The revival of investigative journalism in Romania
In 2016, Romanian journalists published a series of investigations on health care, education and illegal logging, which led to prosecutions and changes in the society. After years of apathy, investigative journalism kicked back to life in Romania in the online world. What led to this revival in 2016 and what were the major stories that broke last year?
At the end of September 2015, a team of two journalists from the independent Romanian publication dela0.ro released a video documentary about the death of investigative journalism in Romania. It shows how big Romanian newspapers lost their investigative departments. In the beginning of 2008, all the major media outlets in Romania had investigative teams. Seven years later, they completely vanished from Romania’s main newsrooms. Meanwhile, many big media outlets also closed down altogether.
In the last part of the documentary, Catalin Tolontan, chief editor of sports newspapers Gazeta Sporturilor, says: “The major corruption cases that turned into convictions or lawsuits or indictments were preceded by investigations in the written press. If this were the last wave of the written press, it is a legacy before which we must smile and be content.”
Then Tolontan adds, almost prophetically: “But I don’t think this is the last wave of the written press.”
Two months later, the journalist and his small team published a major investigation following the fire that killed 64 people in the Bucharest club Colectiv, the biggest tragedy of the Romanian society after the 1989 revolution. Some of the victims survived the fire, but were killed by nosocomial infections, revealed an article written by Tolontan and his team. It presented the testimony of a doctor working for the Burn Hospital in Bucharest, who argued that some of the people who had been wounded in Colectiv actually died in “a biological bomb, because of hospital-acquired infections.” Even more, the doctor said that people had been dying at the Burn Hospital for years due to bacteria-developed septicemia.
That story led to a series of eye-openers on the medical health care in Romania and proved to be the beginning of a new wave of independent investigative journalism in Romania.
Lack of trust in the press
A survey from July 2015 showed that less than a third of all people in Romania (31.9%) trusted the media, whereas 68.1% said they have little/very little trust in the media, according to Inscop.ro. The church was the most trusted, with a score of 63.4%.
Even more worrying was the result of a survey from 2014 by Konrad Adenauer Stiftung and the Center for Independent Journalism. It revealed that only 20% of Romanians believe in the independence of media in Romania. More than half (52%) believe that local mass media are not independent whereas 20% have no opinion on this.
The most pressing issues for the Romanian media are media pluralism, social inclusion, and political independence, according to the report Media Pluralism Monitor 2015. The biggest risks include the lack of transparency on media ownership concentration, political control over media, the lack of independence of the public television TVR and the precarious conditions of working as a journalist.
Despite this grim outlook, some good things are happening in Romania’s media. But to see them, one has to look away from mainstream journalism.
Several factors could account for the revitalization of local independent journalism, including investigative journalism. Most importantly, local publications have found new financing models that allow them to stay independent.
Rise Project, which investigates organized crime and corruption in Romania, has recently won a grant from Google for a prototype project called CPR-Breathing New Life Into Investigative Reporting.
Local PressOne, an online magazine publishing investigations, feature stories and interviews, is largely funded by the US investor Don Lothrop.
Casa Jurnalistului is a team of independent journalists entirely funded by their readers through monthly donations.
After the investigations of nosocomial infections in the Colectiv fire case, Catalin Tolontan was contacted by a former employee of the disinfectants producer Hexi Pharma, who showed him documents proving that the company had been selling diluted disinfectants to hundreds of local hospitals for years. Journalists further found that authorities had never tested the quality of the disinfectants used in public hospitals and that the only lab that was authorized to carry such tests was in fact controlled by Hexi Pharma’s owner.
The story broke on April 25, 2016, with a series of follow-ups in the coming days. A few days later, the Prime Minister’s Control Body conducted searches in hospitals and the offices of Hexi Pharma, while the General Prosecution kicked off a criminal prosecution. On May 8, Health Minister Patriciu Achimas-Cadariu resigned, after hundreds of people had protested in Bucharest against the corrupted health care system. Their main slogan was “Corruption Kills”.
At the end of August 2016, Tolontan wrote that prosecutors had initiated two investigations in the Hexi Pharma case, one by the General Prosecutor and one by the Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA). Tens of employees of the pharma producer had been heard by the prosecutors.
The infamous orthopaedist
Towards the end of 2016, a major investigation carried out by Luiza Vasiliu of the independent media group Casa Jurnalistului revealed that Gheorghe Burnei, a famous Romanian doctor praised as an “inventor,” even as an “angel of medicine”, had actually been carrying out unauthorized experiments on several of his patients, which led to permanent health damages or even their death.
The article begins with these words: “The most famous orthopaedist in Romania experimented with an uncertified implant on a little girl born with a limp. Eleven surgical procedures later, the little girl, now a young lady, can barely stand up from her bed.”
The article tells the story of a girl who went through some 16 years of painful surgeries and remained with severe disabilities after being operated by Burnei as a baby for a displaced hip. This is a rather frequent disease among newborns and in most cases is treated without surgery. The surgeon apparently used an unauthorized implant to treat her, an experimental procedure which didn’t work. The investigators think that the surgeon may have implanted unapproved ceramic devices, cow bone fragments, and even tank filter fragments to some of his patients.
The series of investigative articles showed how many other doctors knew how the famous orthopedic doctor Burnei was operating, but nobody said anything, as the doctor was also the head of the malpractice commission for orthopedy.
The day after the article was published, prosecutors held Burnei, after carrying out searches at Marie Curie Children’s Hospital in Bucharest, where he worked. The doctor was heard by police for unauthorized experiments on children and bribery, and was then detained for 24 hours. A day later, he was placed under home arrest.
But afterwards, things took a different turn. The Bucharest Court’s judges decided to place Burnei under judicial control and lift the house arrest measure against him. The investigation doesn’t show, “contrary to the prosecutors’ claims, that the defendant would have conditioned the medical act to receiving bribes”, according to the Bucharest Court. The judges also said that the malpractice charges haven’t been proven.
Although Romania recorded other notorious cases of plagiarism in the previous years, including that of a former Prime Minister, a full-blown plagiarism scandal exploded in 2016.
End-June, the National Council for Attesting University Titles, Diplomas, and Certificates (CNATDCU) announced that it was analysing ten cases of alleged plagiarism, including those of the former Deputy Prime Minister Gabriel Oprea, Interior Minister Petre Toba and mayors Florentin Pandele and Robert Negoita.
It all started with an investigation by independent journalist Emilia Sercan.
A year earlier, Sercan revealed that Gabriel Oprea, then Interim Prime Minister, had massively plagiarized in his PhD work, presented in 2000. The journalist went on to prove that a series of PhD works coordinated by Gabriel Oprea were also guilty of plagiarism, including that of Bogdan Licu, deputy General Prosecutor. Sercan then showed that Gabriela Oprea’s daughter and son-in-law, Ana Maria Tudor and Alexandru Marius Tudor, copied a series of scientific articles.
A year after the articles were published, nine owners of PhD titles from the “Mihai Viteazul” Information Academy asked for the removal of their PhD titles, including Bogdan Licu. At the end of July 2016, Gabriel Oprea was stripped of his PhD title.
The media exposed other plagiarism cases last year. In May 2016, Iulia Marin of the Romanian independent publication PressOne uncovered that Florentin Pandele, the Voluntari town mayor, copied more than a third of his PhD work from other sources.
Pandele’s wife, Bucharest mayor Gabriela Firea, reacted ironically to the accusations, saying that it’s an insignificant article claiming “totally unreal things” about her husband, and that it’s the result of misinformation led by the opposing party PNL.
A few months after the investigation was published, in December 2016, the Romanian Education Minister Mircea Dumitru signed the orders on withdrawing the PhD title Florentin Pandele.
Clear Cut Crimes: Illegal logging
Rise Project is a community of journalists, programmers and activists who investigate organised crime and corruption affecting Romania and the countries in the region.
One of the most important stories published by Rise Project in 2016, in collaboration with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), was a 42-minute documentary called Clear Cut Crimes on illegal transactions with secular forests. The reporter Romana Puiulet worked on the story for one year. Her investigation followed the money through all the stages of the financial transactions with forests and proved that the main beneficiary is the Austrian group Holzindustrie Schweighofer, the biggest timber producer in Romania. “They are the cartel’s center of gravity and process more wood than can be legally cut in Romania,” according to the story.
In December 2016, German DIY retailer Hornbach announced that starting January, it would end the cooperation with Austrian timber producer Holzindustrie Schweighofer for the sale of construction and planed wood in its Romanian stores.
These four major topics brought to readers’ attention by investigative journalists have all unleashed further examination by state institutions and some of them even led to concrete measures, which proves the power of investigative journalism. And perhaps shows there’s more where that came from.
By Diana Mesesan, features writer, email@example.com