Romania’s Senate has passed a law which obliges the media to present an equal proportion of positive news, in order to balance the “bad” news in the Romanian media. One of the most extraordinary facts about this law is that it was passed unanimously by Romania’s Senate. What were they thinking?
The implications of this media law are boggling: to impose a “positive news” rule on a free media is technically impossible in an open society. To do so would require a comprehensive system of censorship, a clampdown on freedom of expression that would be inadmissible within the EU; it would debilitate the media and be a throwback to the Communist era. It would be unacceptable to the media, the government, the public and the EU. It is unworkable, unthinkable, impossible.
But due to the peculiarities of Romania’s constitution it is very close to becoming law: the Senate can pass laws regarding the audio visual sector, even if rejected by the lower house (as it was). It is expected that the President will now reject the law. It will be returned to the Senate and they can pass the law again and bypass the Presidential veto. My belief is that the Senate will come to their senses and will actually read the small print this time.
It is interesting to consider how this law was passed as it reveals the byzantine way that democracy functions in Romania. Laws are passed in Romania with a speed and abandon that is bewildering, a process the Romanians describe as a “legislative conveyor belt”. The government is able to churn out “emergency ordinances” with remarkable ease and these are law until approved, or rejected, by Parliament.
The main feature of this approach is that ministers, or Senators in this case, don’t have time to actually read the proposed laws. Each law will have its sponsoring minister, or senator, who will say “you support my law and I will support yours”. In this way a large number of laws can be passed in a single sitting, with no time wasted reading the small print. If there is a mistake or a scandal it can be amended with another law, rejected by Parliament, or just forgotten (as happens to most of them). Needless to say this controversial media law was rushed through the Senate in a few minutes with a wink and a nod by its sponsor – the extreme nationalist former psychiatric patient, Gheorghe Funar.
Although media ownership patterns raise some eyebrows, the Romanian press is relatively free by EU standards. But this has not resulted in an increase in quality, in fact the result is sensationalism and the increase of “bad” news. The Romanian airwaves are filled with stories of rape, murder, car crashes and theft. In other words, Romania is becoming like the other EU Member States in terms of press freedom.
In Western Europe the public are used to media sensationalism and they know how to differentiate between real life and what is reported in the media. In Romania this is not the case and many people assume their country has gone to the dogs because of what they see on the media. This is particularly true among the elderly and the rural population. But it is rather shocking to find that Romania’s senators share the same level of understanding about the media as a village peasant. The Senators, and the elderly peasants, fondly remember the days when all news was good news (Ceausescu’s daily activities being the main bulletin of the day) and when “bad” news was a rarity – references to Western disasters or exposing “enemies of the people”.
This law is a pathetic attempt to roll back the negativity the Senators see in the media, a negativity they claim makes Romanians depressed. It shows the outmoded political reflexes of the Senators, who have employed classic Communist Party tactics. They want to address the problem (negative media) through proscriptive legislation, without reference to the public, other political groupings or (God forbid) the media. This was feasible under Communism, when irrational laws could be passed, without consultation, to be implemented by an all powerful party apparatus.
If one understands the era in which Romania’s Senators grew up in, this Alice-in-Wonderland media law makes perfect sense. What it really shows is how stuck in the past are Romania’s fossilised Senators, most of whom are well past their retirement age. One wonders how they have managed to “get away with it” so far, having avoided other monumental gaffes of this nature in the last 17 years.
Rupert Wolfe Murray was the former team leader of the EU Phare Project to the National Audiovisual Council of Romania (www.cna.ro)
This article was first published on the Radio Free Europe website.