On December 2, 2020, Bucharest’s District 4 mayor Daniel Băluță, a former dentist who was elected to office in 2016, sued two investigative journalists from the Romanian daily newspaper Libertatea, as well as the company that owns the daily, Ringier Romania.
The mayor claimed that a series of articles published by the two journalists between June and July that year contained false information, defamatory in nature, which had caused him ‘moral damage’.
The articles show that, while under the management of Daniel Băluță, the District 4’s municipality turned its local police into a private army, where former officers were employed, as well as people with close links to mafia clans.
The lawsuit was not an isolated incident. It was just the first move in a series of SLAPPs (strategic lawsuits against public participation) which followed the next year. In total, the mayor undertook more than 30 legal actions against the Romanian daily newspaper, combining civil lawsuits, criminal charges and complaints to the anti-discrimination agency.
The same mayor also launched lawsuits against the media platform Newsweek Romania and the “Romania Te Iubesc” TV show produced by Pro Tv television.
How did the lawsuits unfold?
Libertatea journalists were sued 11 times by Daniel Băluță as an individual and twice by the municipality led by Băluță. In total, 13 civil lawsuits were filed between December 2020 and September 2021. In 11 of these cases, appeals were filed in court, bringing the overall number of court proceedings to 24.
SLAPPs are “particularly worrying if they are funded directly or indirectly from state budgets”, according to an EP report published in October 2021.
Some of the articles which became the object of lawsuits tracked the influence of Marian Goleac, a former manager in the Bucharest District 4 administration and one of Băluță’s closest allies. Several of Goleac’s family members had management positions in the municipality. Băluță asked the court for the removal of several articles because Marian Goleac was presented as his “right hand person”.
He also sued Libertatea journalists and asked for the immediate removal of some articles reporting on a dispute between the mayor and the parents and teachers of a well-known high-school in Bucharest.
The mayor has on multiple occasions filed several lawsuits against the journalists on the same day. For example, on August 4, last year, the mayor issued three lawsuits against Libertatea. The following day, he issued another two lawsuits.
In each legal action, Daniel Băluță asked for actions such as the removal of articles, the removal of Facebook comments related to him or a ban on writing any more articles about him in the future. He also suggested specific questions journalists should ask when documenting an article.
The mayor lost 11 of the 13 cases in the first court. In the two cases where he initially won, the newspaper filed an appeal, which it later won. Most of the lawsuits are still ongoing, because Băluță also filed appeals in the cases that he lost in the first court.
This means he has repeatedly lost in court. However, the purpose of this kind of legal action is not to win, but to harass. The same EP report stresses that SLAPPs „are not initiated for the purposes of obtaining a favourable judicial outcome but rather to intimidate, professionally discredit, harass, tire out, put psychological pressure on or consume the financial resources of those they target”.
The mayor accused journalists of being involved in organized crime
Besides these civil lawsuits, Daniel Băluță submitted two criminal charges against Libertatea journalists to the Directorate for Investigating Organized Crime and Terrorism (DIICOT) and the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA). After months of deliberation, the prosecutors decided to close this file. The mayor later challenged the decision in court, but he lost.
“The mayor claimed that the journalists were involved in blackmail and organized crime, but did not present any evidence,” wrote the Romanian NGO The Center for Independent Journalism (CJI) in a report published in June 2021.
At the end of May 2021, Cătălin Tolontan, one of Romania’s best known investigative journalists, was invited to the DIICOT headquarters to be heard as a witness, although there was no evidence for the case. When Tolontan and his colleague Mihai Toma, both journalists at Libertatea, showed up at DIICOT, there were several TV crews from government-friendly news stations on the spot to film the journalists, including their security checks at the entrance. The whole action was meant to intimidate and harass the journalists.
“The hearing of the journalists from Libertatea was transformed into a media show. They were not able to defend themselves because they had been asked before the hearing to sign a form that they would not disclose facts from the file,” wrote the CJI.
Two months later, Tolontan was invited to the headquarters of the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) to be heard as a witness in another case related to a complaint made by Daniel Băluță. The prosecutors closed this file as well. Again the mayor challenged the decision in court, but he lost the case.
“Local and international media freedom watchdogs, including Reporters Without Borders, called on authorities to investigate the directorate’s handling of the case and intimidating interrogation methods”, wrote the US Department of State in its 2021 Country Report on Human Rights Practices in Romania
The Romanian investigative outlet Rise Project also uncovered ties between the courts and the political officials who had filed the cases.
It revealed that the wife of Edi Oprea, the prosecutor who led the DIICOT hearings, was the lawyer of Marian Goleac and his son, Antonio Goleac, former managers in the District 4 municipality and close allies of Daniel Băluță.
Mayor said he was discriminated against
Daniel Baluță also submitted three complaints to the National Council for Combating Discrimination against Libertatea journalists last year.
During one of the hearings, the mayor’s lawyer said that her client is being subject to discrimination based on the fact that he is a a politician.
Daniel Băluță complained about the fact that Libertatea had published a series of articles about the lawsuits he started against the journalists. He claimed that the information is not of public interest and it violates the right to dignity.
CNCD has issued two decisions so far, rejecting Baluță’s claims. The mayor challenged one of the CNCD decisions in court.
“A sense of threat”
On June 19, the mayor sent an email to Libertatea from his personal email account, claiming that an article published by the newspaper, which reports on how a high school located in Bucharest’s District 4 had been vandalized, was harming his image and is making him feel unsafe.
He claimed that the article gave him and his family “a sense of threat”. The mayor asked for the removal of certain parts of the article in a maximum of three days, but the newspaper declined to do so.
A real threat
As these multiple lawsuits against the investigative journalists from Libertatea prove, media freedom in Romania is facing a real threat.
The European Commission’s “Country Chapter on the rule of law situation in Romania” for 2021 mentioned the lawsuits launched by the District 4 mayor against the Libertatea team.
Such actions, which aim to intimidate and harass, are targeting several journalists in the country. Just recently, a court in Romania asked another investigative journalist from a local newspaper in Iași, in the east of the country, to disclose its sources. It is a very worrying situation. The journalist can appeal the sentence, but the episode proves again that Romanian media is under constant pressure.
This piece is part of a content series on threats to independent media in Central Europe in collaboration with leading independent media in the region. Any viewpoints expressed in these articles do not necessarily represent the views of IPI. Read more.