The European Commission has included the issue of independence of media in Romania in the extraordinary report on the country's progress under the Control and Verification Mechanism (CVM). This is a precedent which is essential for the dialogue the Commission is holding with Romania, but for Bulgaria as well because the two countries have been monitored together under the CVM in spite of the differences in terms of benchmarks. European Commission spokesman Mark Grey explained when presenting the document that the decision was based on a number of complaints filed by various organisations, journalists and individuals in Romania about harassment and intimidation via media to judges mainly. The Commission has decided to include media in the report also because of the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe which had raised the issue of detachment and independence of Romanian media.
Given the quoted reasons it is hard to forecast how likely it is the problems with media environment in Bulgaria to be included in the report which this year will be issued in December. In September 2012, the EU commissioner responsible for media, Neelie Kroes, met with Bulgarian journalists, bloggers and publishers to listen to their problems. Under the initiative of this website it was proposed the deteriorating media environment to be included in the monitoring under the Mechanism. According to Mr Grey, the Commission is viewing the situation (in Romania specifically) from two angles. First is the importance and fundamentallity of free and pluralistic media. And second are the number of complaints for which he said they were not only one or two.
In its report the Commission writes that it wants to draw attention to the role of media. "There have been numerous examples of the media exercising pressure on the judiciary, as well as particular doubts whether the National Audiovisual Council is proving an effective watchdog. The situation suggests the need for a review of existing rules, to ensure that freedom of the press is accompanied by a proper protection of institutions and of individuals' fundamental rights as well as to provide for effective redress". Romania is much ahead Bulgaria in the Reporters without Borders index of the freedom of press - 42nd - having jumped up by five places compared to last year. And Bulgaria has dropped by 7 places to 87th place in the company of Madagascar and Guinea.
Given the overall content of the report on Romania, it is advisable to be read as if written for Bulgaria too because the criticisms fully reflect similar or even the same issues south of the Danube.
In that sense, quite telling was the exchange of questions and comments between Mark Grey and Romanian journalists at the news conference when the report was presented. A journalist from Romania was very persistent in asking what sources did the Commission use for its media conclusions. She corrected the Commission saying that in Romania there were no laws on media and Georgi Gotev, a Bulgarian journalist, commented that not journalists intimidate certain individuals but media owners who exercise pressure on their journalists in order to set accounts with certain circles. It was media ownership that emerged as the main problem in Bulgaria as well during the discussion with Commissioner Kroes and in her epistolary exchange with Prime Minister Boyko Borissov.
Very telling for the importance the Commission grants to media in Romania is one of the recommendations in the report (the second one) which calls for a "review existing standards to safeguard a free and pluralist media while ensuring effective redress against violation of individuals' fundamental rights and against undue pressure or intimidation from the media against the judiciary and anti-corruption institutions".
Why was the extraordinary report on Romania necessary?
In 2012, the Commission came up with a summary of the five years of functioning of the Mechanism since its establishment. The publication of the report, however, coincided with the biggest political crisis in Romania since the beginning of the transition to date, caused by a conflict between Socialist Prime Minister Victor Ponta and presidential veteran Traian Basescu. Even the Constitution was breached, there was pressure on the Constitutional Court and an impeachment of the president which failed at a special referendum. In spite of the crisis and the criticism by the Commission, however, in December Victor Ponta's Social Liberal Union won a convincing victory - almost 60% of the voters - while the centre-right Right Romania Alliance of Traian Basescu came second, but with significantly weaker result - 17 per cent.
Because of the political crisis in the summer the Commission announced it will come up with an extraordinary report on Romania by the end of the year, but it published its conclusions on January 30th which coincided with the period of publication of the interim report under the Mechanism. This is why the document is divided into two parts - restoration of the rule of law and progress under the CVM.
Those indicted in corruption should resign
Another very important element of the report is the very open call of the European Commission those indicted in corruption or lack of integrity high officials in the country to step down. The report, by the way, is very sincere and is not short of criticism or recommendations which proves that the Commission is learning from the evolution of the Mechanism that proved a toothless instrument. As Mark Grey explained, Bulgaria and Romania made commitments at the time of accession and the Commission will work with both countries until those commitments are met. When will this happen depends on the two countries, their governments and citizens.
It is important those with power to demonstrate high integrity standards. They have to set a model for the others, Mark Grey specified. According to the Commission, judicial decisions are not respected which implies a lack of respect for the rule of law. In November, the National Integrity Agency (ANI) reported against ministers and senior officials, but that has not led to their resignations. It is pointed out that the new government reiterated its goal to tackle corruption, but among the new ministers there are three who are under criminal investigation for corruption.
In July, the Commission expressed its expectation the ministers to set example in terms of integrity, but the same goes for corruption as well. "It is essential for the credibility of a government that those in charge of ministerial functions enjoy the confidence of the public, for example by stepping down when there is an integrity report from ANI against them". The Commission recalls in its report that the constitutional requirements, among which suspension from a ministerial office when there are indictments, should be applied in full. In the same way should be proceeded with the cases when members of Parliament are indicted of lack of integrity of corruption. "The presumption should be that, within the established Constitutional rules, the prosecution can conduct its work in the same way as faced by other citizens. Clarity and automaticity are the best ways to offset previous concerns that there has been a degree of subjectivity in parliamentary proceedings in this area", the report says.
In the beginning of 2013, the Parliament approved amendments to the statute of the members of Parliament which change the procedure for lifting immunities in case of search, arrest or detention of MPs and for prosecution of former ministers. The Commission recommends in its report the necessary measures to be undertaken so that ministers subject to integrity rulings step down and to ensure swift application of the constitutional provisions for suspension from office on indictment.
Complete disrespect to judicial and anti-corruption authorities
A source of great concern for the Commission in the summer was the clear evidence of pressure on judicial institutions and the disrespect for the independence of the judiciary. Alas, this still is a source of concern 6 months later. There are a number of reports of intimidation and harassment of people who work in key judicial or anti-corruption bodies, including personal threats of judges and their families and also media campaigns amounting to harassment. The Commission reports with regret that its recommendations are not entirely met. "Politically motivated attacks on the judiciary have not ended", is the conclusion of the EU executive.
Critical for the success of the reform is accepting judicial decisions which requires the entire political class to reach consensus to refrain from discrediting judicial decisions which undermine the credibility of the magistrates and exerts pressure on them. In that area is one of the recommendations in the extraordinary report - a clear framework to be introduced of requirements to refrain from discrediting judicial decisions and from undermining or putting pressure on magistrates, as well as to ensure efficient application of these requirements.
Appointments in the judiciary
This subject is advisable to be read very attentively by the Bulgarian audience as well because of the recent questionable elections of members of the Constitutional Court and of a general prosecutor. The Commission points out in its report on Romania that the appointment of new leadership of the prosecution and of the National Anti-Corruption Directorate should be independent, to demonstrate integrity and professionalism to ensure the confidence of the public and to deliver results. It is mentioned that there was a rush in the nomination of candidates for the position general prosecutor and general prosecutor of the anti-corruption agency. The Minister of Justice expanded the deadline and introduced some changes, but the number of candidates was limited. The two candidates who emerged did not succeed in securing positive opinions by the Superior Council of Magistracy and were rejected by the President.
According to the Commission, in order for the process of nomination to be transparent and open it is necessary a sufficient number of highly qualified candidates to be ensured who could gain the support of the magistrates. In Bulgaria, the candidate for general prosecutor was only one.
The conclusion of the Commission is that Romania made some progress, but a lot remains to be done. From Mark Grey's words it becomes clear that the Commission will not spare any effort to achieve success. And although the link with the membership of Bulgaria and Romania in Schengen was denied a number of times, the very fact that most of the questions at the press conference were when the two countries will join Schengen show clearly the importance of the problem. A spokesman of the Commission on Schengen answered in a very nice way the question about whether it can be expected the two countries to join this year, saying this is difficult to forecast.
What is important, though, is that the Commission has found (with the help of certain affected circles in Romania) one of the fundamental problems of reforms in the Romanian society - the lack of independent and pluralistic media. It will be wonderful if it openly recognises that fact in Bulgaria as well and includes it yet this year in the report on the country. The very fact that one of the recommendations for Romania is on that matter means that the Commission will monitor it.