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News 12 Oct 17

Moves to Change Romanian News Agency Alarm Critics

Media freedom experts in the country say plans to change the operations of Agerpres, giving parliament more control, pose a threat to its independence.

Ana Maria Touma
BIRN
Bucharest
MPs of Romania's ruling Social Democrat Party want the Parliamentary majority to be able to fire the national public news agency's management. Photo: George Groutas/Flikr

A bill proposed by Romania’s ruling Social Democrat Party to change the way the national public news agency, Agerpres, operates, could leave it vulnerable to political pressure, media freedom activists warned. 

The Culture and Media Committee of the Romanian Senate on Wednesday passed the bill submitted by Culture Minister Lucian Romascanu and four other Social Democrat MPs.

The meeting was short and there was no real debate, despite the fact that media freedom NGOs were present and wanted to discuss the situation further.

“I was expecting a constructive discussion, based on grounded pro and con arguments,” Agerpres General Manager Alexandru Giboi, who has been in charge of the new agency since 2013, said in a statement published on Wednesday night on his Facebook account.

He said that the short conversation and the fact that the bill passed with a positive report through the committee simply showed that both he and the journalists trade union representative were there as a formality. “So that we can’t say we weren’t invited,” he added.

The MPs want parliament to be able to fire the general manager of the news agency if they are not satisfied with the agency’s annual activity report.

The arguments submitted with the bill say the Agerpres’s general manager “enjoys total de facto immunity during his/her mandate,” and that the news service is the only public media institution over which parliament has no control, and whose management cannot be axed if it underperforms.

“We chose to go for my colleagues’ proposal that in the case of the national news agency we follow the same criteria as in the public broadcaster and the public radio. When things seem not to go in the right direction there, the parliament can look at the annual report and make a decision on the fate of the general director,” the head of the committee, Social Democrat MP Radu Cosmin Preda said at the end of the hearing.

However, some media freedom organizations warn against changing the current law, which forbids the management of the national news agency from taking any political stance or promoting any political ideology.

“The proposed modification [of the law] opens a path to the political subordination of the Agerpres management,” Romania’s National Union of Journalists, MediaSind, said on Sunday.  

“Any political majority [in parliament] that perceives the director general as not ‘loyal’ enough to the majority could decide to reject the activity report, regardless of the management’s performance, based only on political criteria,” the union added.

The union said the new bill would bring Agerpres into the same situation as the public broadcaster and public radio.

They have seen their management changed repeatedly, before their tenures end, reflecting the changing balance of political forces.

The European Federation of Journalists, EFJ, has said it supports its Romanian affiliate MediaSind in calling on Romania’s parliament to abandon the draft law.

The bill pushed by the Social Democrat MPs has drawn attention from other international organizations.

The European Alliance of News Agencies asked Romania’s parliament to “keep unspoiled the editorial and managerial independence of Agerpres.”

In an open letter sent to the parliament on Monday, it said that independence and continuity are “vital factors” for the existence of an unbiased news service.

Defence Minister Mihai Fifor last week said that he would ask the Culture and Media Committee in parliament to look closely into the way Agerpres functions, after the agency quoted him as talking about a “military Schengen” zone during his speech to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly last Friday.

The minister complained that he had been misquoted. However, the news agency on Saturday responded that the quote was taken from the official translation of the speech provided by the Romanian Senate.

Established in 1889, Agerpres is the oldest news agency in the country. 

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