National Fiscal Administration Agency (ANAF) employees went to the headquarters of the Intact Media Group in order to hand out eviction notices – five days for voluntary eviction, but otherwise a much longer procedure – for the 48 locations concerned (commercial offices and working points) and to enforce the measures ordered by a Bucharest Court of Appeals decision dating back from 2014, decision through which Dan Voiculescu, the media group’s owner, was sentenced to jail for money laundering and causing a damage of EUR 60 M to the Romanian state. Taking advantage of the opportunity to win ratings, the television stations’ leadership completely changed the news channel’s broadcasting schedule and started a self-victimization campaign in the form of a marathon of shows that promoted the idea that the freedom of the press is being violated. For hours on end, day and night, only one thing was discussed – that the goal is to take them off the air. And it all culminated with a protest meeting that included the parading, on stage, of the television channel’s stars and of artists that sang songs carefully selected in order to move the crowds.
However, the politicians’ reactions in this entire media show were amazing. Some of them allied against ANAF, an agency that did nothing but enforce the law, and against Premier Ciolols, and launched themselves into a tirade of accusations: “We are helping you exist so you could scold us” (PSD President Liviu Dragnea to Antena 3 news channel); “Ciolos Government wanted to suppress the freedom of the press” (former minister Daniel Barbu, ALDE); “if 5 televisions stations are evicted in 5 days, we’ll make it into the Book of World Records” (Ioan Ghise, ALDE); “sack ANAF’s leadership because it is politicized” (former minister Mircea Geoana, PSRO); “he became a joint plaintiff and now has come like a murderer at the crime scene to see if the victim is still alive” (Cristiana Anghel, ALDE, referring to the Premier); “we are witnessing the instauration of a climate of fear” (Georgica Severin, PSD); “we want you to apologize, say this will never happen again or sack those from ANAF” (Serban Mihailescu, UNPR, referring to the Premier); “I will ask PSD, UNPR, ALDE, PNL to start a no-confidence vote” (Serban Nicolae, PSD, referring to the Premier); “in an inexplicable way, the state, through its institutions, is deciding to limit a media group’s freedom of expression” (former president Ion Iliescu).
The Senate Speaker himself, Calin Popescu Tariceanu, stated that “Romania is basically no longer led by those elected, but by occult forces,” and convened Premier Dacian Ciolos, through the Senators’ vote, to come to the plenum in order to offer explanations. A Premier that obviously conformed and stated that the law has to be put into operation, that nobody wants to take the Intact media group televisions off the air and that the media group’s representatives were aware of the court’s decision since 2014.
As if this was not enough, the Ombudsman took note too. Victor Ciorbea took into account nothing less than the “possible infringement of Article 30 and Article 31 of the Romanian Constitutions, articles that concern freedom of expression and the right to information.”
But the most unexpected and outright shocking reaction came from President Klaus Iohannis. The one who had been until recently accused by everyone of rarely talking about and reacting to issues of topicality found himself talking.
“You have reached an unpleasant, useless situation. Firstly, I believe the freedom of expression in the media cannot be suppressed for banal administrative reasons. Secondly, this overzealous approach on ANAF’s part – I find it at least inappropriate, if not questionable, and I noticed from talks that decision-making factors are showing openness and suitable solutions can be found through calm talks.”
This is a President’s statement, made on some steps. A Head of State who was asked by journalists for his opinion about the ANAF inspectors’ action. A Head of State who said that with a straight face but with illogical thinking. A Head of State who, we presume, did not have the slightest suspicion that these simple words will become a rock thrown into muddy waters, which will pull him into a whirl of unfriending and unliking that nobody thought he would face so quickly after the start of his term. A Head of State who turned, as quickly as the statement was uttered, from the most beloved politician in Europe, based on the number of likes on Facebook, to the biggest disappointment. A Head of State from whom Romanians still had huge expectations in order to finally change things for the better. A Head of State whom his voters expect to be a mediator and who, through his attitude toward ANAF, ignored precisely that, siding with a company that has to vacate a building in order for the state to recover a damage. A Head of State who committed the same mistake that former President Traian Basescu obstinately made for 10 years, expressing his opinion about anything, anytime, an attitude loudly denounced by Romanians in the street.
A Head of State who made the Romanians’ enthusiasm, so difficult to awaken, plummet so fast. A Head of State who, lying in his bed in the hotel in which he stayed these days in Brussels, surely must have twisted and turned , thinking about how he might repair his blunder. A Head of State who, on the night after the European Council summit in Brussels, did the only thing he could do: he exculpated himself. “I made this statement on Wednesday because my assessment at the time was that freedom of expression, freedom of the press, could be affected through that action, as conceived. Subsequently, I found out that my statement, which sought to warn that the freedom of the press may be affected, was interpreted in a lot of ways. Maybe also because of the fact that I was very succinct,” Iohannis said.
A Head of State who, even during his statement in which he exculpated himself he made another mistake, this time subtle, stating two phrases that could very well have not existed: “I am not close to this television station, to this media group. Maybe some remember that, on the contrary, during the November-December 2014 campaign, the media campaign that was waged, the emphasis was of a precisely different nature.”
A Head of State whose honeymoon with his voters has irredeemably ended.