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The CVM Report on Romania: How effective is the mechanism today?

February 3, 2013 - Ioana Burtea - Bez kategorii

Romania’s progress in restoring the independence of the justice system and rule of law has received an unexpected endorsement from the European Commission in the Co-operation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) report. The somewhat positive findings follow a disastrous evaluation last July, when Europe raised concerns about Romania’s commitment to democracy during a political scandal leading to constitutional breaches from the country’s political leaders.

The document, written in a milder-than-expected tone and numbering just ten pages, shows slight progress in the fact that the Constitution and the Constitutional Court’s decisions are once again respected by politicians. However, there are still numerous areas which need improvement. The question that arises after the release of the report is whether it will give the Romanian government a push in the right direction, or a reason to slack its duties.

Independence of justice – a long way to go

Judging by the balance of highs and lows presented in the CVM evaluation, Romania is far from succeeding in having the Commission’s monitoring of its judicial system removed. The monitors find there is still significant political pressure on the judicial system, and the independence of judges remains a problem. The report also shows the government failed to apply part of the ten recommendations EC president Jose Manuel Barroso gave Prime Minister Victor Ponta last summer – despite assurances from the latter that they would be implemented. In addition, European Union officials received “numerous reports of intimidation or harassment against individuals working in key judicial and anti-corruption institutions, including personal threats against judges and their families”.

The political chaos of the past summer and the constant breach of constitutional protocol, as well as wide-spread corruption of MPs and members of government, have led to distrust of the Romanian judiciary, even within its own ranks. Members of the High Court of Cassation and Justice, the Superior Council of Magistracy and Constitutional Court judges have now resorted to notifying European officials of the intimidations against them, instead of seeking protection from Romanian law. Whether the findings of the report will make their jobs easier is yet to be seen, and depends on how serious Romanian politicians take the recommendations and if they will cease partisanship.

How dangerous are the media?

The report also noted that “media campaigns amounting to harassment” had been created against the same judicial employees. The Commission highlighted it would like “to draw attention to the role of the media” in the context of “numerous” situations in which the media had pressured the judiciary. The evaluators also criticised the National Audiovisual Council (CNA) for not being a more effective watchdog and urged that the freedom of the press necessitates “proper protection of institutions and of individuals’ fundamental rights”. The Commission suggested the CNA members should draft a code of conduct.

While it is true that the Romanian media often blatantly sides with either the parties in power, or the opposition, the European Commission’s statement is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, intimidations, take-down pieces and talk-shows on political demand have flooded media channels and are intoxicating public debate. However, it is important we don't forget that these situations are usually instrumented by politicians or business people with political affinities – they too should be held accountable. Most well-known on the national level for this type of reporting are television channels such as Antena 3, owned by USL supporter Dan Voiculescu, B1TV, a constant bastion for President Traian Basescu and his democrat-liberals, and the recently shut down OTV, owned by business man and politician Dan Diaconescu, who was prosecuted for blackmailing a mayor in 2010.

However, pointing the finger at the press and implicating it in the failures of the judicial system or the corruptibility of judges and prosecutors is too narrow in its focus. European officials should also look at recent events involving the CNA. The audiovisual institution has just been spared from losing its powers after an emergency ordinance almost passed by the government was removed due to public protest. The policy document would have undermined the country’s media, and would have turned the CNA into a mere advisory institution by removing its powers of sanction – those same sanctions the Commission wants to see implemented.

Political pressures on the audiovisual body have been more evident under the Ponta government and haven't helped in creating an environment where CNA members feel they can freely sanction media institutions run by powerful moguls and politicians without suffering consequences. This of course does not completely release the institution from all blame. While a code of conduct would be welcome, the contents of a code issued in such a time of political turmoil and tension between the media and politicians would not likely favour the freedom of the press.

On a better path?

The CVM recommendations for Romania are essential if the country is to put the recent constitutional crisis behind it. The Commission’s tolerant tone in this January report seems to be based on the fact that Romanian leaders did do something, but it was the basic minimum – abiding by Constitution. The government still avoided fixing key areas: public procurement corruption, judicial reform, parliamentary immunities and so on. It is questionable whether the European Commission’s laissez-faire is a stimulant for democratic progress or a free-pass for the government to do as it pleases.

On the home front, partisanship has taken centre stage. While the opposition described the report as being negative and discouraging, the politicians in power have said that it shows Romania’s progress. Some have even taken the time to scrutinise the document. Prime Minister Ponta criticised the report for “factual errors”: there are only two ministers being investigated for corruption, not three – keep it up, Mr Barroso. He thus complained it would be nice if “the mechanism was of co-operation, not just verification”. Mr Ponta’s sidekick, Senate leader Crin Antonescu, famous for his laziness and lack of interest in all things parliamentary, admitted he didn’t read the complete report, but noticed the “writing was very small”, so he might need glasses. Under these conditions, one can only ask: who’s evaluating who?

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

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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