For four years, two journalists investigating a suspected money laundering and influence peddling case at a Romanian ministry faced numerous obstacles. But they didn’t expect to grapple with so many obstructions from their own peers. A spate of emails between people involved in the case shows why journalists turned against journalists.
“Two bloggers cost €1,200, VAT included. Some of those big bloggers.” This is what an online media advisor in Romania replied when asked whether she could place a piece written by Elena Udrea, a former tourism and regional development minister in Romania, on a popular blog.
It happened in 2011 at a time when sports journalists Catalin Tolontan and Mirela Neag were sweating over unearthing evidence of suspected graft among officials in the ministry in an investigation that became known as the Bute Gala case. The two were following tips that a ring of public officials were siphoning off public cash by illegally awarding funds to companies involved in the organization of a major boxing event in Bucharest. The event was named after Lucian Bute, a 35-year old renowned pugilist born in Romania.
The two journalists published the investigation over the course of several years. They were dragged to court by prosecutors who were allegedly puppets in the hands of the government, but they managed to avoid jail. In the meantime, with political support dwindling following her departure from the ministry, Mrs Udrea was arrested in February 2015 on suspicions of money laundering and influence peddling in several cases, Gala Bute included. The Gala Bute trial started in October 2015.
However, during all those years, Mr Tolontan and Ms Neag had to grapple not only with authorities, but also with their own guild. A number of mainstream media outlets were constantly publishing or airing reports that complicated or directly obstructed the investigation. Some just muddied the waters, publishing information that would confuse readers, but others simply opened their space to whatever Udrea And Co. were feeding them.
But now Mr Tolontan is in possession of a raft of emails that tell the whole story.
People Paid to Flood the Internet
“It took four years and I didn’t know anything, I only felt an extraordinary opposition, but I also felt signs of journalistic solidarity,” Mr Tolontan recently wrote on his blog referring to how media and journalists behaved during those years when he investigated the Bute Gala.
He often couldn’t understand why some of the media were playing to Mrs Udrea’s circle’s tune when fresh evidence of graft and abuse of power was mounting.
But things are clearing up now thanks to a wad of emails from 2011-2012 that were pulled out from the computer of Tudor Breazu, the key player in managing Mrs Udrea’s relations with the media at the time. His house has been searched by police as part of the Gala Bute investigation.
These message exchanges show how four mainstream television stations (namely ProTV, Acasa TV, Realitatea TV and B1), the privately owned news agency Mediafax, two mainstream dailies (Evenimentul Zilei and Ziarul Financiar) and a slew of online portals and blogs were bombarded by Mr Breazu and his team with articles aimed at befuddling readers or discrediting the journalistic investigation.
Each of these media outlets had the choice to behave as they wished. Some didn’t bend or play this game. But many, in particular those close to the ProTV media group, wholeheartedly opened up their channels to Mrs Udrea’s flak.
On 14 November 2011, Mrs Udrea wrote to Mr Breazu: “Please, disseminate the article wherever we can.” Mr Breazu responded: “Sent already to B1, Realitatea TV, Evenimentul Zilei and Maria.” Maria here was Maria Apostol, the head of PR at ProTV who, emails now show, had fingers in many different pies. She was handling Mrs Udrea’s propaganda not only in ProTV’s programs, but also at Acasa TV, Mediafax and Ziarul Financiar, part of the same media conglomerate whose majority owner is the U.S. Central European Media Enterprises (CME). Ms Apostol had the power to remove articles from Ziarul Financiar.
On top of media outlets, Mrs Udrea’s propaganda machine was paying dozens of writers to post comments on articles related to the investigation. The goals were the same: muddy the waters, inflame readers, besmirch the investigative journalists. The internet was chockablock with venomous messages. Emails from June 2012 show that, for example, 22 people were hired to flood the internet between May and June that year.
Journalists at Your Service
Mrs Udrea responded to any news related to the Bute Gala with either a press release or a placed article.
Mr Breazu was sending messages pressing journalists to use the information in any piece about the topic. He wrote to the chief editor of Evenimentul Zilei, “Vlad, we need an article about this topic.” Even those few who were trying to resist all these pressures were eventually compromised.
Realitatea TV, an all-news TV channel in Romania, often presented all the views in reports related to the Bute Gala case. They organized talkshows where they were trying to be balanced and invite all parties - but they flipped as well. On 16 May 2012, the head of realitatea.net, the channel’s website, assured Mr Breazu in an email that a negative article about Mrs Udrea “would disappear in several hours.”
How was that possible?
Opinions vary. In some cases, it was about friendship. Mrs Udrea’s people knew journalists here and there. Others say that some of the journalists were very likely enjoying cumshaws and favors for their services. At some point, the ProTV group offered Ms Udrea anything she wanted. Yet another group of journalists say that probably these arrangements were dictated by owners and bosses who had a direct relation with the authorities.
When reading through the incriminating emails it is striking to note that at some point the collusion between authorities and media was not about the Bute Gala case anymore. It had begun to spread to encompass everything that Mrs Udrea didn’t like. Email exchanges from 14 June 2012 show that Mrs Udrea was directly involved in paying all those involved in this media game. She decided where to spend, and was providing funds from her own account.
When one person is able to play so many media organizations and people at once, it is hard to imagine whether there is any integrity left in the media there. This case shows that lowness and corruption in much of Romania’s journalism is much more widespread than we originally thought, and could spell trouble for the future of journalistic freedom.
Photo: Elena Udrea (Facebook page)