A 500,000 euro lawsuit against Romanian journalist Ana Poenariu and the investigative news centre RISE Project shows the urgent need for improved legal protection for journalists, the International Press Institute (IPI) said.

Investigative journalist Ana Poenariu and RISE Project were sued last November by a private company called BSG Business Select SRL and its owner, Simona Ciulavu. The lawsuit is linked to an investigative article on the sale of faulty masks during the COVID-19 pandemic in Romania. The article was published in April 2020 by RISE Project and Poenariu.

Ciulavu has demanded the removal of the article from RISE’s website as well as from other news sites that cited the article.  She also demanded around 488,000 euros in damages.

Earlier this month, the court ruled against Ciulavu. However, an appeal can be lodged within 30 days.

In her investigation Poenariu reported that Ciulavu’s company, BSG, had bought masks from Turkey and then sold them to a state company called Unifarm A at a 40 percent profit. However, when the state company then distributed the masks for medical use, doctors complained that the quality of the masks was poor.

Ciulavu claimed in the lawsuit that the article’s coverage of her company and its relation to the faulty mask sale weren‘t true and that Poenariu had intended to destroy her reputation.

Despite the court’s ruling in her favour, the lawsuit continues to hover over Poenariu and RISE. For an independent journalistic organization like RISE, a half million euros is a huge sum that would create enormous financial difficulties. “We as journalists are writing about millions and millions of euros – but that doesn’t mean that we know how that much money look like”, Poenariu said.

SLAPP cases frequent nuisance

Poenariu, who works for RISE Project as well as for the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), told IPI that Romanian journalists are frequently the target of legal harassment.

In particular, journalists risk SLAPPs, or strategic lawsuits against public participation. SLAPP cases are vexatious lawsuits filed by powerful figures whose intention is not necesarily to win in court but to intimidate journalists and other critical voices through lengthy procedures or exorbitant monetary demands.

In addition to the case mentioned above, Poenariu and her colleagues are involved in two other cases due to their work.

Currently the newsroom is awaiting a court ruling on a case dating back to 2017. Back then RISE Project was sued by a businessman whose name surfaced in the cross-border Panama Papers investigation in 2016. “He sued the organization because of a database we made regarding each Romanian who appeared in the papers and asked (us) to remove the (entry) regarding him”, Poenariu explained.

In April this year, a former Romanian member of the European Parliament, Ramona Mănescu, won a civil defamation lawsuit against RISE following articles about real estate transactions involving members of her family.

Poenariu added that legal harassment against journalists had become even more common during the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular, independent media based in the Romanian capital Bucharest have faced SLAPPs.

In April this year IPI signed a joint letter expressing concerns over legal action against Romanian news outlets and journalists taken by a former bishop of the Romanian Orthodox Church . The lawsuit was a response to a series of articles about alleged sexual abuse, and was part of joint reporting project by the The Centre for Investigative Media (CIM) and Dela0.ro.

In addition, the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which was intended to protect citizens’ privacy, has also led to problems. “The authorities are using the GDPR in order not to answer press requests. It started since 2018 and has become more frequent in the past years”, Poenariu said.