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When the New Boss Came to Town

January 6, 2013 - Ioana Burtea - Bez kategorii

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Just a few days before the parliamentary elections on December 9th 2012, the Romanian government quietly passed a controversial emergency ordinance reorganising the National Audiovisual Council (CNA). Far from going unnoticed, as Prime Minister Victor Ponta and his social-liberal coalition (USL) would have hoped, the imposed changes have sparked yet another fiery debate between media specialists, politicians and European institutions. 

Facing public pressure, Ponta did not publish the ordinance in the Official Monitor of the government, therefore delaying its full implementation. Instead, he re-sent it to the Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Public Finances for “improvements”. This doesn’t mean, however, that the matter is closed. Once the two ministries agree on ways to re-write the text, it will be out of anyone’s hands when and in what shape the document will be implemented, or how unexpectedly it will appear in the Official Monitor. The only person holding that decision is Victor Ponta.

One of the most feared changes in the ordinance by the members of the CNA is the one limiting the Council’s power to sanction television and radio stations, as well as programme suppliers, for breaching standards. Presently, the CNA is the only public authority able to take such measures. However, under the new regulations passed by government, any CNA sanction that is contested in a court of law will automatically be suspended until the case is closed – which might take up to two years, considering the length of Romanian court cases. Therefore, the Council would become an advisory body rather than a public authority, and its members would be unable to take effective measures when faced with a breach of standards.

The timing of the passing of this ordinance was not randomly chosen – less than two weeks before election day, when all eyes were on television sets presenting political talk shows and electoral debates. Normally, this is a time when CNA sanctions flow as moderators forget to moderate, impartiality dissolves and campaign discourses slide into insults and calumny.

Not in the least, probably the most troubling aspect of the government’s attempt to reorganise the CNA is the way it tried to do it, proving once more that it has a clear agenda to control state institutions. The passing of an emergency ordinance by members of the government is, first of all, an action that undermines parliament’s role as law maker. However, this possibility exists as long as a matter needs to be addressed with urgency – but where is the urgency here? When has restructuring and redefining the attributions of the CNA in a time of political and financial crisis, and less than two weeks before a major election, ever become a priority for the Romanian government? Dominic Lyle, the head of the European Association of Communication Agencies (EACA) sent the Romanian government two letters concerning the ordinance. He, too, highlighted the organisation he leads is unclear on why the document was passed as an emergency ordinance, since there was no emergency.

Furthermore, Lyle expressed his disapproval at the fact the document was not published for public debate beforehand. Usually, any legal text proposed for implementation needs to be submitted to a process of public debate for a month, respecting the principle of transparency. Instead, Victor Ponta and his cabinet voted to pass the ordinance in a low-profile government meeting. Ioan Onisei, vice-president of the CNA, noticed that this was “an obvious breach of transparency law”, speaking for some of his equally furious colleagues. The European Commission was also involved in the matter, assuring the public it would engage experts to study the ordinance and check if it respects European law.

Despite the whole situation, media reactions in Romania have been either superficial – simply informing the public about the changes using a technical language – or unjustifiably radical, declaring a national tragedy and comparing the new USL government to the Italian Mafia or Silvio Berlusconi’s entourage. The public needed to understand what changes the ordinance would bring and why the process of passing it was unusual and wrong – instead it received word games about government Christmas presents and a cheap scandal.

At this point, Victor Ponta surprisingly took a step back. After saying “there’s no need to worry” about the ordinance because the government knows what it’s doing, the prime minister announced he would delay publishing the document in the Official Monitor of the government and has re-sent it to the Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Public Finances, where it will be “improved”. Victor Ponta assured everyone the articles regarding the CNA will be withdrawn from the final draft of the text until parliament drafts its own law proposal. He expressed his awe at the strong reactions towards the document, dismissing them as misunderstandings and media misinformation.

The prime minister’s change of heart has buried the problem for now, while the USL won the parliamentary elections on December 9th 2012 with a record majority of 60 per cent. However, this latest attack by the government on a public institution should not go unnoticed. The CNA is only the latest authority to be challenged by the USL after last summer’s raid on the ombudsman, the Constitutional Court, parliament and the unsuccessful attempt to remove President Traian Basescu from his seat through a referendum. The USL is not a group of evil masterminds – there are very few truly intelligent and calculated Romanian politicians – and it is not the Italian Mafia either, but it is determined to have power and it carries on with its purpose in all stupidity, despite the law. And this is the dangerous thing: stupidity can do a lot of damage before someone stops it.

The government’s failure to implement the emergency ordinance in the form it desired can only mean one of two things.: Victor Ponta may be holding back strategically, waiting for the right moment to quietly pass the document without attracting too much public attention. Or, the second interpretation, and the more probable one, is that Victor Ponta has just found out he can’t break all the rules, especially since the European Union and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have all eyes on Romania. He has had his way with most attempts to gain control over state institutions, but enough is enough, even for him; even for the leading coalition of Romania.

This text is published as part of an ongoing cross-publication partnership with Europe & Me magazine. The text also appears as a bimonthly column here.

Ioana Burtea is a writer with Europe & Me magazine. As a journalism graduate currently based in London, she studies creative writing and is carrying out research for her first non-fiction book. Ioana also worked as a reporter for Mediafax News Agency in Bucharest for almost four years, covering the Ministry of Administration and Interior.

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