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The British Helsinki Human Rights Group monitors human rights and democracy in the 57 OSCE member states from the United States to Central Asia.
* Monitoring the conduct of elections in OSCE member states.
* Examining issues relating to press freedom and freedom of speech
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The Timisoara[1] Syndrome and the Modern Media
HITS: 5241 | 24-08-2005, 00:02 | Commentaire(s): (0) |
 (Votes #: 0)

Much of the reportage about Uzbekistan recalls previous media “beat ups” when excitement and shock combined to make plausible what turned out afterwards to be wildly exaggerated accounts of violence and cruelty. The contemporary stereotype for this media syndrome originated in 1989 when reports emerged of demonstrations against the Ceausescu regime in Timisoara in south-western Romania. Considering what happened in Romania in December, 1989, helps to focus understanding of the problems of reporting protests from a safe distance with moralising blinkers. Timisoara was the birthplace of the media myth of genocide in the post-Communist period. Like many myths had some basis in fact but took on a life of its own.
As news filtered out that demonstrations were taking place in Timisoara after 16th December, 1989, reports of the savagery of the infamous Romanian secret police, the Securitate, soon filled Western media. The land of Dracula once again had its impalers at work, at least according to rumour. Arbitrary executions and m ass shootings were reported. As many as 4,000 were people were reported as shot dead by the security forces in Timisoara alone by 22nd December, 1989.[2]
Communist Romania was a genuinely closed society. Certainly the Ceausescu regime refused access to Western journalists in 1989 not least because of the anti-Communist upheavals further west which had shattered its Warsaw Pact allies. When protests began in Timisoara on 16-17th December, 1989, Western journalists were absent and dependent on hearsay and rumour. Although the “velvet revolutions” elsewhere in Eastern Europe in the preceding months had not provided any of the bloody drama of the Chinese events after 3rd June, the press was on the alert for a violent revolution, or at least a bloody repression. Ceausescu’s regime was a suitable suspect for the role but also what little was known of Romanian history, or rather legend – Dracula from Bram Stoker rather than the reign of Vlad Tepes – compounded the plausibility of an alleged massacre in Romania for Western journalists.
Penny Marshall told viewers of ITN’s flagship “News at Ten” that “The few Romanians allowed out of their country have brought allegations of absolute brutality by the authorities…. This man was in Timisoara [and claimed 2,000 dead] … It is impossible to verify his claims but they are in line with what other refugees have told us.”[3] An hour earlier, BBC1’s main news showed an Romanian émigré in London who claimed to have spoken to relatives in Timisoara, “I was told that… 2,000 people were killed, the hospitals are full, bodies everywhere. “Much of the information from Romania is coming from East European news agencies”[4]
The reliance on ex-Communist journalists in neighbouring countries like Hungary or party hacks in Yugoslavia was an interesting phenomenon. Yugoslavia was then still regarded as a reform-minded place and if anything its news agency Tanjug was quite authoritative. When Tanjug declared, 64,000 dead, shot down in less than a week, its headlines stirred people across the world.[5] Yugoslav television showed a charnel house with the corpse of an infant allegedly tortured to death by the Securitate and a mass grave which turned out to be a paupers’ grave – all pictures re-broadcast around the world! Soon Yugoslav TV would have its own domestic atrocities to report, or ignore, as the case might be.
Whether journalists trained in Communist propaganda should be taken as authoritative even when they switch sides is doubtful. Back in 1989, it was still early in the process of coat-turning and so naïve faith in the “professionalism” of born-again journalists was understandable. Tanjug was believed. Labour foreign affairs spokesman, Gerald Kaufman, told ITN “This so far as we can see is a massacre which makes that in Tiananmen Square seem quite small, appalling though the Tiananmen Square massacre is.”[6]
When the shooting died down after the Ceausescu’s execution on Christmas Day, 1989, the total death toll in Romania was below 700 and in Timisoara 70 dead. Almost all of these victims were unarmed civilians either protestors or killed in the cross-fire and chaos after 22nd December, 1989[7]. The most recent historian of the Romanian Revolution remarks on the 64,000 figure for the regime’s victims and the wilder allegations of Ceausescu’s caliph-like corruption , “Just as only a fraction of this figure actually died at the time, so too the millions of dollars stashed in overseas banks also proved to be illusory.”[8]
The scale of the exaggeration was not immediately clear. For days the Western media hunted the “terrorist” and even found the tragic Dominic Paraschiv tied down under a mesh net in Timisoara hospital were the innocent man lay dying denounced as a securist.[9] His just deserts were gloated over.
To be fair to the journalists reporting vastly inflated casualty figures from Romania in December, 1989, it was barely six months since a genuine massacre. The repression of the Tiananmen Square protests by the Chinese authorities were fresh memories. No doubt Ceausescu would have regarded a similar death toll as a legitimate defence of his regime. But nevertheless casualties on the Chinese scale were not inflicted in Timisoara, nor anywhere else in Romania. The journalists covering the aftermath of the Romanian revolution should have noticed that estimates of Romanian casualty figures were soon pared back. Some, like Kate Adie, who had covered events in Beijing noticed that Bucharest’s hospitals were not filled with casualties, even when the new authorities were talking about “genocide” and gunfire echoed around the Romanian capital.
After it was all over, the BBC’s John Simpson decided that the apparent life-and-death struggle between the Army on the side of the People and the dreaded Securitate wasn’t all that correspondents like him had made it out to be in the heat of the crossfire. Unlike many of them, Simpson went into print and said that the shooting in Bucharest in December, 1989, was “a show … [the army] had repositioned itself on the side of the revolutionaries. If indeed it really was a revolution.”[10] People were needlessly killed and Bucharest’s national library and other fine buildings heedlessly destroyed or damaged.
Romania may not have been the “house of horrors” of the streets-bathed-in-blood kind reported by all media at Christmas, 1989, though there were several hundred dead by the end of the revolution across the whole country, but Ceausescu’s Romania did have its houses of horror but they were mundane places of the cruelty of indifference and neglect rather than torture chambers. Before the revolution in 1989, the Western media ignored the state of orphanages and mental asylums there – a topic which only became all the rage after December, 1989. Omnipresent Securitate agents made better press than under-nourished infants with bed-sores. Certainly Ceausescu’s regime was responsible for the latter but it was much easier to get into print with stories about the Securitate’s ferocity and cruelty.
The Timisoara syndrome was so powerful that it lived on the minds of reporters who should have known better because they were not just the gadflies who were asked to report on Romania for a few days in December, 1989, before moving on to atrocities new elsewhere never to return to Romania to follow up the story. For instance, Channel 4 News’s Central European correspondent, Gaby Rado, reported on 22nd December, 1989, that what had happened in Timisoara was “an episode more savage than anything seen in Tiananmen Square” The Romanian estimated that over two thousand his story is of course so far unconfirmed by pictures or official reports… There is a great shortage of hard information… It is the beginning of the downfall of Europe’s most notorious dictatorship.” Yet ten years later when Gaby Rado reported from the Macedonian border with Kosovo in spring, 1999, he said – without irony – that the stories of mass executions of Albanians by Milosevic’s security forces reminded him of Timisoara in 1989![11]
Shouldn’t we remember NATO spokesman, Jamie Shea’s indignant demand, “Mr Milosevic where are the young men?”[12] Or NATO’s exaggerated claims of up to 100,000 “disappeared” in Kosovo in April, 1999? More recently claims of 300,000 dead in mass graves in post-Saddam Iraq have had to be deflated to 5,000. Martin Samuel compared Islam Karimov’s alleged crimes with a discredited atrocity once attributed to Saddam Hussein: “ISLAM KARIMOV, President of Uzbekistan, boils people alive. Why? For the same reason Saddam Hussein put his enemies in a shredder: because, at the time, he could.”[13]
That many are alive who were reported dead ought to be a matter of joy, but such is human ghoulishness that there is no market for good news. Glib journalism of genocide offers instant gratification to jaded viewers needing ever higher casualty figures as fixes or stimulants but should such emotional hallucinants guide foreign policy?
Will journalists re-write the history of the Uzbek Revolution of 2005 over the next few years as John Simpson and others revised their earlier verdicts and casualty estimates about the Romanian Revolution in 1989? Quite probably. But until reporters and opinion makers learn from their past mistakes the scenario witnessed in Timisoara and elsewhere in Romania in 1989 will continue to repeat itself. The demand for “something to be done” which means that the powerful Western alliance led by the United States should either kill people quickly with bombs or slowly by sanctions is fed by hysterical reportage. Words can save lives but they can also cost them. Moral indignation and accurate reporting are not the same thing. Sometimes the motive to be brutal oneself lies behind the rhetoric of humanitarian intervention.[14]


[1] Jean Baudrillard seems to have invented the term “Timisoara syndrome” as part of his critic of the media creation of reality - www2.cddc.vt.edu/spoon-archives/baudrillard.archive/ baudrillard_2001/baudrillard.0110.,
[2] “In Timisoara…. where some reports say 4,000 were shot dead earlier this week,” according to the newsreader on The 9 O’Clock News, BBC1 (22nd December, 1989). John Simpson, the corporation’s star foreign reporter seemed to confirm the claim, “John Simpson “Timisoara, where hundreds, perhaps thousands have died.”;
[3] 10pm, 22nd December, 1989,
[4] 9pm, BBC 1 22nd December, 1989,
[5] For Tanjug’s casualty figures for the week after 16th December, 1989, and its conjuring up of fanatical foreign mercenaries aiding the Securitate in its murderous mayhem, see Antonia Rados, Die Verschwörung der Securitate. Rumäniens verratene Revolution (Hoffmann und Campe: Hamburg, 1990), 183 & 223,
[6] Quoted on “News at Ten”, ITN (22nd Dec1989),
[7] For the figures – and the exaggerations – see Siani-Davies, The Romanian Revolution of December, 1989 (Cornell UP; Ithaca & London, 2005), 279-81ff.,
[8] See Peter Siani-Davies, The Romanian Revolution, 139 & note 162, page 140: “Also note the similarity with the tactics employed by the United States to justify their intervention in Panama against Noriega at the same time.”,
[9] For Parasciv as “terrorist” see Rados, 183-86. The docu-drama “Requiem for Dominic” (1990) made by a German-Romanian tells his horrible story,
[10] See John Simpson, Strange Places, Questionable People (Macmillan: London, 1998), 342,
[11] Channel 4 News, 7pm (22nd December, 1989),
[12] See CNN International (10pm 2nd April, 1999). Shea was echoed by the headline in The Times “Massacre city opens – but where are all the people?” (19th May, 2005) @http://www.timesonline.co.uk/
printFriendly/0,,1-3-1618110,00.html,
[13] See Martin Samuel, “ Ready, steady, cook up reasons for supporting the boiling butcher “ in The Times (17th may, 2005). For the lack of evidence for Saddam’s people-shredder, see Brendan O’Leary, “Not a shred of evidence” in The Spectator (21st February, 2004). For doubts about the “boiling alive” story in Uzbekistan, see http://www.oscewatch.org/
CountryReport.asp?CountryID=23&ReportID=243,
[14] Read any of the kick-ass blogs on the web gloating over dead Arabs and demanding more force against the fanatics to promote freedom to see a naked version of this psychology. Or read the Sun.

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