Based on a criminal complaint filed without any evidence, Romanian prosecutors have started to interrogate journalists who reported on irregularities related to public procurement. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and its Romanian partner organisation warn against a dangerous precedent with a possible chilling effect on journalists and demand an internal investigation on the prosecutors’ treatment of the complaint.

 

May 27, 2021

From:

Reporters without Borders

ActiveWatch

 

To the attention of:

General Prosecutor of Romania, Mrs. Gabriela Scutea

The Direction of Investigation of Organized Crime and Terrorism Crimes (DIICOT),

Mrs.  Oana Daniela Pâțu, Deputy Chief Prosecutor

The Judiciary Inspection, Chief inspector Mr. Lucian Netejoru

Minister of Justice, Mr. Stelian Ion

Dear Madam/Sir,

Following independent reporting by Newsweek Romania and Libertatea  publications on irregularities related to public funds and tenders, a Sector 4 Bucharest district mayor, Daniel Băluță  (member of the Social Democratic Party), has filed a criminal complaint claiming that journalists at these media outlets were involved in an organised criminal blackmail, without submitting any evidence of such criminal conduct.

The prosecutors from the Direction of Investigation of Organized Crime and Terrorism Crimes (DIICOT), before doing any independent investigation, issued  subpoenas and called the signatories of the articles for questioning, including the senior editors of two titles, Newsweek Romania and Libertatea (owned by Ringier Group), tacitly accepting the claim of the district mayor, that up till now is not backed by any proof, that they would be the authors and, respectively, “the moral authors” of the so-called blackmail.

The interrogation, on May 20, of the editorial coordinator of Libertatea, Cătălin Tolontan, and the journalist Mihai Toma, of the same publication, was a photo/video opportunity for a number of media outlets. Cătălin Tolontan, a well-respected journalist, became the main target of a coordinated discreditation campaign in the media, being unable to defend himself, because while the interrogated journalists had to sign non-disclosure agreements with the prosecutors, certain other media got access and published selected, truncated details from the criminal complaint of mayor Băluță. The attempt to discredit the journalist was led by a publication controlled by a person who has been convicted for being the intermediary of a bribe of millions of euros between a private businessman and a former minister. In their turn, some of the Newsweek journalists (those who initially broke the story about the mayor), were interrogated on May 21.

We remind the Romanian authorities that reporting critical stories about people in power, especially about those managing public funds, is a highly protected right of journalists and that it is the utmost obligation of State authorities to guarantee the enjoyment and protect the implementation of such journalists’ rights. We also remind them that collaborative publication across independent media is a standard practice, and not a sign of organized crime activity.

We expect and call upon any political parties to instruct their members who occupy public positions to accept public criticism and journalistic investigations and to refrain from using the courts and prosecutors to silence free and critical media.

We ask DIICOT to urgently issue a decision in the case, to make public all the documents involved, and to immediately release the journalists involved in this case from their duty of non-disclosure, since they have been targeted by a discreditation campaign without being allowed to defend themselves. We ask DIICOT to analyze if the prosecutor in charge handled this case in accordance with the correct procedures and ethical obligations, and, if needed, to assign another prosecutor to make a decision.

We ask the Judiciary Inspection and the General Prosecutor of Romania to launch an investigation into how this criminal claim was handled, if the claim could have been dealt with by other institutions at a lower level than DIICOT, if it had been prioritized because it came from an acting mayor, if prosecutors did any preliminary research to establish whether the claim had any substance before the journalists were ordered to appear before the prosecutor as witnesses. We call on DIICOT to announce publicly if abuses, hierarchical interferences and leaks outside the institutions occurred in this case. We ask that such an investigation on the manner in which DIICOT prosecutors handled the case be done with utmost celerity and the results be publicly communicated as soon as possible.

We ask the Minister of Justice to use the outcome of such an investigation to facilitate the design of a clear workflow for prosecutors’ offices when dealing with such criminal complaints from officials in power against journalists, having in mind both actual cases of blackmail but also false claims of blackmail that can be used only as a tool for putting pressure on journalists by those who hold public positions.

RSF will alert the Council of Europe about this case of judicial pressure on journalists via the  “Platform to promote the protection of journalism and safety of journalists”. This dangerous precedent in Romania, which is ranked 48th in the World Press Freedom Index established by RSF in 2021, must not turn into a common practice with the aim of silencing independent journalists. Quite to the contrary, we expect this very disturbing episode will be used by the authorities as an important opportunity to adopt all appropriate measures to prevent such blatant violations of press freedom.

ActiveWatch

Reporters without Borders

ActiveWatch / CC BY 3.0