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Total eclipse of the press: Silence is golden for the Romanian media

Miruna Munteanu writes:

When you have to rely on foreign press to learn about something happening in your country, national media is in deep trouble.

That's precisely what happened last month, when thousands of Romanians hit the streets to protest against the Government decision to back up the highly controversial mining project at Rosia Montana.

For days, almost nobody in the mainstream press seemed to notice them. With two exceptions, all TV journals were silent about the rallies. Including the public station's informative programs.

Of the 5 main Romanian news channels, only one reported live from the first day of the protest. Although, in Bucharest, the rally was about 10 times larger than the ones that eventually toppled Mihai Razvan Ungureanu’s Government, in the spring of 2012. Those had been given extensive coverage.

Romanian media is very politically polarized. Any kind of editorial consensus is difficult to imagine. Still, a real conspiracy of silence became apparent during the first days of September. It didn’t last long, blown away by the sheer scale of the protest and by the angry reactions on social media.

Brief as it was, this moment of total eclipse is very disturbing. It shows just how vulnerable the entire Romanian media establishment has become to anyone pushing big money.

The secret behind this "silenzio stampa" can easily be found in the generous advertising budgets offered by the Canadian company interested in mining for gold at Rosia Montana.

For years, "Gabriel Resources" has been paying millions of dollars for all kinds of publicity stunts, from sponsoring TV shows, to organizing exotic research trips for selected journalists. Not to mention traditional commercials and testimonials flooding every possible media outlet. But all this effort didn’t amount to much when put in balance with the chilling assessments of the project made by the Romanian Academy, or the National Geological Institute.

Creating Europe's largest open-cast gold mine at Rosia Montana poses many problems. It would mean blasting away four mountains, grinding down the rock and soaking it in 240.000 tons of cyanide. A huge toxic waste pond is to be built at only 10 km from the city of Abrud. Covering 300 hectares, it would be 50% larger than the Principality of Monaco.

Apart from the obvious risks to the environment, there are also other concerns. Rosia Montana is not a deserted wilderness, but a community of 16 villages, built over the ancient Roman mining town "Alburnus Mayor". A priceless 2000 old heritage would be destroyed, including the largest labyrinth of roman galleries in the world.

Other, more recent landmarks would be lost forever: 7 churches, 11 cemeteries, 41 houses listed as culturally significant. Over 2000 private proprieties would have to be relocated. Not all owners agree to that. For years, they have been subjected to tremendous pressure from the Canadian investor, with the complicity of local authorities. The central government turned a blind eye to a long series of abuses and breaches of the law. And, in recent years, so did the press.

Why? Because nobody in the Romanian media can afford to lose a big advertising client. Over the past three years, the industry has shrunk by a staggering 80%. More than 10,000 journalists have lost their jobs. “Jurnalul National”, once the bestselling national broadsheet daily, didn’t pay salaries for 6 months this year. It was a record, but sadly not a first. And, I suspect, not a last.

Having worked there for more than five years, I was aware that Rosia Montana was taboo for "Jurnalul National". I had been previously warned about that. I did avoid the subject while it was somehow “dormant”. But when PM Victor Ponta, once a fierce opponent of the project, decided to back it up despite his pre-election promises, the issue could no longer be ignored. No more than the growing rallies spreading throughout the country.

My newspaper has never published the two editorials I’ve written on this topic. But they haven't been officially rejected either. In fact, nobody will answer my questions regarding their status. Nobody would even acknowledge receiving the second text (one week after the first one).

Not being under an exclusive contract with "Jurnalul National", I posted the editorials on social media – free for anyone to share. They both produced record numbers of hits – a sign that the topic was indeed "hot". A few days later, I was informed via e-mail that my contract with the newspaper was being terminated. Apparently, I have gravely damaged their image, by "insinuating" that there was censorship in the newsroom.

In the streets, protesters don't insinuate, but shout out loud their disappointment with the press. "Silence is golden" – reads one banner. Another one explains: "The only jobs created by the mining project are in the Romanian media". A third banner mimics a world famous commercial: "Some people cannot be bought. For all the rest there is Gold Corporation".

Miruna Munteanu was a Journalist Fellow at RISJ in 2009-10. She is currently a political commentator for Realitatea TV in Romania.