMGC sponsored entire programmes on the state-owned channel. Reports in the Romanian press showed that RMGC bought 1,349 radio ads over three years, and described the 2011 spend as a “bombardment”.

Toma told openDemocracy that the activities and commercial relationships forged by RMGC were a text-book warning for other media organisations around the world concerned about the growing influence of outside commercial pressure on independent editorial voices.

Gabriel Resources were not available for comments on the latest developments addressing the gold mine in Romania. 

About the authors

Crina Boros is an investigative journalist with a data-driven approach to reporting. She trains for CIJ and has freelanced for BBC, Greenpeace, Investigate Europe and ICIJ.

James Cusick is editor of openMedia at OpenDemocracy and a former political correspondent at The Independent and The Independent on Sunday. As an experienced member of the lobby, he has previously worked at The Sunday Times and the BBC.

 


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