Romania kicked out of Eurovision as SEE public broadcasters struggle

Romania kicked out of Eurovision as SEE public broadcasters struggle
/ Televiziunea Română (TVR)
By Clare Nuttall in Bucharest April 25, 2016

Romanian public broadcaster Televiziunea Română (TVR) confirmed on April 22 that it will not be able to resolve its financial problems in time to participate in the Eurovision song contest. The contest’s organisers said earlier in the day that Romania would be banned from the contest over its unpaid CHF16mn (€14.6mn) debt to the European Broadcast Union (EBU).

TVR is just one of several Southeast European public broadcasters that are struggling financially, in a region where many are under threat because of either insecure financing or tighter state control.

The official Eurovision website said in an April 22 statement that Romanian artist Ovidiu Anton would be taken out of the running order for the semi-final of the 2016 song contest.

"This is of course disappointing for the artist chosen to represent Romania, for our colleagues at TVR who have prepared their participation so well this year and, not least, for Romanian viewers and the many Eurovision fans in the country," says Jon Ola Sand, executive supervisor of the Eurovision Song Contest, on behalf of the EBU.

The greatest disappointment is for singer-songwriter Anton, who was to represent Romania with his song “Moment of Silence”, but now seems doomed to go back to his day job as a dog breeder. The leather clad, heavily made up rocker was selected over more than 90 other acts in March, after previously failing to win the nomination to represent his country four times.

“I am trying to smile and not get carried away, but it is unfair. I am still the same, same honest artist, same fighter that won fare and square both from the jury and from the public's vote... but yet, I have to declare I have been 'defeated',” Ovidiu wrote on his Facebook page after receiving official confirmation of the news.

TVR management held talks at the Romanian Ministry of Finance on April 22 but failed to resolve the issue. “It was concluded that, at this time, because of the legal framework, the ministry finance believes it cannot be involved in the financial support of Televiziunea Română,” TVR said in a statement. “Unfortunately, these discussions cannot solve the participation of Romania in the Eurovision Song Contest...”

The broadcaster pointed out that it has been calling since 2010 for the update of Romania’s “outdated legislation”, which it said “has led to chronic underfunding of public television”. The broadcaster is currently financed by a TV tax of just RON4 (€0.90) per month per household, which has not been increased since 2003.

In addition to being unable to participate in or broadcast the Eurovision song contest, other member services from the EBU, a non-profit organisation representing public service broadcasters in 56 countries, will also be withdrawn. This means TVR will no longer have the right to broadcast sporting events such as this summer’s Rio Olympics or the Euro 2016 football championship.

“We are disappointed that all our attempts to resolve this matter have received no response from the Romanian government. In recent weeks the EBU has taken note of the Ministry of Finance’s suggestion that TVR may be placed into insolvency proceedings which may in turn lead to a profound restructuring of the broadcaster,” said EBU director general Ingrid Deltenre in a statement.

“Since 2010 numerous attempts have been made to restructure the debt owed and payment plans agreed that have not been adhered to. The EBU has written to the Romanian government on four separate occasions this year alone and received no reply.”

Dire straits

Romania is not the only country in Southeast Europe whose public service broadcaster is struggling to survive financially. Broadcasters in both Bosnia & Herzegovina and Kosovo have similar problems.

In the two and a half decades of transition, many countries have made substantial changes to the legal framework. “When the EU expanded, Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia and other new member states underwent scrutiny of their legal frameworks to ensure they were in line with EU standards of democratisation,” Radka Betcheva, senior project manager  at the EBU, said in a recent interview with bne IntelliNews. “This was done, though it is not perfect, but the problem is with implementation ... Financing is constantly a big problem in Romania, Bosnia and Kosovo - their broadcasters are in very dire straits.”

In Bosnia both the EBU and the Organisation for Security an Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have been warning for more than a year of the imminent collapse of national public broadcaster BHRT.

This stems partly from the separation of powers within Bosnia, where in addition to BHRT there are the two entity level public broadcasters serving viewers in the Muslim-Croat Federation and Republika Srpska. The EBU claimed in May 2015 that the “public broadcasters, designed to promote cohesion and tolerance, tend to behave as rivals serving their regional parliaments.” All three now face financial collapse.

According to the EBU, licence fee collection “is not properly implemented” resulting in a steady decline in revenues for BHRT, and while there have been discussions about a new and better funding model, this has never been adopted. This problem became more acute at the beginning of 2016, when the existing financing model, where licence fees were collected via telephone bills, expired.

“Bosnia has a pretty good system for collection of fees, much as the EBU promotes, because there is a direct link between the audience and the broadcaster,” says Betcheva. “However, there are problems arising from Bosnia’s political turbulence and the complex system where powers are shared between different institutions.”

“For far too long the public broadcasting system has faced multiple obstructions stemming from the failure to implement relevant legislation ... The failure of the public broadcasters to fully implement the relevant laws and the non-existent progress in the internal restructuring have ... contributed to the financial instability of the system,” said the OSCE representative on freedom of the media, Dunja Mijatović, in December.

On February 16, the day after Bosnia formally applied to join the EU, the EBU appealed to EU officials including enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn to intervene. “Because of insufficient and insecure funding, its huge debts and the inability to pay its employees [BHRT] is now in total financial collapse. This completely disables its ability to operate and fulfil its role in society,” commented Deltenre.

Meanwhile, in November 2015, the EBU warned that “the existence of [public service media] in Kosovo is in jeopardy ... Without appropriate level of funding RTK cannot fulfil its public service remit, which is vital for democracy in Kosovo.”

Funding gap

The debate over how to fund public broadcasters is by no means limited to Southeast Europe or the post-Communist countries. Governments around the world are considering how best to finance their public broadcasters as viewing habits evolve and new technologies change the way news and other content is delivered.

Public broadcasters need a stable funding stream since their public service remit likely requires them to make programmes for groups such as ethnic minorities, children and the disabled, and to pay for coverage of sporting and other events deemed to be of national importance. Without funds, they are unable to implement their remit, explains Betcheva.

There are a variety of ways of funding public service broadcasters, including a licence fee or other public levy, funding from the government budget, advertising, or a hybrid model using a variety of sources.

Full government funding may be a way to ensure there is enough money, but it often comes at the cost of greater vulnerability to government interference and a loss of true independence, as has happened in some countries in the region. In Serbia, for example, the state budget has become important for the financial stability of both national public broadcaster Radio Television of Serbia (RTS) and the regional Radio Television of Vojvodina (RTV) following the adoption of new legislation in 2014.

However, a 2015 report from the South East European Media Observatory warns that following the changes, “independence and balance, as well as diversity and pluralism in editorial policy of both PSBs is compromised with state budget financing”.

Betcheva also points to the situation in both Croatia and Poland where after new governments came to power - Law and Justice in Poland and the new centre-right coalition government in Croatia - the management of the public broadcasters were replaced. In both cases, government officials claimed they were acting to counter political bias in favour of their predecessors.

In Poland, the parliament passed a bill in December terminating the mandates of all the current CEOs and executive boards of public media companies. The power to make new appointments was temporarily transferred from the National Broadcasting Council to the treasury minister. Freedom House’s April 2016 Nations in Transit report describes this as the start of the “takeover of public media”.

Shortly after coming to power in Croatia, the coalition between the Croatia Democratic Union (HDZ) and Bridge of Independent Lists (Most) started to push for changes at Croatian Radio-Television (HRT).

Deputy prime minister and HDZ president Tomislav Karamarko claimed that HRT was “in the service of one party”, namely the opposition Social Democratic Party, and accused it of trying to bring down the government through “the destruction of the political cooperation between HDZ and Most”, Balkan Insight reported.

Elsewhere in Southeast Europe, Kosovo’s RTK became a bone of contention between the two members of the ruling coalition - the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) and the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK). Prime minister Isa Mustafa criticised the PDK’s influence on the broadcaster, calling it a “partisan station”, according to Freedom House.

The ongoing scandal in Macedonia concerning the release of illegally wiretapped conversations that incriminate politicians and government officials extends to government control of the media. This includes alleged revelations of government officials selecting journalists and party members for jobs at public broadcaster Macedonian Radio Television.