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Romania: public broadcaster threatened by populism

Romania: public broadcaster threatened by populism

A few weeks before the elections, the Romanian Parliament abolished the radio-television fee posing the public broadcaster under direct financing from the state budget

In the latest fiscal easing measure ahead of a Dec. 11 election, the Parliament of Romania has come out in favour of the abolition of over 100 tax levies. The estimated impact of the operation on the state budget amounts to approximately 1.6 billion lei ($ 387.42 million).

Among the taxes eliminated, there is also the license fee for the public broadcaster, a provision which raises over the independence from political power of the public radio-television. The bill, introduced by the Social Democratic Party (PSD), was approved with a controversial timing: as the election campaign is approaching, tax relief is one of the most efficient populist measure.

From a general point of view, the abolition of some taxes might be a good decision. For the population, of course, it sounds good. But there is a „but.”

Political control

The removal of the license fee for the public radio-television, so far included in the monthly electric bill paid by individuals and companies in Romania, leaves the broadcaster completely at the mercy of politicians when it comes to securing its resources. The provision hence increases the risk of greater political interference in editorial policies, in a situation in which the Parliament already has the power to appoint members of the board and general managers of the public broadcasters.

Under the current law, the financing of SRTV (national TV) and SRR (national radio) is based on revenues from the taxation of natural and legal persons, penalties, publicity, fines, donations or sponsorships and other kind of incomes.

Most of the funds that come from the state budget is dedicated to the development of the technical network, security, taxes owed to international networks etc. Therefore, most of the money for the functioning of the national media comes from the public tax paid by practically everybody who has a TV or radio, with some exceptions.

The abolition of the revenue from the license fee could generate greater political control over public broadcasters. In a country where the press experienced a dramatic collapse, and the Internet is not proving an effective response to the crisis, the impact of this measure is worrying.

Critics over the abolition of the fee argue that the public broadcasters in this way would lose their independence by becoming totally dependent on allocation of resources from the state budget.

According to the reasons expressed by the promoters of the measure, the direct financing will allow greater control and transparency on the public media expenses. Critics of the measure, however, note that nothing had impeded so far to apply transparency and expenditure control.

The bill passed without an impact assessment and lawmakers did not specify the funding sources for the measures. In practice, the burden of these cuts is absorbed from the state budget, but how this will be done have not been explained convincingly. The leader of the Social Democratic Party (PSD), Liviu Dragnea, initiator of the bill, said that even without the revenue from the license fee, the government will guarantee to the public broadcaster an amount of resources in line with those currently guaranteed. Dragnea has not however been able to indicate how these resources will be secured.

Without an impact study

The initiative has been criticized by more than 20 Romanian NGOs that consider the law as a movement towards the total politization of the national media.

“The signatory organizations considered that the measure profoundly alters the mission of the public media and creates a relation of excessive dependency towards political power. The proposal to eliminate the radio-TV tax – without an impact analysis, presenting alternative solutions, identifying budgetary resources or budgetary impact analysis – is a proof of political amateurism and rudimentary populism. “Hiding” this tax among 100 others (such as the fishing permits) it is a trick meant to trivialize the topic, to hide and shrink the public debate. We recall that the law 41/1994 on the organization and functioning of the public service broadcasters is an organic law and the modifications cast upon it must meet requirements prescribed by the Constitution and the Chambers’ regulations.

We believe that direct funding from the state budget will be the last episode in the complete politicization of the public media, already strongly controlled by the manner of appointment and – especially – dismiss of the board”, states the press release.

Ingrig Deltenre, Director General of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), expressed her utmost concern regarding the potential impact of this law in a letter sent to the Romanian authorities last week: „The license fee and similar contributions from citizens now account the most stable and reliable source of funding for public service media in Europe. They are also the most common and important source of funding”, stated Ingrid Deltenre.

„In 2015, the broadcasting fee has covered about two-thirds of the revenues available to the public service among EBU member organizations”, added Deltenre. „As demonstrated by the experience of other countries, it is very difficult to re-introduce a transmission fee, once is has been abolished”, concluded Deltenre.

Concern about the situation created after the vote in Parliament has been expressed also by the South East Europe Media Organization (SEEMO).

In the hands of the President

Now the President of Romania, Klaus Iohannis, has the final say, and the Federation of Trade Unions of culture and mass media, FAIR-MediaSind , appealed to him to reject the measure. According to the Constitution, Iohannis has no more than 20 days to reach a decision on this matter.

Iohannis could ask the Parliament to review the recently approved text. Both in this case, and in the event that the law would be deferred to the Constitutional Court, the President would then have 10 days to promulgate the act.

In an interview released the day after the vote in Parliament to Adevarul live , the President stressed that such a substantial change to the taxation regime should be discussed with a broad range of stakeholder such as employers, trade unions and civil society. „We need a serious discussion, together with the experts,” said the President. „This approach does not convince me at all, you can’t work this way. What should a businessman imagine, that today we have some fees and one week after other fees, only because the elections campaign is coming? This calls into question the meaning of the term „predictability” said Johannis.

The CEO of the Romanian Television, and Irina Radu Ovidiu Miculescu public radio will try to meet with President Iohannis for a debate on the subject.

31/10/2016 –  Marina Constantinoiu

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