This year’s first political scandal in Romania: President Iohannis loses thousands of Facebook fans after controversial statement
Romania’s President Klaus Iohannis raised a wave on criticism on Facebook after publicly criticizing the tax agency ANAF for enforcing an eviction order on local TV stations Antena 1 and Antena 3.
More than 15,000 of Iohannis’ 1.72 million Facebook fans unfriended him in less than 24 hours after he took sides with Antena 3, the biggest news station in Romania in terms of audience, which helped his opponent – former Prime Minister Victor Ponta - in the 2014 presidential campaign. Iohannis unexpected victory in the elections was largely due to massive support in the social media.
“I believe that freedom of expression in the media shouldn’t be suppressed for trivial administrative reasons,” Iohannis said on Wednesday. “I find ANAF's zealous approach inappropriate, if not questionable,” the President added.
He pointed out that the media group was in an “unpleasant and useless” situation and that a “settled and calm debate” was needed to find “suitable solutions”.
People posted hundreds of negative comments on the President’s Facebook page, saying they felt betrayed after voting for him in 2014 and that a Romanian court’s decision was no “trivial administrative reason” to evict Antena 3 from its headquarters.
The National Fiscal Administration Agency (ANAF) notified five TV stations that are part of local media group Intact, on Monday, that they should leave their headquarters by the end of the week.
The tax agency owns the buildings that host the Antena 1 and Antena 3 TV stations, which the state confiscated after local businessman Dan Voiculescu was sentenced to 10 years in jail for the fraudulent privatization of the Institute for Agriculture Research (ICA), in August 2014. The court also ruled that the state should take some of Voiculescu’s properties, which he got in the privatization process, to cover for the EUR 60 million damage the state recorded in this illegal deal.
The ANAF thus became the rightful owner of those properties, which the court declared free of any charges, which technically means that any contracts on them became void. However, ANAF didn’t do much to capitalize on these assets in the past year and a half since the court announced the sentence, and the TV stations Antena 1 and Antena 3, which are also own by Dan Voiculescu’s family, continued to use the buildings as their headquarters, without paying rent, as ANAF didn’t close any leasing contract with them for these properties. This is the subject of another court battle between the tax agency and the Antena Group.
Thus, the tax agency’s decision to issue an eviction order for Antena Group’s TV stations from those properties came unexpectedly and almost at the same time with the Government’s decision to dismiss ANAF’s president Gelu Stefan Diaconu.
ANAF’s representatives even went to the two TV stations’ headquarters and notified them that their utilities would be cut starting Monday, if they didn’t leave the properties, according to Antena 3. The news channel’s journalists called ANAF’s actions abusive said that this was an attack on the freedom of expression. They even started calling on their viewers to rally in Bucharest, this Friday, to protest against what they called a decision to close the Antena Group’s TV stations.
This sparked a whole political scandal in Romania, as politicians from all sides jumped at the opportunity to exploit the scandal and score some points against their opponents.
Former Prime Minister Calin Popescu Tariceanu, who is now the Senate’s President, called Prime Minister Dacian Ciolos to answer to the Senate for ANAF’s actions, which he called a “deliberate plan to suspend democracy and annihilate the press”. Tariceanu is also the leader of the Democratic Liberal Alliance (ALDE), which last year absorbed the Conservative Party (PC) founded by Dan Voiculescu, Antena Group’s owner.
The Prime Minister went to the Senate on Thursday and faced a wave of criticism from senators of all sides for the way ANAF, an institution subordinated to the Government, handled this situation.
The technocrat PM Dacian Ciolos defended ANAF’s actions up to a point, saying that the eviction decision was legal as the tax agency was only enforcing a court’s decision. He explained that Antena 1 and Antena 3 had no legal leasing contract with ANAF and that the state had to capitalize on its assets.
However, he condemned the way the tax agency acted in this case. He said that he asked ANAF to reanalyze the way they addressed the taxpayers in fulfilling their duties and not to have an intimidating or repressive attitude.
“The freedom of expression will also be firmly defended,” Ciolos continued, adding that any solutions should be within the law. “I too want the Antena channels to continue broadcasting, out of respect for the freedom of expression and those who chose to watch any TV channel and listen to any radio, and we will look for solutions not to obstruct this, to the extent that the law allows us,” Ciolos stated.
His explanations didn’t satisfy the senators and political leaders. Liviu Dragnea, Social Democratic Party – PSD’s president, said that his party would file a no-confidence motion if ANAF evicts the Antena Group’s TV stations. He made the statement live on Antena 3.
Two rounds of elections will take place in Romania this year: local elections in June and parliamentary elections at the end of the year.