Interview: Storms ahead for Romania's Council of EU presidency

by Jane Whyatt

If the next six months were a flight, the pilot would be warning now of turbulence ahead. Romania holds the Presidency of the Council of the EU – the first time ever that the South East European nation has held this rotating office. On a warning from Strasbourg, with politicians accused of corruption clamouring for amnesty and press freedom under threat, Romania must steer the EU through Brexit and the parliamentary elections. 

Storms ahead for Romania's presidency Bucharest by night. Photo: Pixabay

ECPMF interviewed MEP Monica Macovei, who began by explaining why the European Parliament passed a resolution that harshly criticises the Romanian government.

ECPMF: How serious is the resolution from the European Parliament - could it lead, for example, to a Section 7 dialogue as in the case of Poland and Hungary?

Monica Macovei MEP: It’s a complicated procedure, it’s a long procedure, but it could be started as in the case of Hungary and Poland.

Through the resolution we call for a mechanism that looks at corruption and independence of the judiciary since we joined the EU. Both recommended very clearly and stated that all changes to the criminal law and laws on the judiciary should stop and should be cancelled. The Venice Commission recommended the same. What happened is that one day after the resolution in Parliament, the Romanian Parliament adopted two new laws relating to the independence of the  judiciary. 

So that was the response: "We don’t care about the European Commission".

The EU asked them not to adopt any new law and right away, although it wasn’t even on the agenda of the Romanian Parliament, they adopted these laws.

If they continue like this there will be an activation of the Article 7.

It’s not against the nation. It’s against a bad government which adopts bad laws, which wants to influence the judiciary and shut down the press and change the criminal code.

For instance, corruption is not a crime any longer! They modified it saying that if I give you a bribe through someone else and not directly to you, it’s not corruption – not for me, not for you, not for the intermediary.

You can imagine that everyone will use an intermediary to do that... so it’s not a crime, we don’t have corruption any longer. People are very unhappy in Romania... you saw how many demonstrated on 10 August.  

About 250,000 people gathered in the main Bucharest Square in front of the government building plus many others around the country.

On that occasion, a number of journalists and camera crews were attacked, both Romanians and journalists from overseas. What are you doing in the EP to defend the right of camera crews and journalists to police protection rather than hostility when covering demonstrations?

I don’t think we can start to fight the police, that’s not very smart. It’s difficult to use democratic instruments against such violence. We have to follow the principles, otherwise we are like them. We can make protests and all the good media, the very few remaining independent media in Romania  - they broadcast a lot about it.

Our cross-border investigative journalism team from Romania and Bulgaria was detained in Bulgaria after they discovered a large pile of documents being burned in a field. Is there any possibility of joint action or statements by Bulgarian and Romanian MEPs to support independent and investigative journalists, especially when they are researching the possible abuse of EU funds?

On financing investigative journalism, there is a project. I am working on it. I proposed, for instance, two million euros for investigative journalists as a pilot project for 2019. Of course, the investigative journalists’ consortium will not have to say on which projects they will work, but they will have to say they will choose topics like money-laundering, fraud or corruption and they could get support for this. This I can do. In terms of physical protection against physical violence... people could stand between them and the police but then the journalists would need to defend the people.

The European Parliament is also concerned that the GDPR data protection law is being abused in Hungary and Romania to try to silence or obstruct the work of investigative journalists. It’s happened to the Organised Crime and Corruption Project.

I have sent a letter of protest from the Parliament. That’s my duty. I got it from the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and I sent it to all MEPs.

I also sent a letter from the Data Protection Supervisory Authority asking the journalists at OCCRP to provide disks, hard disks and IT support and memory media where they have images from their investigation and many other items of information. Now in Romania, they consider the journalists  - or even me if I post images - as in breach of GDPR. So we are all silenced. 

We also discussed this letter because many MEPs are concerned, to do something at the level of the EU. We are also getting a report on the Romanian and Bulgarian journalists who were detained.

I didn’t sleep that night, I was making calls...

That’s our duty.

I’m very serious about this. At this moment the investigative journalists are the people who have to be most protected because they are in the frontline of the fight against money laundering and corruption.

They have no weapons to fight. They only have the pen, and they have started to be killed in a very violent way. The signal being sent is: don’t do this – ever! That’s what they meant when they bombed Daphne, when they shot Jàn in the heart and his fiancėe in the head. 

It’s never happened before, such murders in Europe. Why? Because they worked on the Panama Papers, Paradise Papers, the Russian Laundromat, and so they are the most exposed. Not for their own sakes, but to bring to the surface the dirty deeds of politicians and oligarchs – for whom? For us, for the public!

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