Romascanu: I will initiate reform of AGERPRES statutes as senator; it is related to a principle, not to a director

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Minister of Culture and National Identity Lucian Romascanu, announced on Thursday that he would initiate in his senatorial capacity the reform of the statutes of the AGERPRES National News Agency as a professional communication body of the Romanian state, equal to the Romanian National Television Broadcasting Corporation (TVR) and the Romanian National Radio Broadcasting Corporation (SRR), and with less political subordination, stating that his move "is related to a principle and not to a general manager."

"I have publicly stated that I wish AGERPRES, together with TVR and SRR, represents the professional communication bodies of the Romanian state, equal to one another and with less political subordination (I do not think a functioning mechanism without political involvement can be created, as Parliament must play a role.) I will initiate, as senator, the reform of the AGERPRES statutes," Romascanu said in a press statement released on Thursday.

His explanations are to "the reactions that have occurred in recent days in the public space regarding the bill amending Law No. 19/2003 on the organisation and operation of the AGERPRES National News Agency," calling them "useful to make the public fully understand these changes."

"In recent days, we have seen a number of positions taken by various internal trade unions, international organisations, and the AGERPRES management on what they call an attempt to politically subordinate AGERPRES. As an initiator, I could have rounded up the perspective on these changes, but I was not contacted by any party involved, not even the press," added Romascanu.

According to the minister, "first of all, the context must be well understood".

"At this moment, under Law 19/2003, there is no possibility to dismiss AGERPRES general manager for any professional reason, regardless of his performance. He may leave office, according to Article 15, only in case of impossibility to hold it for more than 6 months; if he is finally and bindingly convicted (not even criminal prosecution can have an effect), in case of incompatibility or by resignation. Such degree of immovability has no precedent in any public office and we have rightly considered that the only way we can correct this is to amend the law as required by Law 41/1994, namely by calling a vote in Parliament on the activity report, as Parliament is the body that also votes on the validation of the prime minister's choice for the position of the AGERPRES director general," Romascanu explained.

He mentioned that Law 41/1994, which regulates SRTv and SRR, "with its minuses," has been in operation for 23 years and "can be a reasonable example for AGERPRES".

"Politicisation is an easy-to-use argument, however, Mr Giboi and the professional organisations did not comment on the appointment procedure, I repeat, at the prime minister's proposal, an eminently political actor, and a vote in Parliament, a political body (let's not forget the professional origins of the current apolitical director-general as the head of the press office of the Social Democratic Party (PSD)). We have all proved good faith when we proposed reforming Law 41, rejected by the Constitutional Court on marginal grounds, and which will be revived one form or another in Parliament. In conclusion, at this point, in order not to have an immovable general director in a public institution, we have decided to initiate these first changes. It is related to a principle and not to a director general, selectively apolitical, irrespective of his or her name," concluded Romascanu.

AGERPRES Director General Alexandru Ion Giboi, said on Wednesday in a press statement that the positive vote for amending Law no. 19/2003 granted by the Senate Culture Committee is a response to the "political order to subordinate AGERPRES."

"The committee voted to give a positive report to the bill. Probably the political order to subordinate the AGERPRES National News Agency was stronger than the professional, common-sense arguments I presented to the committee, both on my own behalf, as well as on behalf of MEDIASIND, EANA, FEJ, SEEMO. Not even the alarm signal given by the Council of Europe by posting the AGERPRES case on its Platform for the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists, as a second alert level, could stand in the way of the need for political control displayed by the initiators of the bill and in turn agreed by the senators who attended the so-called debate," said Giboi.

The Senate Culture Committee on Wednesday issued a unanimously favourable report on a legislative proposal to supplement the Law on the Organisation and Functioning of the AGERPRES National News Agency that proposes the dismissal of the organisation's director general in case of Parliament rejecting the AGERPRES annual activity report.

Chairman of the Committee Radu Preda claimed that currently "the strict control of Parliament cannot be done in any way after the provisions of the 2003 law."

"If there are some issues that are disturbing, like the waste of public money ? not that this would be the case now ? how can we, Parliament, who manage this media organisation, intervene, interfere, tell us what we think? What is it that we can do? There are three or four reasons in the law that would invalidate the term of office of the director general, namely the impossibility of holding the office for more than six months; (...) resignation, which ultimately is unilateral action ( ..); final conviction for committing offences; the existence of a situation of incompatibility (...) The activity report is a normal matter (...) We take note of it, we read it and see what we agree and disagree on, we may think that there are things that could be better done and pass it on to the management at a meeting of the committee. But in my opinion, strict control of the Parliament under the law of 2003, cannot be done in any way," Preda added.

Director General of the AGERPRES National News Agency Alexandru Giboi, who attended the meeting, pointed out that he doesn't endorse this legislative change.

"We do not support this legislative amendment. We believe that at this moment the level of control over the AGERPRES National News Agency is more than enough. We are talking about a news organisation and we do not consider that placing two notions ? control and press ? side by side is very beneficial either to the development of the press or to the freedom of expression in general," he said.

Giboi explained that currently "the control is exercised (...) both through the presentation of the annual activity report and controls carried out by the Court of Accounts, the Finance Ministry, Labour Inspection, etc."

Chairman of the Romanian Trade Union of Journalists MediaSind Cristinel Godinac endorsed the view of the National News Agency's director general.

"No change of political majority should influence the leadership of a national news agency, the biggest agency of Romania, an agency which has a tradition that you all know. It's frustrating, firstly, for the journalists of AGERPRES National News Agency that political pressure exist at every election or every change in the political coalition," Godinac said.

Reactions on the draft law have come up from the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), as well as the European Alliance of News Agencies (EANA).

The European Alliance of News Agencies requests Romania's Parliament to "keep unspoiled the editorial and managerial independence of AGERPRES" and underscores that independence and continuity are "vital factors" for the existence of an unbiased news service.

"Independence, transparence and continuity are vital factors for the existence of an unbiased news service, which Romania's citizens and those abroad can rely on to be informed. We understand the need to control the financial sustainability, but we ask Romania's Parliament and Government to keep unspoiled the editorial and managerial independence of AGERPRES, a respected member of the European Alliance of News Agencies," reads a letter EANA sent to the relevant institutions in Romania.

The case has also been brought to the public's attention on the Council of Europe's Platform to promote the protection of journalism and safety of journalists.

"The new law stipulates that any political majority can decide upon the removal from office of the Director General, while the current law in force provides that the Director General cannot be biased, namely promote ideas, programmes and activities of political parties. Such provisions would have the same impact as in the case of "the management of the Romanian Radio Broadcasting Corporation (SRR) and the Romanian National Television Corporation (SRTV): upon each ballot, the SRR and SRTV administration boards can be changed before the completion of their tenure, to reflect the new political forces," the Romanian Trade Union of Journalists MediaSind maintains.

In a letter addressed to Parliament, the AGERPRES Director General and the Romanian Trade Union of Journalists request Parliament to abandon the draft law and draw the attention that the modification of the law "opens the path to political subordination" of the National News Agency. The call on abandoning the draft law also enjoys the support of the European Federation of Journalists.

"We believe that the proposed modification opens a path to political subordination of the AGERPRES management. Any political majority could believe that the Director General isn't 'loyal' enough to the majority, and could decide to reject the activity report, regardless of the management quality, but only based on political criteria," the Romanian Trade Union of Journalists shows. AGERPRES (RO — author: Daniel Popescu, editor: Catalin Alexandru; EN — author: Corneliu-Aurelian Colceriu, Rodica Ionita, editor: Rodica Ionita, Corneliu-Aurelian Colceriu)

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