Magazine article Nieman Reports

Abandoning a Broken Model of Journalism: There Are Many in Romania Who 'Profoundly Dislike Independent Journalists, and Especially Nosey Ones.'

Magazine article Nieman Reports

Abandoning a Broken Model of Journalism: There Are Many in Romania Who 'Profoundly Dislike Independent Journalists, and Especially Nosey Ones.'

Article excerpt

It's hard to do honest investigative journalism in Romania. To understand this, one need only look at the country's media landscape and know how its societal institutions function. After the collapse of Communism in 1989, a new elite emerged from the huge pool of former agents and informants of Securitate, the Communist secret service. Members of this heavily protected elite became judges and members of Parliament, prosecutors and business leaders, media owners and senior journalists.

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The elite's most valued asset is its control over information. It is not coincidental that most of the public still doesn't know the names of many of the 15,000 agents and 400,000 informants from the time when President Nicolae Ceausescu ruled this country with an iron fist. And the elite--most of all older journalists and politicians--profoundly dislike independent journalists, and especially nosey ones.

While I was writing these words, I kept being pulled back to an evening last November when I attended the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) awards ceremony in New York City. On this night journalists gathered to celebrate the courage, persistence and determination of those who report the news despite being arrested, kidnapped, shot at, and sometimes killed. (In 2010. 44 journalists were killed while doing their jobs, according to CPJ.) In my mind's eye, I replayed clip after clip of video I had seen there about reporters who took great risks to expose corruption and abuses of power or tell the world about those who are victims of terrible oppression. Their efforts reminded me of why such journalists deserve our trust, respect and recognition.

At the same time, I flashed back to Romania. Now I was wondering why any sane person would invest trust and respect in most of the journalists who work there. Their main product is propaganda and their primary talent is withholding the truth. [See box on page 8 about Romanian media owner Sorin Ovidiu Vintu.]

Here is a situation (one of many I know about) that exemplifies what "investigative journalism" looks like in Romania today: About a year ago, two well-known "senior" journalists were caught on tape trying to blackmail the head of the country's National Agency for Integrity, which is the governmental agency charged with investigating the wealth of public officials. One of the journalists did not ask for money; he can be heard explaining that he's in a "different league" of journalists so $70,000 means nothing to him. But during the taped conversation he threatened to publish compromising information about that state clerk and mentioned withholding that information if, in return, he would be given compromising information about the president and his political entourage. After his words were leaked to the media, the journalist said that this was not blackmail; it was investigative journalism at work.

Indeed, the so-called investigative journalism in Romania was for years a cover for blackmail, advertisement racketeering, and disinformation campaigns. Some journalists or media outlets still use this kind of approach to "sources" as a way of making good money. Not surprisingly, the owners of some of these media outlets are organized crime groups.

The Industry as Enemy

During the early years of Romania's transition from Communism to democracy, media owners were either well-connected business entrepreneurs or former journalists who had worked within the Communist propaganda machine. They transferred their competencies and the rules from their previous professions into these new ones. Of course, those skills had nothing to do with quality journalism or its foundational ethics. But when these reporters became financially successful (profiting through their unethical practices), they unfortunately became the models for generations of young journalists to follow.

When I set out to do investigative stories as a journalist, my work focused on organized crime. …

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