Diverging ideas of an emerging profession
Representing the journalistic community in post-socialist Romania

Urban Larssen

Department of Social Anthropology, Stockholm University
Paper presented at the Fourth Nordic Conference on the Anthropology of Post-Socialism, April 2002


To download, print, or bookmark, click: http://www.anthrobase.com/txt/L/Larssen_U_01.htm.
To cite, quote this address and the download date. Not for commercial use.
2002 Urban Larssen. Distributed by www.AnthroBase.com.
Do not remove this notice from digital or paper copies of this text. 



Brief background
The NGO-sphere
The Romanian Press Club
Summing up



This paper deals with two current discourses centered on the journalistic profession in Romania today. By using a discourse perspective, I am suggesting that these two groups are involved in a struggle over the role as the legitimate representative of the journalistic community. The first one is connected to the rather active Romanian NGO-sphere working on the media, the other to the so-called Romanian Press Club, representing the most influential media institutions. The struggle is based on the politically, economically and socially very powerful potential of mass media and news production and the idea that representing journalists produces symbolic capital in all these spheres. As I will show, the two groups use different means of power and knowledge in achieving their goals.

My general interest is to study how discourses such as the ones I'll talk about manifest themselves in concrete social contexts, how they achieve relevance in relation with the specific situation or the practical problems of the common person, in this case the individual Romanian journalist.

It seems clear to me that the media in Romania today is very heterogeneous. This follows writings of for example Thompson (1995) who suggests that the media industry is deeply interwoven with the uneven distribution of power and resources in society. At the same time the journalistic community in Romania remain rather fragmented. The reason for this fragmentation is an issue in its own right and to start with it might be necessary to mention some of the characteristics of the Romanian media during the last 12 years.

Brief background(*)

In the first years after 1989 the market mushroomed, bringing for example the number of daily newspapers from 36 in the whole country to more than 100 in less than two years. Publications appeared overnight, some of them operated by people who had sold their color TV-sets in order to gather the needed money. Different groups or individuals established themselves on the market, practicing a kind of revolutionary journalism, meant to change the world overnight. There were practically no laws regulating the media and a big interest on behalf of the population to consume information and consequently potentially big money to gain. The people who found work as journalists were coming from various backgrounds. A lot of them were young engineers due to the large number of technical faculties during communist times and to the fact that many of these had as students collaborated in the small but not insignificant numbers of student journals that existed before 1989, whose critical stance the authorities would sometimes allow, and, perhaps needless to say, where a certain interpretation of the notion 'civil society' dominated, one based on resistance towards a totalitarian state.

The graduates of 'reformed' public and newly established private journalistic faculties, entering the market since approximately 1995, had problems in being accepted, since there is quite a difference between what is being taught at university and what is practiced in 'real life'. In fact the issue of education is cast upon a market where many people see the qualities connected to journalism as more a question of common sense and for example an ability to write well, than special education. There are more than 40 different media associations in Romania today, but no 'common body' of trade union that brings together journalists across institutions and geographical regions. There is also intense antagonism among the leaders, creating a developmental stalemate on behalf of the journalistic community itself.

All in all, I would say that the situatio is still a bit chaotic and it is reasonable to talk about several kinds of journalistic practices and public spheres, each with its own dynamics and rules, each offering different resources for identification. The Romanian Press Club and some of the NGOs working on the media have stepped in as alternative bodies. Let me now turn to these.

The NGO-sphere

Although it's interesting and necessary for a thorough study, for reasons of clarity I will not go into details on the different characteristics and histories of the various NGOs working on the media. Generally, it is working towards transforming Romanian journalism into something similar to that which exists in the West, that is to say to have Romanian journalism align with European or international standards. Journalists are here seen as key actors playing the role of 'watchdogs' in a democratic society. It works in close connection with international organizations, such as for example London-based human rights organization Article19 and the International Federation of Journalists. Besides using Western know-how when carrying out their tasks, they are to large extent dependent on financial support from international funders, such as for example Council of Europe and US agency for international development, USAID.

Although difficult to demarcate exactly, I would say that the Romanian NGO-sphere working on the media consists of less than 10 different Romanian organizations mainly based in Bucharest, some working together in several projects, and a number of individual actors such as journalists, politicians from the opposition, lawyers, Romanian and foreign scholars or experts. Many of the persons involved are women and many are examples of individuals at ease with multiple identities; ethnic, religious, professional and so forth. The activists carrying out the more basic work are often young people, students of law or journalism, or recently graduated. The responsibility of the delegated tasks assigned to the lower levels of the organization is substantial. The more prominent actors are frequently traveling to neighboring countries and to conferences and various meetings in Western European countries and US, where they function as experts and partners for future and on-going projects.

The close ties to the international community of world organizations, makes the Romanian NGOs and their members part of a global community, in this case promoting a certain kind of journalism, one might call it 'a Western kind'. To a large extent, a transitional perspective is initially helpful here, to understand how these organizations mobilize their initiatives and forces, how they relate to each other, and to the international community. This is a research field in its own right. Borrowing ideas from Hemment (1996), the term 'NGO-sphere' should in this context be understood as a transnational network of organizations, ideas and people that not only is the subject of transforming media worldwide, but also constitutes a complex discursive field of ongoing transactions, and explicitly, the re-drawing of boundaries between state and society, public and private, East and West. Not least, it produces a context in which people from both West and East can make a career, as described by for example the anthropologist Sampson (1996). Transition in turn relates to the idea of diffusion of world models, developed by for example Meyer and Boli (1997), where world associations are linked to local partners in a striving to promote certain principles or models with claims to universal values and where a kind of 'world culture' appears.

Western models, then, are at the core of the practice of the NGOs. Their work takes the form of projects, conferences, educational programs and outright lobbying on issues connected to the transformation of legal frameworks and professional practices. As an example, the Media Monitoring Agency is working on the following main areas: freedom of expression, media monitoring (on issues such as for example nationalistic tendencies in reporting), ethics in reporting diversity, and training the media receiver to resist media manipulation. It also edits and distributes a newsletter about the Roma minority. Conferences are often organized with and for journalists and often with foreign experts participating.

There can be little doubt that these NGOs have had big influence on the development of the journalistic profession and the media. During the last regime (1996-2000), with the democratic convent ruling, Media Monitoring Agency and the US-sponsored Center for Independent Journalism took place in a certain parliamentarian committee on media and culture, as representatives of civil society. They still hold these places, taking part in discussions on issues concerning media. They successfully lobbied for a new law on free access to information, and the passing of this law in 2001 was more or less a work of their hands, with the support of Article19. A recent important thing Media Monitoring Agency did was to establish a nation-wide journalist association, where one of the main purposes was to give way for a less Bucharest-centered discussion on the conditions for journalism, and bring in experience and spokespersons from the provinces where for example the corrupt ties between politicians, judges and businessmen are stronger. As part of the program on protection of journalists, they also organized a series of seminars around the country where judges and lawyers from the provinces were invited and informed about the routines of European Court of Human Rights, especially cases against journalists. The purpose was to try to tackle the apparently widespread negative idea of journalists among judges and more generally to address and involve these professionals on issues concerning the media.

Apart from the specific projects carried out by these NGOs and the institutional relationships they are involved in, especially a couple of them has played a significant role in creating a social space in which a sense of resistance and professional community is produced and circulated. The Center for Independent Journalism is a case in point. Located in spacious and comfortable office rooms downtown Bucharest, including lecture and meeting room, studio for editing, a well equipped library with literature on journalism and a large number of periodical press, it offers an environment where the talk and the learning about free media and journalistic practices is constantly upheld. It runs a wide range of projects which brings together high school and university students, practicing journalists, NGO-activists, visitors from abroad and other persons involved in the media. By some journalists that has undergone education through the center, it is described as very serious concerning the quality of information and expertise, and also as a kind of contemplative resting place, a place to load your batteries, as opposed to the stressy environment of the newsroom where, in addition, there seem to be little reflection about the work that is being done.

Another example, conferences or meetings sometimes end with highly appreciated parties, which from an anthropological point of view is not an insignificant thing. At these parties, one might for example find a Belgian representative of a world wide organization, having arrived from Brussels the same day, drinking beer together with a couple of 'simple' journalists from a provincial town, and watching, on stage, the NGO-leader playing some kind of mocking game with the mayor of Bucharest. This example could illustrate an aspect of identity or community formation, that it is not only the ideological claims or theoretical grounds of free media and protection of journalists that are important, but also how this body of thoughts are put forth, in what circumstances, when and how it is celebrated and for whom. This is a facet of the current situation that falls well into the theories about community as a symbolic construction, as formulated by for example Cohen (1985).

The Romanian Press Club

The other discourse is centered on the so-called Romanian Press Club. The press club functions mainly as a business cartel and lobby group, protecting first and foremost the investments of media barons. It was established a few years ago by leading media organizations and started out with two sections, one for owners and one for senior editors. A section for journalists was added shortly after, but its practical significance is marginal. In official statements, the club is said to represent 12 000 journalists, but this is in fact the number of employed journalists in the different media institutions connected to the club, not the number of paying members, which is around 70 according to the secretariat. And the high official number indicates that it might not be only journalists, rather all kinds of employees, which in turn indicate the loose use of the term as well as the importance laid on such a statement: representing journalists produces symbolic cultural capital.

The club is a very powerful group, partly connected to big business groups and to some extent also to the current political regime. For example, one of the board members of the club is a former editor-in-chief and nowadays counselor of president Iliescu. He is also board member of the state-owned distribution company, which practically has monopoly on the distribution of newspapers in the provinces.

By some the club is viewed as a facilitator of dialogue between journalists on the one hand and political and business leaders on the other. The members of the honorary council of the club are mostly men above 50. Several of them with some kind of cultural and social capital that connects them with the past. Some of them worked in the media during communist times, some were connected to the post-communist web of influential contacts and were able to exchange their former positions into the new order, for example as editors-in-chief of newspapers that were established along strictly political lines. The character of this new class of 'media elite' indicates that the media in Romania hasn't undergone a radical change. Rather, there is a level of continuity in the power of the media.

At any rate, as some of my interviews shows, the club has gained credibility among journalists by initiatives such as a large annual journalist award ceremony, broadcast directly by one of the main national television-channels. Interestingly, almost without exception only journalists from the club's media institutions have received awards. Also, the club has organized a media expo and in connection to the elections in the year 2000, an appreciated press-center where the media met representatives of political parties in a series of press conferences.

The club has developed a code of ethics for responsible journalism, but these lofty ideals are not observed in its entirety. My research shows that the power exercised by club members as owners-editors at their respective work places hardly gives room for unbiased critical investigation or the profusion of journalistic professional organization. In fact, the political and economic pressures, which is very much part of the Romanian media today, tend to leave little space for the professional integrity and authority of the journalist him or herself. On the contrary, in their respective work places, the members of the club tend to downplay the role of the 'simple' journalist who often ends up as an information gatherer in a process of production of strongly opinionated news, related to the specific constellation of power and money connected to each media outlet. Even worse, the statutes of the club principally encourage board members to blacklist journalists who criticize the club or oppose rules set up by the different companies connected to the club. Journalists have received warnings that they will never find work in the Romanian media and these threats can indeed be carried out.

More importantly, recently the club has embarked on a slightly nationalistic road. As a clear example, currently the club is trying to establish a transnational Balkan Press Club and a special Balkan news agency. The motivation for special transnational Balkan media institutions, as has been officially declared, is that the countries in the region have similar historical and cultural background, and that the information delivered by Western news agencies, such as Reuters and Associated Press, gives a discrediting image of the region.

* * *

Now, the juxtapositioning of these groups, I suggest, is not an abstract or theoretical interpretation, but a social reality as both of them to a large extent are putting themselves in contradistinction to the other. This was especially clear at the celebration of the World Free Press Day in 2001, when both of them organized an event more or less isolated from each other. The NGOs held a one-day conference in a hotel down-town together with most of the journalist associations and some representatives of international organizations. Members of the Romanian Press Club participated in a reception at the presidency, together with Iliescu himself. On a more day-to-day basis they are frequently accusing each other of doing bad things to the journalists or to the security of the nation, of not being serious, of being corrupted, of not understanding which is the right path for the media to take and of using whatever means accessible to egoistically gain wealth and power.

A point that follows from using a discursive perspective, is that neither one of these groups constitutes the true or righteous way per se of understanding the current situation. Rather, the tension itself, the struggle, the existence of these polar positions is what brings us closer to understanding the Romanian scene. Truth is embedded in each one of the discourses and they are not necessarily compatible.

In the case of NGOs, the main reference point is situated outside the local context, in terms of money and knowledge. This is perhaps best manifested in the way NGOs are funded. To be able to pursue their goal, they have to meet criteria mostly set by Western organizations and political bodies. This, I believe, can be questioned since the Romanian local partners of international organizations have a lot to say about what projects to run and how. More profoundly though, the claimed true way of organizing the media and defining the role of journalists, which the NGOs base their work upon, are to be found in the globalized business of democracy development, based on values formulated in concrete documents such as Article 19 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, defining the universal right to freedom of expression.

In the case of the press club, money is not a problem in the same way. Considering the range of important media institutions connected to the club, it is reasonable to say that the club in fact holds the power of the Romanian media today, and their need to look further than their own peers in certifying their values is less precarious, or at least have been so far. This reasoning can be converted into terms of space. The NGO-sphere is network-based and manifests itself mostly at conferences, seminars and such. The members of the press club, on the other hand, controls most of the office space in which journalists are put to work.

Also interesting is that from the perspective of international organizations, which to a large extent means the "international community", the NGO-sphere is considered to be the part which is "doing good", it's the NGOs that constitutes "civil society", "pro-democracy-movement" etc. Personally, having experienced the working conditions of some Romanian journalists, I'm inclined to agree with this position. There is perhaps something anti- or at least non-democratic about the press club, but I also think that one has to take into account that this position involves but one interpretation of civil society. The club as facilitator of dialogue between the state and business sector on the one hand and representatives of the most influential media operators on the other, involves another interpretation where civil society involves the breaking up of society in different sectors of 'interests' as opposed to the state. I have deliberately chosen not to talk about the state, but here the concerns of the Romanian press club must perhaps be understood as a struggle against the state, which has showed a tendency to install regulations of the media, in similar veins as during communist times.

A point has been made by Castells (1997), that with the development of a certain, although complicated, world community, civil society is actually withering. This is due to the fact the logic of the processes of power formation has changed. Although civil society can be sort equalized with the end of really existing socialism, a decade after the changes in 1989 it is not clear what constitutes civil society anymore, and with Castells one might even ask whether it is possible or analytically helpful to use the notion at all. This is especially interesting in the case of the NGO-sector, with its 'global' partners and it's kind of non-space community formation.

This brings me to another aspect of the struggle between the NGOs and the press club: its relation to a historically significant and salient debate in the Romanian political culture, namely the one on the Romanian national identity and its relation towards Europe. I can't dwell into this here, but let me just say that the struggle between these groups can in some sense be seen as a continuation of the discourse on the national identity and the country's relation to Europe. It's a struggle between what Verdery (1996) has called "regimes of legitimation and control which strives to introduce new symbols, redefine old ones and monopolize their definitions".

To a large extent, the NGOs are struggling to gain credibility by setting themselves up in contradistinction to the press club and promoting democratization and modernization with all that it is said to involve. Being part of the international community becomes a sort of weapon in this struggle. The NGO activists are able to acquire cultural capital by using or adopting notions like 'European standard'. The club similarly opposes the NGOs simply by more or less ignoring them, or anyhow part of them. Perhaps it's possible to talk about 'traditional' claims here, like 'the security of the nation', but in more concrete terms the consolidation of the current power. To some extent even the press club is using internationally sanctioned values such as for example 'journalistic ethics', in order perhaps to please the international community or to be able to run projects of their own. It is significant that the move towards a more nationalistic strategy comes at the same time as the club looses one of its international supporters, the World Association of Newspapers.

This, then, would be one way of understanding what happens when transition, so to speak, 'goes local'. The international community, with support from its local partners (or the other way if you want) tries to impose or deliver solutions based on principles with universal values, in other words constituting a sort of non-political agenda, promoting certain basic aspects of building modern societies. Viewing it from the national setting though, the NGO-sphere gets involved in the discourse on Romania's identity towards Europe, with its nationalistic connotations. Here the externally non-political model of journalism used by the NGOs, connected to transition and world culture, becomes internally highly political as it comes to symbolize Europe. One aspect of this version of Europe is that it implies a number of principles connected to open society: free access to information, journalistic integrity and protection of sources etc. And to turn these principles into full blooming would, I believe, probably render the fundaments of the current media power invalid.

Summing up

Let me then sum up. With all this said, what about the journalists? It remains for me to analyze the material on the journalists I have been studying, to be able to answer the question as to how these discourses achieve relevance in the specific situation of the journalists. On the one hand, the media is by some journalists considered a dynamic market and they seem to be content with what it can offer in terms of challenging tasks and stimulating work atmosphere. On the other hand, if the democratization process is a painful one, the journalists are the one category of professionals that seems to be most vulnerable in the current configuration of power.

A tentative general picture would perhaps be that most journalists are aware of the discrepancy between real and ideal journalism, for example. Some are frustrated for having invested four or five years of their lives in university and yet not being able to practice what they were taught. Some have experienced the grave sides of the business, where the limits of freedom of expression turns into physical risks. This forces some to look for other jobs or even leave the country. Others accept the situation because at least they have a job. Some journalists are more at ease because they believe it is really only in extreme cases that they are limited. Even more at ease are those who share the political view of the newspaper.

Members of the Romanian Press Club are often regarded as 'the old communist pack', at least among young journalists. The ambition of the club is seen as 'business as usual', namely influential people using their power to gain more wealth. But to act upon this is on the hand difficult, and on the other there is the idea that at least they are opening up a space in which much good work can still be done.

One problem for the NGOs is that although many journalists agree with the idea of international standards, and this term is frequently used as an indication of quality, few of them are aware of the work carried out by them. It certainly doesn't help that most international funders have withdrawn from the Romanian scene and moved elsewhere with their money. But on the other hand, the ideas brought forward by NGOs are pouring into the country through many other channels as well: foreign media, internet and indeed by the reorganization and development of other professions, whereby the issue of for example labor laws and professional integrity are put in focus. And, as I have mentioned, there is also some skepticism directed at the NGOs, thought of as cleverly using the financial sources available, but not knowing what the real journalistic work is actually about.

The idea on behalf of the journalists can be paired with the average citizen: disillusioned by the overwhelming presence of corruption and clientelism of public life and far more preoccupied with material concerns than issues related to for instance professionalism of the media or national identity and any perceived threat to it. 45 years of media as party-propaganda, with "official versions" of reality always confronted with "unofficial versions", a certain hermeneutic way of reading news (that is to say between the lines, 'reading' what is not written, focusing on who says something rather than what is said etc), is perhaps still influencing people in their understandings of society. Here I will have to ask what it is with Romanian culture that shapes current processes and to what extent, e.g. indigenous notions about trust, deceit, cooperation, collectivity, or individual achievement.

I'm facing a more serious problem or task though: when talking about journalistic community, perhaps I am importing the issue of 'community', prioritizing too much community-based order when here we have tremendous flux of currents and counter-currents (money, people, buzzwords, genres, etc). Perhaps it's relevant because some kind of fluid order might indeed be said to emerge from the multiple interactions of situated agents. I think this is evident by looking at recent activity of the NGO-sphere and The Romanian Press Club.

At this point, it is an easier task to describe the two discourses I have presented here as produced and upheld by certain class-specific social groups with their own agendas, than to weigh it against a possible journalist community, one simple reason being that no such 'purely' journalistic community exists. The discourse of the press club is to some extent a reality of social organization, since most journalists are employees of the club's members. The members have sort of used the journalists in trying to gain public authority in order to keep control of the media. Recently a more nationalistic vocabulary has moved in. This is one example of how journalism comes into being and it is clear to me that journalists are in many cases not treated well and have little power over their own situation. However, the club's approach risks being stigmatized as "bad" in a globalized world of human rights values, a fact that the NGO-sphere can sufficiently use for their purposes.


Castells, M. 1997. The Information Age. Economy, Society and Culture. Vol II: The Power of Identity. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Cohen, A P.1989. The Symbolic Construction of Community. London: Routledge.

Hemment, J. 1998. "Colonization or Liberation: The Paradox of NGOs in Postsocialist Societies. The Anthropology of East Europe Review. Vol16, No.1, pp 31-39

Meyer, W., J Boli, G. M. Thomas, and F. O. Ramirez. 1997. "World Society and the Nation State". American Journal of Sociology, vol. 103 no. 1: 104-181

Thompson, J B. 1995. The Media and Modernity. A Social Theory of the Media. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Verdery, K. 1996. What Was Socialism and What Comes Next? Princeton: Princeton, N J: University Press.

Sampson, S. 1996. "The Social Life of Projects: Importing Civil Society to Albania". In Hann, Chris and Elizabeth Dunn (eds). Civil Society: Challenging Western Models. London: Routledge.


Among many people with whom I talked during my stay in Bucharest, I want to thank especially Ioana Avadani, director of Center for Independent Journalism, who generously and continuously delivered stories about recent past and burning present in the life of Romanian journalism and NGOs working on the media.