Harsh debate surrounded the draft reforms of the legal provisions for heavy penalties in libel cases, the repeal of which the Council of Europe has been requesting since 1997.

In contradiction to European standards for freedom of information, Romanian legislation still punishes libel with heavy fines and suspended jail sentences. The press may enjoy a lot of freedom, but journalists, especially in the investigative sector, work under the threat of heavy legal punishment. The penal code allows for prison sentences of anything from two months to two years for "insult" (article 205) and three months to three years for "libel" (art. 206). Prison sentences of six months to five years are handed down for "offence of authorities" (art. 238) and of three months to four years for insult and libel of public officials. At the end of May a lively debate occurred when the senate examined a reform project to the penal code, launched in 2000 by the former Minister of Justice, Valeriu Stoica and adopted in 2000 by the chamber of deputies. The new law sets out lighter sentences for insult and libel and makes no particular mention of offending public officials. On 27 May the leaders of the Liberal Party expressed the feeling that the new law was too imprecise and still made it possible to sue a journalist for nothing more than critical remarks. On the other hand the Minister of Justice, Rodica Stanoiu, started a sharp debate by proposing that prison sentences be maintained for cases of insult, offence and libel of authorities as set out in the old penal code. She even planned to add penalties in the new law for cases of offence against certain institutions. By the end of 2001 penal code reform had still not been completed.

A draft law on state secrets, adopted by parliament on 7 March 2001, provides for penalties of up to ten years in prison for journalists and any citizen revealing state secrets. the Romanian constitutional court, however, declared it did not conform to the constitution.

Pressure and obstruction

In January 2001 the financial authority of the press agency, Rompres, was transferred to the Ministry of Public Information, thus removing it from control by parliament, which until then had seen to its supervision, as in many democratic countries. In 2000 Romania had signed the "Charter for media freedom" in the Stability Pact for South-eastern Europe, which stipulated that the public media must serve the public interest and have a sufficient margin of independence relative to the executive. In November the Stability Pact for South-eastern Europe (the media task force) asked Romania to remove the press agency, Rompres, from under the authority of the Ministry of Information and to guarantee its independence.

In February caricaturist Marius Nitov was fined 400 dollars (454 euros) for offence against the authorities after depicting the mayor of his village as a pig. The police closed the exhibition where the offending caricature was on display and confiscated the other drawings as evidence.

On 21 June Mustafa Kemal Akkaya and Bunyamin Aras, Kurdish journalists who had been granted refugee status in Romania and were working for the monthly, Vocea Mesopotamiei (The Voice of Mesopotamia), were prevented from covering the press conference of Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer in Bucharest. Both journalists, who had proper accreditation, were admitted to the room where the press conference was to be held, but then told to leave by members of the Service for Protecting Personalities (SPP) "upon a request by the Turkish delegation".

In October the American press agency, Associated Press, was acquitted in a libel trial brought by Bishop Laszlo Tokes. The press agency had reported in 1998 that Mgr Tokes had been forced to collaborate with the Securitate, the political police of former dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu. The Bishop did not deny the fact but accused the press agency of implying that this collaboration had harmed others. The court's verdict was unanimously cheered by the Romanian media.


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