Fighting for the Freedoms of the Press in Romania

Istvan Deak (center) with his two mentors, journalist Marina Constantinoiu on the left and SEEMO SG, Oliver Vujovic on the right, presenting the “silent migration from Romania during communism” investigation in Ljubljana, Slovenia, in 2018.

 

The following information and answers were submitted by Deak Istvan. He is an incoming Central and Eastern European Journalism Program (CEEJ) Fellow. The CEEJ program was postponed and the fellows will be arriving in the U.S. to begin their fellowship in the spring. Until then they will be participating in a webinar series and will be highlighted through a CEEJ blog post series. Q&A Series with CEEJ Fellows Pt 7: Deak Istvan

What is your topic or content interest and why?

In the last 15 years I’ve worked for all types of media: hosted a weekly show at the regional Nova TV and Nova FM Brasov, sports envoy at GazetaSporturilor, foreign desk editor at Jurnalul National, editor at EvenimentulZilei daily and EvenimentulIstoric weekly. Since 2015, I’ve been part of a unique project, an independent news platform functioning as an NGO and non-profit organization: miscareaderezistenta.ro. At the moment, I’m covering foreign affairs and conducting an investigation on the silent migration under communism in Romania.

The Evenimentul Zilei national daily hosted an interview with Istvan Deak and his colleague about the “silent migration from Romania during communism” investigation.

What brought you to the area of journalism, what made you want to become a journalist, is there someone that inspired you?

Journalism has chosen me and I am grateful for it. The person responsible for what I am today is Marina Constantinou, editor-in-chief of Jurnalul National for almost 15 years. She’s been my idol, mentor and best friend for the last 10 years. She opened my eyes to foreign affairs and we launched a media campaign together in 2015, on the silent migrations under socialist Romania and the killings at the Romanian border. Till 1989, Romanians were not allowed to leave the country unless granted by the authorities. More than 100,000 Romanians decided to defect to the West, many ended up in the U.S. A still unknown number of Romanians and foreigners were killed at the borders between Romania, Hungary and Serbia while doing so. This topic is still taboo in Romania and is completely missing from the history books. Our investigation has highlighted several cases of torture and murder. Our research was awarded a special mention at the CEI-SEEMO Award for outstanding merits in investigative journalism and the Erhard Busek Award for better understanding in the region. The project also won a small grant via the “Reporters in field” program for investigative journalists funded by the Robert Bosch Foundation.

Why does journalism matter?

Journalism matters as long as it is independent and unbiased, and as long as it brings the public’s attention to information that authorities and perpetrators are trying to hide. I encourage young journalists to join media unions, associations and organizations that able to provide them support in case if they are being threatened, brought to court, even by their own supervisors or media organizations with the risk of losing their job. We need to use cross-border collaboration to systematically highlight marginalized perspectives and shed light on under-reported angles to crucial news stories of our time.

What is your primary challenge as a journalist in your country?

The lack of funding for quality journalism, but also the lack of unions, associations, and organizations eager and able to help journalists in need. This is the main reason why in 2012 I’ve decided to join the SouthEast Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO). SEEMO is an umbrella organization protecting and furthering freedom of the press and improving the standards and practices of journalism in South East and Central Europe. SEEMO was able to provide a platform for debates on relevant regional issues; informing journalists and editors in the region about on-going activities in the media field; developing exchange programs; looking for areas of cooperation between local journalist organizations and serving as a link to international press freedom organizations. Annually SEEMO organizes the SouthEast Europe Media Forum, Commission on Media Policy, but also conferences, seminars and workshops on minority groups, Roma people, LGBTQ+ and persons with disabilities.

What is your current understanding of freedom of the press or what it might look like in your country?

There can not be quality journalism and independent media without freedom of the press. That’s why I got more and more involved with SEEMO activities, in fighting for press freedoms, and in 2017 I was elected board member for international cooperation. One of SEEMO’s main activities is protecting the freedom of the press by helping journalists and media outlets in SouthEast Europe. SEEMO’s press releases and letters of protest to governmental and other officials have had positive results in the past. Part of the regular press freedom activity of SEEMO is Press Freedom Missions and Monitoring Visits. In the past, SEEMO has provided direct help to journalists in the region by giving them technical equipment and other assistance. SEEMO also provided the necessary aid to journalists, who received death threats. While Marina Constantinou is an inspiration in providing quality journalism standards, Oliver Vujovic, the Secretary-General of SEEMO, has been a mentor in terms of fighting for the freedom of the press in the region. He has also actively supported our media campaign on the silent migration in Romania, by organizing presentations of the outcomes of our investigation in Vienna (Austria), Ljubljana (Slovenia), Belgrade (Serbia), Tirana (Albania) and Sofia (Bulgaria).

What is the one thing you are most looking forward during your program in the U.S.?

I want to feel and see with my own eyes how the first amendment of the Constitution of the United States is respected and implemented: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press..” In 2017, I’ve represented SEEMO in Montreal, Canada, gaining membership of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX), a global organization fighting for press freedom as part of their promoting and defending the freedom of expression mission. The U.S. IFEX members are not that happy about how authorities are sometimes trying to block or cumber access to public information and files. Access to files, especially in the national police and army archives, is still a burden in our work as a journalist.

What are some of the things that have colored your impression of the U.S.?

My impression of the U.S. relies mostly on media coverage. It makes me sad that the media is used as a tool to polarize society. Unfortunately, I don’t think this will change in the near future.

What are you hoping to accomplish with this fellowship?

I will use my time in the U.S. to learn more about the way media outlets are surviving amid the Covid-19 crises, if there are any successful business models to be adapted and implemented in SouthEast Europe. I would also love to present the media campaign I’ve been working on to a broader audience in Raleigh, North Carolina. It would be great to find organizations like SEEMO, fighting for the freedom of the press, quality journalism and safety of journalists in North Carolina, or even on the East Coast, to build a bridge of cooperation over the Atlantic Ocean.