Romania’s media market seems vibrant and diverse, but in reality, the local environment hardly enables independent journalism to thrive. Independent journalism survives thanks to a string of small online outlets that are struggling financially and grappling with a low level of trust and a public unwilling to pay for media content.

Media consumption in Romania shows similarities with European trends, but differs in a few important aspects. Television is by far the most used medium for media content consumption. Radio and the written press are the least used media in Romania: less than a quarter of Romanians listen to radio daily and only 6% of them read a newspaper. Social media is becoming increasingly influential as a source of information, with more than two-thirds of Romanians getting their news from social media platforms, especially from Facebook.

The speed of the internet often reaches high levels and data and mobile packages are affordable for many. Nevertheless, the digital divide in the country remains wide to the disadvantage of the elderly, the Roma, women and other vulnerable groups living in rural areas. 

In terms of legislation, Romania boasts a media law framework that is compatible with EU legislation and that, in theory, should help create an enabling environment for independent journalism. However, implementation of the law is lacking and policies that regulate practice do not always function. Journalists routinely complain about problems related to access to public information and job conditions.

Media regulation is almost exclusively shaped by state bodies such as parliamentary committees, state-administered regulators and, occasionally, MPs who usually have little to no expertise in the field. The recently created data regulator is also led by people selected on political merits rather than competence. As a result, the data watchdog began to attack journalists instead of protecting people’s personal data.

A new generation of brash journalism outlets challenge the highly concentrated media system, but only outlets able to generate sufficient cash on their own can afford to be apolitical, and only a few major television chains and best-selling tabloids newspapers are in that position. The rest, particularly print media and outlets serving local communities, are highly vulnerable to pressures coming from all directions: politicians and political parties, government and municipalities or local businessmen.

Local media are in a dire situation. The sector seems to be diverse and competitive: hundreds of media outlets cover the country’s 41 counties. Many of them earn profits, but the reality behind these figures is much grimmer. Most of the local media outlets in Romania survive solely thanks to local municipalities or strongmen. The sharp decline experienced by local media, most notably print and radio, is of particular concern in a country where the citizens are still reluctant to pay for news and journalism.

Key Findings

With dozens of nationwide and local television and radio channels, over 3,000 printed publications and a fragmented media ownership structure, Romania’s media market looks vibrant and diverse. Romanian media legislation is compatible with European Union (EU) legislation and local regulators monitor broadcasters’ compliance with legal provisions. Romania also boasts surprisingly competitive and accessible technology: its internet is one of the fastest in the world, and data and mobile packages are affordable for many. If access were measured strictly on technical terms, Romanians would look like a highly privileged people.

Photo by Scheier

However, Romanian media operate in an adverse environment, hardly enabling independent journalism. Two companies dominate the television market. Local media pinch pennies. The only space where journalism can thrive is the internet where news portals are mushrooming. However, many of them are small and struggling financially, grappling with a public whose trust in media and journalists is at low levels and who is generally unwilling to spend money on media content. All that dims prospects for the future of Romania’s independent journalism.

Government, Politics and Regulation

Realitatea TV, a Romanian all-news television station, was officially declared bankrupt last April after the station’s reorganization plan was rejected by a local court. It took eight years for the Romanian courts to send the station, whose debts exceed €25m, into bankruptcy. But if you switch on the telly in Romania today, you will still be able to watch the channel. Its website is running as usual. Local experts say that the process of Realitatea’s closure will be long, months, maybe years.

Realitatea TV is not a singular case. Debt forgiveness is common in the Romanian media industry. In the 2000s, the leading channel Pro TV was allowed by regulators to operate in spite of its Himalaya of debt. In exchange, it toned down its critical reporting.

Such habits haven’t helped, turning media companies into political tools. Regulators bear much of the blame for it. They fail to reinforce legislation and, more importantly, lack strategic vision, according to a report Government, Politics and Regulation: Romania.

There is a serious lack of expertise in the regulatory bodies and this results in a lack of strategy in managing the field,” wrote Dumitrita Holdis, the CMDS researcher who authored the report.

Take the National Audiovisual Council, Romania’s broadcast operator. Although its members should be appointed on professional grounds, politics dictates who gets a seat on the council. “Political appointments are customary and a battle for political representation takes place when new members are appointed,” Holdis wrote.

The newly created data regulator is also led by people selected on political merits rather than competence. More specifically, political loyalty to the Social Democratic Party has thus far played a key role. Beyond that, nothing seems to matter. For example, the head of the data regulator, Ancuţa Gianina Opre, has been investigated for corruption in her previous job at Romania’s state agency in charge of returning properties confiscated by the communist regime before 1989. Not exactly the track record needed for a regulator’s job.

With such people at their helm, unsurprisingly, the data watched began to attack journalists instead of protecting people’s personal data. Using the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), EU’s law regulating data protection practices, they want a local investigative journalism outfit to disclose the sources of information that were used in a series of reports about the illegal business deals of the former Social Democrat leader, Liviu Dragnea, who now does prison time.

This is hardly an environment where independent journalism can thrive and no change is expected soon. In a country where it takes nearly a decade to declare an insolvency, media policy is likely to continue on its helter-skelter path. 

Funding Journalism

In Romania, media outlets able to generate sufficient cash on their own can afford to be apolitical. But only a few major television chains and best-selling tabloids newspapers are in that position. The rest, particularly print media and outlets serving local communities, are highly vulnerable to pressures coming from all directions: politicians and political parties, government and municipalities or local businessmen.

With more than 3,000 printed publications and dozens of television and radio channels, the Romanian media looks vibrant and diverse. But in reality, a handful of players control most of it. A few large companies including Central European Media Enterprises (CME), Intact Media Group and RCS&RDS have amassed massive economic and symbolic power to influence media content at a very deep level.

But unlike some neighboring countries such as Hungary or Bulgaria, where media has been captured by a small group of oligarchs and politicians, the Romanian media system is not anymore the fiefdom of a few powerful media moguls that was a decade or so ago. “The system still sports a high concentration of power, especially in the television field, but the dominance has more an institutional than personal character typical for mogul-dominated media systems,” Dumitrita Holdis, the report’s author, wrote.

Television remains the preferred medium for news consumption in Romania: some 84% of the public uses television as a primary source of news. In contrast, the print press is facing the worst crisis ever, following a dramatic decline in circulation and funding. The sector is moribund. Only two nationwide newspapers, both tabloids, sell more than 10,000 copies, which is an extremely low figure for a country of 19 million people.

The state is an active player in the media, but that doesn’t help. It exerts power by funding or de-funding news media companies. The government directly funds the public broadcasters, TVR and Radio Romania, purchases advertising space in the media and uses tax amnesty, which are all ways to control media.

Local media are in a dire situation. The sector seems to be diverse and competitive: hundreds of media outlets cover the country’s 41 counties. Many of them earn profits. But the reality behind these figures is much grimmer. Most of the local media outlets in Romania survive solely thanks to local municipalities or oligarchs. Worryingly, news deserts have expanded at a rapid pace in recent years to swathes of the country. In rural areas, newspapers are not distributed anymore and internet use is frugal, leaving many with the sole option of watching the large television channels.

On the other hand, innovation is reaching new peaks in Romania’s journalism. A slew of journalistic initiatives are experimenting with new formats and funding models. They include Recorder, a video journalism project founded in 2017 by four local journalists, which is experiencing a steady growth in income; DOR, a magazine focusing storytelling and long-form reporting that supports itself through subscriptions and sales of merchandise, but also advertising and grants; and Safielumina.ro, an investigative portal specializing in coverage of church affairs, particularly the Orthodox Church of Romania (BOR), a powerful and corrupt institution.

However, most of these outlets are catering to a group of mostly affluent people who live in the city. As Romanians are still reluctant to pay for news and journalism, they are still looking for their business model, remaining highly vulnerable to unforeseen changes in the market or to attacks from wealthy businesses and governments.

Technology, Public Sphere and Journalism

The tools Romanians use to access the internet reflect larger trends in technology and digital media. Smartphones are now ever-present; the internet is used by more than two-thirds of the population, a significant increase from less than 40% in 2010.

Photo by Gian Cescon

Specific for Romania is the country’s sometimes surprisingly performant and accessible technology: the speed of the internet often reaches high levels and data and mobile packages are affordable for many. If access were measured strictly on technical terms, Romanians would look like a highly privileged people.

Nevertheless, the digital divide in the country remains wide to the disadvantage of the elderly, the Roma, women and other vulnerable groups living in rural areas, according to the report. “Some Romanians are luckier than others in having performant technology available to them: young and mature adults from urban areas benefit the most. In contrast, older people living in rural areas still lack affordable and easy access to the internet,” Dumitrita Holdis, the report’s author wrote.

There are other differences compared to most countries in the European Union: Romania has lower internet penetration rates, higher television consumption and a saturated mobile telephony market. The internet is still a platform primarily used for communicating and for collecting information, while internet banking, watching videos online, and e-commerce are not very common.

Technology giants such as Google, Facebook and Microsoft dominate the operating system, browser and social media markets. A concentration of economic power is also present in the telecom market with four big players (Orange, Vodafone, Telekom and Digi) divvying up the telephone, internet and cable business.

According to Ms Holdis, “while people benefit from a very competitive market and enjoy fairly cheap services, the implications of convergence on the content made available to consumers are less beneficial for citizens.

If major companies start controlling both the infrastructure and media content, the production of good quality journalism is likely to be affected. If these companies also establish ties with the political elites and start endorsing certain ideologies, they can start having an unwarranted impact on society. So far, except for Digi Communications, telecom companies have rarely intervened in discussing or taking positions on public affairs, so these worries are only hypothetical. But they are grounded in practices that could be observed already for years in Romania.

Social media is becoming increasingly influential as a source of information, with more than two-thirds of Romanians getting their news from social media platforms, especially from Facebook. Therefore, the role that social media, particularly Facebook, play in spreading disinformation is problematic for independent media and journalism.

Some 72% of Romanians think that fake news is a common phenomenon, a slightly higher proportion than the 69% average in the EU. Recent debates have prompted calls for regulation of the online media, but civil society organizations have been critical of such initiatives, fearing that they could pave the way to the reintroduction of censorship.

“People lack understanding of how the internet works, how algorithms function and how news is spread online, a problem that needs to be addressed if any serious debate on freedom, privacy and access is going to be socially inclusive,” the report concludes.

Methodology

This report is part of the Media Influence Matrix project initiated by the Center for Media, Data and Society (CMDS) and run as part of the Media & Power Research Consortium.

The country reports in the Media Influence Matrix series aim to research the changing landscape of:

  • government and policy space, with a focus on the changes in the policy and regulatory environment;
  • funding, with a focus on the key funding sources of journalism and the impact on editorial coverage;
  • technology in the public sphere, with a focus on how technology companies, through activities such as automation and algorithm-based content distribution, impact news media and journalism.

The research focuses on news media, including newly emerged players. The study is neither aimed at exhaustively mapping the entire media industry nor is it intended to target specific media sectors. Instead, it maps the most popular and most influential news media on a country-by-country basis and analyzes their changing relations with politics, government and technology companies.

Researchers are collecting data and information following a common set of research guidelines (See Research Guidelines in Appendix below). The analysis in these reports is carried out by researchers with experience in the country covered by the report under the guidance of a team of editorial supervisors and experts. The reports are reviewed by a team of reviewers selected by our advisory boards.

For each country report, a list of sources used in each chapter of the report is published. In the categorization of technology companies in all country reports we use the methodology of the Ranking Digital Rights project, which divides companies in two groups. The first group, internet and mobile, includes the so-called “mobile ecosystems,” companies that create mobile devices and products. In the second category, telecommunications companies, we include service operators that offer connection and access services such as voice, data or cable connections.

For detailed information on the data collection methodology for the Media Influence Matrix report on Romania, download the pdf below. 

Close