Independent Journalism in Romania: On the Ropes
Romania’s media market seems vibrant and diverse, but in reality, the local environment hardly enables independent journalism to thrive. Independent journalism survives thanks to a string of small online outlets that are struggling financially and grappling with a low level of trust and a public unwilling to pay for media content.
Media consumption in Romania shows similarities with European trends, but differs in a few important aspects. First, in Romania, television is by far the most used medium for media content consumption. That contrasts with a more balanced use of media in Europe, according to a new report from the Center for Media, Data and Society (CMDS).
The second most popular medium in Romania is the internet with 42% of people using it almost daily; that is, however, one of the lowest internet penetration rates in the EU. The speed of the internet often reaches high levels and data and mobile packages are affordable for many. Nevertheless, the digital divide in the country remains wide to the disadvantage of the elderly, the Roma, women and other vulnerable groups living in rural areas.
People living in rural areas have to face other challenges as well. “Content produced and broadcast from the capital city of Bucharest dominates the news market.
Moreover, the most powerful media are in the hands of a few players,
also based in Bucharest and with the power to cover the whole country,” Dumitrita Holdis, the report’s author wrote.
Radio and the written press are the least used media in Romania: less than a quarter of Romanians listen to radio daily and only 6% of them read a newspaper. Both levels are much below the European averages. Social media is becoming increasingly influential as a source of information, with more than two-thirds of Romanians getting their news from social media platforms, especially from Facebook.
In terms of legislation, Romania boasts a media law framework that is compatible with EU legislation and that, in theory, should help create an enabling environment for independent journalism. However, according to the report, “implementation of the law is lacking and policies that regulate practice do not always function. Journalists routinely complain about problems related to access to public information and job conditions.”
Media regulation is almost exclusively shaped by state bodies such as parliamentary committees, state-administered regulators and, occasionally, MPs who usually have little to no expertise in the field. Take the National Audiovisual Council, Romania’s broadcast operator. Although its members should be appointed on professional grounds, politics dictates who gets a seat on the council. The recently created data regulator is also led by people selected on political merits rather than competence. As a result, the data watchdog began to attack journalists instead of protecting people’s personal data.
Associations of journalists and civil society groups react to laws and policies, but only after they are adopted, and only seldom intervene actively in media regulation and policy. As a result, there is no serious debate or long-term strategy to create a safe and productive environment for journalism.
Still, a new generation of brash journalism outlets challenge the highly concentrated media system, but only outlets able to generate sufficient cash on their own can afford to be apolitical, and only a few major television chains and best-selling tabloids newspapers are in that position. The rest, particularly print media and outlets serving local communities, are highly vulnerable to pressures coming from all directions: politicians and political parties, government and municipalities or local businessmen.
“The system still sports a high concentration of power, especially in the television field, but the dominance has more an institutional than personal character typical for mogul-dominated media systems,”
Ms Holdis wrote.
Local media are in a dire situation. The sector seems to be diverse and competitive: hundreds of media outlets cover the country’s 41 counties. Many of them earn profits, but the reality behind these figures is much grimmer. Most of the local media outlets in Romania survive solely thanks to local municipalities or strongmen. The sharp decline experienced by local media, most notably print and radio, is of particular concern in a country where the citizens are still reluctant to pay for news and journalism.