HUMAN RIGHTS IN ROMANIA/NEWS REPORTING IN CHINA

Program 0110
March 6, 2001

This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.


DAN PAVEL [SIC]: What is difficult is to reform the mentalities of the policemen. So they don’t have this feeling that they are public servants, paid from your money. We still see this legacy of Communism in their mind, of not taking care of the citizens, or on the contrary, to punish them or to repress them. So democracy is not consolidated here. It’s on the edge.

KRISTIN MCHUGH: This week on Common Ground, Romania’s troubling human rights record. Plus, staying on top of the news in China.

SUSAN LAWRENCE: The government has put out rules about what kind of content is allowed on Chinese Web sites. The Web sites generally are quite careful about policing themselves because, to avoid further regulation. So the rule is generally that you’re not allowed to put up news that comes from any source outside of China. So the idea is that your news is meant to come from Communist-controlled, Communist Party-controlled publications.

KEITH PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter.

MCHUGH: And I’m Kristin McHugh. Romania, like most other former Communist states, is striving to become a member of the European Union. But this means the country has to meet the EU’s economic and social standards.

PORTER: In Romania’s case there are serious doubts about its human rights record. Three reports in the past five years-two from Amnesty International, the other from the UN’s Special Rapporteur [sic] on Torture, are critical of Romania for abuses committed by those who should be protecting the citizens-the police. Common Ground Correspondent Max Easterman reports on accusations of institutionalized violence and brutality against the citizens of Romania.

[with barnyard animals sounds in the background]

MAX EASTERMAN: Just over a year ago I had a chance meeting with a former officer of the Romanian police. Major Adrian Pîtu is now a political refugee, driven out of Romania because he tried to expose police abuses in the town of Lugoj, where he was based. He told me a story of institutionalized violence-beatings and intimidation-that go far beyond what’s still normal in some of the former Communist states. In the past year I’ve talked to many people who’ve confirmed his claims. I’ve read the official files he kept after the left the police, and these files have led me to this village near Lugoj in western Romania, a few miles from the Hungarian border.

I’ve come here to meet Constantine. He was accused by his neighbor of damaging a bench outside the house. An argument broke out, the local policeman was called, and Constantine was taken into custody. He was told to confess to the crime. When he refused, the policeman locked the door.

CONSTANTINE: [via a translator] He says, “He hit me with his fist on the ear. He became very angry. As I began to bleed, I asked him, ‘Why do you hit me? Do you think we still are under the Communist regime?’ Then he hit me again in my left kidney. And he kicked me in my testicles. My injuries caused impotence. Total impotence.

EASTERMAN: Damaging a wooden bench is a thin enough excuse for beating a man up. But sometimes it seems no excuse is needed at all. Silvia has a small real estate business in the town of Buzau [sic]. He took his girlfriend to a restaurant late one night. When they arrived there were already several men in uniform drinking beer. They were obviously police officers. A few minutes later they burst into the cubicle where Silvia and his friend were waiting for their meal to arrive.

SILVIA: [via a translator] They’d put on masks and they were carrying sticks and gas sprays. They pulled me up from the table, threw me onto the floor, and started beating and kicking me. I hadn’t said anything to them or done anything. But there was no explanation. They just beat me. Then they handcuffed me and dragged me outside to their van. They drove me to the police station and beat me all the time on the floor of the van. They even took my girlfriend along so she could watch me being hurt and humiliated.

EASTERMAN: So how long altogether where you beaten for?

SILVIA: [via a translator] It lasted over four hours. They seemed to be enjoying it.

EASTERMAN: Silvia still has no idea why he was attacked, except that the police had been drinking heavily. They finally threw him out onto the street at six in the morning and left him to find his way to a hospital. There the medical staff took some photos of his injuries. Silvia showed them to me.

EASTERMAN: [talking to Silvia] I think this one’s the most shocking because it shows the left buttock and thigh, which are completely contused. So, have you filed a complaint against the police?

SILVIA: [via a translator] Yes. But the only result so far has been that the officer in charge of the group that attacked me has been promoted. And the chief of police even offered me $2,000 to forget about it, although he didn’t put it that way. He said it was to reimburse my hospital expenses.

EASTERMAN: I’m crossing the border into Hungary, on my way to the city of Debrecen, and I’m going to meet Adrian Pîtu the man who first told me about what goes on inside the Romanian police.

[sound of people chanting and singing]

EASTERMAN: This is the migrants camp in Debrecen, the place where asylum seekers are kept. A gray, forlorn place, an old army barracks of blockhouses and worn-down exercise areas. Some of the asylum seekers are playing desultory games of volleyball, or as you can hear, singing songs from home. Major Adrian Pîtu fled here when it became clear his efforts to expose and stop police abuses in Romania were pointless. His colleagues had closed ranks against him; the authorities had accused him of stealing files. He’s fighting to clear his name. In spite of the pressure, the attacks, and the vilification, he sticks firmly to his story.

Adrian Pîtu: [via a translator] The main method of torture was what we called “the rotisserie.” We suspended a metal bar between two tables and then handcuffed the suspect’s hands around his knees and hung him upside down from the pole. He was then beaten on the soles of his feet with a wood or rubber truncheon until he was forced to admit to crimes he didn’t do. I saw this done tens of times. And it doesn’t leave any marks on the body, although suspects told me it was very painful.

EASTERMAN: Are you saying that it was part of the normal, daily life of police officers to be involved in this kind of torture to get the results they wanted?

Pîtu: [via a translator] Yes, of course. It was practically a daily activity. We often used to go the railway station because you can usually find plenty of jobless and homeless people there. We used to arrest them for not having ID cards and then we’d often find they had petty criminal records. We’d then systematically beat them in the way I described.

EASTERMAN: Adrian Pîtu joined the police in 1990, just after the Revolution that overthrew the Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. His grandfather had been a police officer, murdered by the Communists in 1948. Mr. Pîtu signed up partly to honor his grandfather’s memory, partly because he believed he’d be serving and strengthening the new Romanian democracy. What he found in the police severely tested that belief. It was a military organization that believed it was above the law, an agent of the state, not of the people. His beliefs were finally broken when in 1998 he was charged with illegally taking and tampering with police files, the very files he’d been using to make his case about brutality and corruption. He wanted to stay and fight the case, but events forced him to change his mind.

Pîtu: [via a translator] I was continuously threatened, starting in 1995. Then, after I started exposing corruption, a group of ROMA went to my wife’s workplace and threatened her. They said they were looking for me and when they found me they would kill me. She was followed all the time. My wife came to me and told me she was pregnant and if I wanted the child we had to leave the country. I knew I didn’t stand a chance and I couldn’t fight the mechanism on my own.

[sound of Pîtu’s child laughing

EASTERMAN: But Major Pîtu does have some support back in Romania-his MP in Lugoz, Ovidiu Dragonesca, has backed him from the beginning, and even took him to present his case to the then Minister of the Interior, Gabriel Dejeu.

OVIDIU DRAGONESCA: At the meeting, Mr. Dejeu already knew about the case. I think he was informed about the case by some generals, the high levels of the police. And I think he was not well informed, because he had an attitude of rejecting this kind of allegations. He was a little angry that he must share the same room with a simple major from Lugoj, and he said that he knows the things are doing well in the police of Lugoj, and also in the police of Romania.

EASTERMAN: The minister said that three years ago. And there are now signs that the police are becoming more sensitive to the charges leveled against them. This is the new advice and information center they’ve opened in Timisoara, the regional headquarters of the district where Major Pîtu once worked. People can come in here and voice their concerns about the police; if they’re lucky, direct to the man in charge, Dan Bardash.

DAN BARDASH: [via a translator] Ever since I was appointed as Coordinator of this center, we’ve been visited daily by hundreds of people and we haven’t had a single report of violence or abuse by police officers. I can only speak for this district and I have never heard of any of these stories. I understand the problem, but a person complaining should come up with the evidence. Anyone can say anything he likes, but the important thing is to produce the evidence.

EASTERMAN: Well, Dan Bardash clearly believes the police are doing pretty well. But what about the people who actually have to investigate the complaints against them? Because the Romanian police are a military organization, complaints are handled by military prosecutors. So I’m at their head office in Bucharest on my way up to see General Dan Voinea [sic], the Chief Military Prosecutor. I want to know if he thinks the accusations about police violence and brutality are in any way justified.

DAN VOINEA [sic]: [via a translator] There’s a lot of what looks like unjustified violence from police officers. But it’s usually because ordinary people don’t know how to treat policemen. A lot of it happens when drivers are stopped for traffic offenses and attack the policeman first, and violence breaks out. But let’s be clear. Who are the people who do the complaining? They’re the law breakers. They’ve done something wrong or they wouldn’t be in police custody in the first place. What’s bizarre is that these people usually cooperate with the police investigation. Then as soon as they get to court they complain that their confession was beaten out of them.

EASTERMAN: Many of the people I’ve talked to have said it’s not worth complaining about police abuses because nothing ever gets done. One of the reasons for that is the police are a highly centralized organization; all important decisions about what they do and how they do it are taken here in the capital, Bucharest. At a local level nothing is decided. But it’s also a question of the culture of the police. According to Dan Pavel [sic] , they have a strong military esprit de corps, developed during the Communist era. Mr. Pavel [sic] is a political scientist, who has himself been on the receiving end of police brutality. He stepped out onto the road at this junction and caused a police car to brake hard. He was severely roughed up for his unpardonable error.

DAN PAVEL [SIC] : What is difficult is to reform the mentalities of the policemen. So, they don’t have this feeling that they are public servants, paid from your money. We still see this legacy of Communism in their mind, of not taking care of the citizens, or on the contrary, to punish them or to repress them. So democracy is not consolidated here. It’s on the edge. Not institutionalized. So you have constitution, you have laws, but they don’t work. There is no political will.

EASTERMAN: Political will is what’s needed, both to decentralize the police and hand control over them to local authorities, and also to demilitarize them. The last government had a bill in parliament to do just that, but it lost the election in December and the new government, led by the former Communists, had made it clear that it’s not a priority to rush ahead with any similar legislation. Dan Pavel [sic] believes that he knows why.

DAN PAVEL [SIC] : First of all, I think this is, there is a resistance from the police. And also it’s a resistance from the political class. Because if you have a centralized police this can be much easier used by politicians. By those in power. And they use them indirectly, I think. But also, I think that the police are not very happy with this idea of demilitarization, because they will lose in this way a lot of their privileges. They say, “It’s a good idea, but it’s not the moment now.”

EASTERMAN: Will they ever say it’s the right moment?

DAN PAVEL [SIC] : No, no. I don’t think so.

EASTERMAN: The new Romanian government and it’s new President, Ion Iliescu, say they’re committed to getting Romania in shape to join the European Union as soon as possible. But Mr. Iliescu was in power up to 1996 and he did little to establish his democratic credentials in that period. He’ll have to work indeed to convince his many critics, in the European Parliament, for example, that he is committed to the kind of deep-rooted police reform that they want. For Common Ground, this is Max Easterman in Bucharest, Romania.

MCHUGH: Insights on Chinese media, next on Common Ground.

LI YIAOPING: The function of the media is, has been changed a lot. Now the media trying to make a lot of coverage to reflect the true situation. So the function of the media has been enlarged quite a bit.

PORTER: In China, as in many other countries in the world, state-controlled media is still the primary source for news. Susan Lawrence, the Beijing Correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review, knows this system firsthand. She recently spoke with Common Ground’s Hélène Papper about her life as a journalist in China.

SUSAN LAWRENCE: My interest in China stems from the fact that my grandmother is Chinese. So, and I grew up with my grandparents, so I heard a lot about China and heard a lot of Chinese around me as a kid. And I got to university and decided to study Chinese as an elective, mainly to understand my grandmother. I wanted to be able to speak to her in her native tongue. And got hooked. And then spent a couple of years at Beijing University as an undergraduate exchange student. And then went after the journalist a year after graduation.

HÉLÈNE PAPPER: How is China’s media structured right now?

LAWRENCE: China still has entirely state-controlled media. There are no independent media in China. But within that state-controlled system, we are evolving to a set-up where you’ve got certain newspapers which are the mouthpieces of parts of the Communist Party. The People’s Daily represents the Communist Party itself. Other publications represent commissions and the legal authorities, and so on. You then have provincial papers, which usually represent the local party authorities of that city. But more and more we were getting quite interesting magazines and journals which have a sort of loose affiliation with the government institution but actually are rather more free-ranging in what they write.

PAPPER: What media do you think is the most influenced by government? Is it television, radio, or newspaper?

LAWRENCE: They’re all heavily influenced. I guess arguably television the most. With the exception of cable stations, which tend to be much more free-ranging. But, the sort of, the main Chinese central television is under very, very tight control. After that, newspapers. Magazines are probably, maybe a little bit less regulated.

PAPPER: What would you say is the most used media?

LAWRENCE: Television reaches just about everybody in China. It’s got a population of 1.2 billion and it’s got 320 million television sets. So basically every household has a television set. And it really does reach way into the, sort of, heartland.

PAPPER: Including cable?

LAWRENCE: Cable is in about 80 million homes. Which is a lot. And in fact this is something that, some people are looking forward to a huge technological revolution. In fact, if they’re able to turn those cable systems, as they’re trying to do, to turn those cable systems into two-way access to homes to do data services, interactive, Internet services. And they’re hoping to reach into the countryside that way.

PAPPER: Do you think that Internet media, this new wave of media, is going to provide a free press type of outlet for China?

LAWRENCE: Free press is probably putting it a bit too strongly. But certainly it’s much freer than anything else. Partly that’s because right now only a very small elite have access to the Internet and the government seems to be willing to experiment with letting that elite know a little more than other people.

The government has put out rules about what kind of content is allowed on Chinese Web sites. The Web sites generally are quite careful about policing themselves because, to avoid further regulation. So the rule is generally that you’re not allowed to put up news that comes from any source outside of China. So the idea is that your news is meant to come from Communist-controlled, Communist Party-controlled publications. But also, entire Hong Kong is included in that list. So, Hong Kong papers pro-Beijing papers in Hong Kong tend to still be a little bit freer. But, you’re getting much more free-ranging content, though, in things like the chat rooms, where people are getting online and sharing their opinions on government policy. Sometimes those opinions are very negative, sharing them with other people who are online. And in fact the government I think sees that as a useful mechanism for getting feedback about the popularity of its policies.

PAPPER: Do you think freedom of the press is an important concern in China, both for journalists and for other people?

LAWRENCE: Yeah. Freedom of the press is definitely, I mean it’s a very, very important issue. The government is struggling with the idea of how it can make sure that it’s responding to popular concerns while at the same time trying to control the media. It’s sort of, there’s a bit of a contradiction there. Because if the media is controlled it’s not often able to really reflect people’s concerns about things that are going on. The government’s been moving towards allowing the media to exercise greater, they call it “greater supervision,” greater oversight over government. But the trouble is the government still wants to control that supervision. And that’s just fundamentally a contradiction.

PAPPER: What’s your experience in terms of working as a journalist in China?

LAWRENCE: Well, I work for a Western publication. I work for the Far Eastern Economic Review, which is owned by Dow Jones, a US company. So I obviously don’t operate under nearly the same kinds of restrictions that Chinese journalists do. Being a foreign journalist in China, we aren’t subject to direct censorship. We don’t have to hand our copy into the government for checking or anything like that. The government though can signal its displeasure with things that we write by calling us into the Foreign Ministry and criticizing us, or denying us future access to government sources, and that sort of thing. But generally it’s got, it’s got much, much easier to be a foreign journalist in China than it used to be. I mean, people are much more willing to talk on the record to a foreign journalist than they used to be.

PAPPER: Why do you think that is?

LAWRENCE: The government has actually set that tone. They’ve tried to create an atmosphere of greater debate and an atmosphere where people aren’t afraid of speaking out on issues. There are still taboos, things that people still aren’t allowed-you aren’t allowed to call for the ouster of the Communist Party, for example. But the range of free expression had broadened dramatically in the last 20 years.

PAPPER: So as change takes place in China, are you optimistic that the press is going to get bigger wings, let’s say?

LAWRENCE: It’ll get somewhat bigger wings, but I do think, I think the Communist Party recognizes that its power derives an awfully large degree from it’s control of the media.. And I don’t think that’s something they’re going to give up lightly.

MCHUGH: Susan Lawrence reports from Beijing for the Far Eastern Economic Review. Her perceptions of China’s state-controlled media are surprisingly similar to the observations of journalists who work for the government system. Last fall I spoke with China Central Television Producer Li Xiao Peng about her role in the Chinese media.

LI YIAOPING: I am responsible for produced daily current affairs program. And in my kind of first program we are, we have some subjects dealing with domestic issues and some dealing with international issues. Myself, I am in charge of a team which is responsible for the coverage of international issues. When American President Clinton visited China we tried very, very hard to interview him, but not in Beijing. Finally we followed him to Shanghai. We interviewed him in Shanghai.

MCHUGH: You work for state-owned media. And I think that there is an idea in the United States that the government tells you what to say in all of your newscasts. Is that true?

LI YIAOPING: In some extent, it is. But in other extent it is not. Because since China has been opened and has been reformed, the Chinese television professionals they learned a lot from outside world. And they have very strong sense of journalism responsibility. They try to make as much as possible coverage, all kinds of issues. If they can provide informative means they will get more raising rating. So that makes them try very, very hard for the daily base. They don’t give us any daily direction, say what you should do, what you cannot do. We have basic guidelines say what kind of thing such as floods, such as a disaster, such as any corruption, or such as some social evils, how should we report for that. We have a party line. But not item, case-by-case. But if something, very significant thing occurred, we may get some direction from government.

MCHUGH: Would you say then that the media is admired in China?

LI YIAOPING: Because our program criticize a lot of bad things inside, inside Chinese society, so we got so many phone call and so many letters each day. And many people they, I think they rely on the media to criticize bad things.

MCHUGH: How does the Chinese media cover the United States?

LI YIAOPING: The Chinese people think the US is arrogant dealing with international issues. But when they dealing with domestic issues, they are quite diplomatic. So basically the Chinese people think America is quite advanced, is very clean, not so much pollution, is very beautiful country, and the people are very enthusiastic, very kind, very nice, to people from other countries.

MCHUGH: You were telling me earlier that the media is changing in China. How is it changing?

LI YIAOPING: The function of the media has been changed a lot. Now, the media try to make a lot of coverage to reflect the true situation. So the function of the media has been enlarged quite a bit. And also, for the media we, from my program we often criticize some corruption and some social evils and some kind of things. That to be a watchdog, to monitor a lot of things. So that might-I think it is very good for the society.

Related Links:

www.amnesty.org

www.feer.com

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