Coordinated by Aurelian GIUGĂL

Media Ethics: The Spy and the Journalists – the Impossible Relationship


“Dimitrie Cantemir” Christian University, Bucharest


Abstract: This article aims to put forward some of the most important problems surrounding the very controversial relationship between journalists and secret services. There is very little interest in academically analysing this particular topic although it has been highly debated in the press. It is very difficult to do an empirical research due to the obvious nature of the organization investigated: the secret service. But is nevertheless very important at the moment to have a theoretical debate concerning the ethical challenges this very controversial type of professional relationship is putting forward. I intend to put forward in this article arguments coming from both professional fields that I came to understand during in depth interviews with specialists in national security and important journalists. I believe that before taking a clear stance on this matter it is vital to have a theoretical discussion about what does it mean to do „your patriotic duty”, „to obey ethical standards in journalism” or to „protect your fellow citizens from dangerous information”. In this article I do not intent to ask the „who” question: it is not crucial to find out whether some journalist works for the secret service although it is extremely tempting to find out such things. I am more interested to see whether this practice is usually considered socially acceptable or at least justifiable in some way.

Keywords: media ethics, national security, freedom of the press, the spies and the press



It is extremely difficult to write about security in other terms than the official ones. The national security is not only a concept defined especially by the military elites. It is a language in itself, almost a philosophical doctrine claiming to express the ultimate reality. But it is equally important to have as many theoretical perspectives as possible on the subject since “national security” or “national interest” are concepts that have been so often used that they began to mean anything and everything. The academic articles regarding this particular topic – the controversial relation between journalists and secret services – are very hard if not impossible to find. But this does not mean that this is not an important issue or that the secret services and the media never interfered in very questionable ways in terms of respecting the democratic values and principles. But somehow this particular subject does not appear in the most familiar text books regarding media ethics or threats to the national security. I consider that given the recent discussions about the best ways to guarantee the citizen’s protection and security it is vital to speak about the ethical challenges surrounding this very sensitive topic: is it ok for a journalist to be simultaneously the collaborator of a secret service? Is he doing “his or her patriotic duty” in informing the secret services about the sources or the facts he gathered? Because, as the in-depth interviews I realized showed me, the answers to these questions differ. While the specialists in national security are more prone to regard this relation as an acceptable one, the majority of the journalists firmly reject it on the basis of media ethic principles.



Despite common understanding of the concept, freedom of expression has been an ideal almost impossible to achieve. From its appearance in the modern age, the press has always been confronted with forms of censorship exercised for political, religious or economic reasons. Those interferences became more important in the XXth century for the simple reason that this is the time the press became more important. In Western democracies and especially in the United States the press became an important voice at the beginning of the last century since the most important military powers of the world were placed in democratic countries. In these countries, although they enjoyed the most important economic and military development, the political power was exercised through non-violent means of persuasion. Since the press was available on a mass scale, vast amounts of people had access to information and this, at least in theory, brings more citizens closer to the political decision. The first era of the mass-media was dominated by the intellectual elite’s confidence in the power of the press as a progressive force of society. The enormous power of disseminating important information to the masses was viewed initially as a progressive force. But soon the political elites began to understand the danger and pressed for measures that would maintain the status-quo. There were three important instruments that financial and political elites used to control the press.

First of all there was the economic tool. Like any other big business that began at the beginning of the last century, the press had to meet the same requirements: efficiency, high ratings, and big profits. Although most progressive intellectuals and journalists assumed the press had an important social function, being a tool for “illuminating” the masses and also a „watch dog of the political power”, there was almost no discussion in the United States about creating a press institution that would function as a public service. In this country the information was a commodity right from the beginning and its evolution mirrored the formation of big monopolies in fossil fuels, natural resources, car building, etc. It was the time when Willian Randolph Hearst build its own empire based on a highly profitable commodity: information. As a business man he would do everything in its power to secure the growth of his business whatever the social costs. During the late nineteenth century, important public intellectuals such as Edward Bellamy, Henry George and Henry Demarest Lloyd had written about the necessity of social change. In their view a Revolution was inevitable but it would not take the violent form that Marx predicted. Instead, the mass-media would have a decisive contribution with regard to the appearance of some sort of “mass-consciousness”. That would allow the oppressed classes to overturn the existing order. But, as I stated earlier, the press was not a public service, it was right from the beginning a business, and this is the root of the problem. Social change that often goes against corporate interests cannot be promoted in the pages of a corporation. “That’s what’s the matter with everything – art, literature, religion, journalism, law, medicine – they’re all business… The commercial spirit is the spirit of profit not patriotism; of trade and dickering, not principle”1 Stewart Ewen is analyzing the very naïve perspective that Edward Bellamy presented in his 1887 Looking Backwards2. He believed that social change was to be accomplished but not by the means of a proletarian revolution but through the means of a rational evolution of the public opinion. “According to Bellamy’s prophecy, it would be the force of public opinion – opinion bolstered by the instrument of reason – that would perform the task of remaking the world for the benefit of all humanity”3. Based on the legacy of the Enlightenment, the public can become the agent of social change Thus, the educated public, through the means of the free press, would press for a change that all humanity should benefit from. Such intellectuals were undoubtedly seduced by the immense force of the mass-media of reaching incredible audiences.

But the media are an inanimate tool, not a conscious agent that could “illuminate the masses”. Thus, it depends under whose authority they function for social progress even to become a legitimate issue on the public agenda. Crucial issues such as economic inequality and the rise of monopoly capitalism are not even debated – such issues are simply ignored by the mainstream media who is in the same time the corporate media. And even if we could find numerous cases of bold professionals in the press that address those issues it is over and over again a question of professional integrity and media ethics versus the wellbeing of the business. The times where the press is doing highly documented investigations that go beyond corporate interests are the exception to the rule. Every case of investigative journalism gaining important battles with the military or political elites is followed, as I shall point out later, by new methods of restraining the freedom of the press.

What it is important to remember is that right from the beginning the immense power of the media to reach literate citizens was not viewed by the financial, political and even intellectual elites as a reason of joy and delight. The fact that a wide range of informed citizens could be brought closer to the political decision was often viewed as a source of chaos, a threat to the status-quo. Unfortunately, right from the beginning the profession of public relations functioned as a tool of shaping public opinion in the direction favoring the financial, political and military elites. In Bourdieu’s terms, the symbolic capital was often used to preserve the social hierarchies4. In the case of PR it was consciously used in this way. Stewart Ewen is quoting from two of the founding fathers of this new profession: Edward Bernays and Philip Lesley. Right from the beginning they felt compelled to contain the dangerous forces that threatened “the organizations” – that is, their clients: “No organization now can afford to let the climate of attitudes develop by accident. This calls for constant effort to anticipate…to read trends that may create the climate to cope with. It is now far more effective to ‘inoculate’ the publics in advance rather than react when an attack comes”5

Although such ideas may strike us as incredibly undemocratic, they were accepted as the strategic planning of the PR campaign right from the beginning. You may say that in the end this has nothing to do with the freedom of expression since no award-winning article was ever written by a PR agency. Great journalism does not rely on “delivered” information. Jim McNamara, a PR specialist, argues6 that it is not possible to be a great journalists if you simply take information from a PR firm and put your name on it claiming it is your article. But since the beginning of the century, the power balance has shifted dramatically for the journalistic profession. Closer deadlines, commercial pressure, the quest for higher audiences, all these have changed dramatically the ethical standards that guide this liberal profession. For most journalists these ethical recommendations remain mere ideals to be met when the financial pressure is not that high. The risk of being sued calls for “flat Earth news” to replace7 the serious journalistic investigation. Commercial pressure made journalists accept ready-made PR articles. In the end it is a profitable deal: the journal sells its credibility and does not pay journalists to write articles. Instead, it allows PR agencies to publish their articles and even pay for this type of service. As Stuart Ewen pointed out, at the beginning of the century, the progressive perspective on the social role of the press has not been completely overthrown by cynical and mercantile mentality that nowadays media companies share. Thus, the newly invented profession of public relations was not seen as a menace for the freedom of expression and ethical journalistic standards. But, in time, the press was invaded by articles that did not pose any threat to power elites.

The second important tool of restraining the freedom of the press in the age of mass communication was the political pressure. This type of pressure was less aggressive than the economic one but it became extremely important during the war. Unfortunately, for the United States, as well as for other democratic countries, participating in the war meant renouncing some of the most important democratic values. Thus, during the First World War the USA government set out an “information committee” in order to promote the war effort. Edward Bernays was a key member in this committee that promoted for the first time the war as “the spreading of democracy”. For the first time in history a military intervention was marketed for both internal and external publics as liberation of the people. When Bernays was invited to the 1918 Peace Conference in Paris he could directly witness the impact of his PR campaign. He saw how the French welcomed with great enthusiasm the dull figure of Woodrow Wilson as the liberating hero and the provider of democracy. It was then the moment where Edward Bernays thought of implementing the same techniques he used to market the war effort in peace times. The next year he set out the first public relation bureau on Broadway. What is vital to remember from this story are some basic facts:

  • - The first PR campaign was in fact an attempt made by the USA government to influence the mainstream press and the American public to promote the war effort.
  • - During the war it was considered patriotic to have an obedient press that presented uncritically the point of view of the authorities.
  • - The external enemy during conflict periods had the force to silence the critical voice of the press.

This type of perspective – that free reporting is for peace times – remained unchanged for decades. During the Second World War, one of the leading political analysts, Harold Laswell – the social science scientist that invented the method of content analysis –, testified in a number of trials where he was cited as an expert that could prove the presence of Nazi propaganda in a newspaper and justify the court decision to close it down. The two world wars left a terrible mark on the ideal of freedom of expression.

The idea that honest critical journalism cannot be practiced because it would somehow help the enemy was an almost indisputable assumption that functioned unquestioned until the Vietnam War. The sixties and the seventies were the golden era of investigative journalism. Some consider the peak of the free press power Bob Woodward and Karl Berstein’s investigation on the Watergate scandal. It was the time where the press had the power to bring to the public’s attention such facts that would lead to the defeat of the most powerful man in the USA: president Richard Nixon. Due to the ongoing investigation conducted by the two journalists in the Washington Post, on the 8th of August 1974 Richard Nixon resigned to avoid indictment. But this type of victory was never to be matched again. What is equally important is that the only piece fully documenting the controversial relation between the press and the CIA also appeared in that period and was published by one of the two reporters working in the Watergate scandal: Karl Bernstein.

In the following section of my article I shall present some of the very important data that Karl Bernstein made available for the public. Thus, in 1977, after leaving the Washington Post, the famous journalist spent six months documenting one of the most important journalistic materials about the CIA’s relation to the mainstream American Press. The Cold War was a period where the USA promoted itself as the land of the free, a democratic country guaranteeing the basic human rights such as freedom of expression, access to information by its citizens and the separation of the state powers: executive, judiciary, legislative. By contrast the ex-Soviet Block was often perceived by both internal and external publics as an authoritarian, centralized form of power that did not allow citizens to express themselves and to have access to important information. Bernstein’s article is not proving this assumption wrong. Indeed, in ex-Soviet Block authoritarian regimes directly transformed the press into a propaganda machine. There are many researchers who devoted their efforts into showing how the state propaganda functioned in this geo-political sphere. But, contrary to what many of us would believe, this does not automatically mean that things were ideal in the USA. What Bernstein’s article is showing is that the CIA was in fact involved in all major press institutions. What is crucially different is that in the first decades after the Second World War they did not feel they are doing something wrong and even if there was an investigation taking place in the American Congress the public was not made aware of the scale of American journalists collaborating with the CIA. While Soviet journalists accepted propaganda as a necessary evil, their American counterparts sow it as patriotic duty. But there is also a very important consequence of this very different type of viewing the relation between American Journalists and the CIA: the American public was never aware of being manipulated. Until the last stages of the Vietnam War, the relation between journalists and the CIA was not even an important issue on the public agenda. In this respect, although it may seem a strange thing to say, the soviet citizens had one major advantage: they knew right from the beginning they were being lied to. The propaganda was in their face and they could very easily detect it. The secret services of the other Cold War block were also manipulative and deceptive, as Karl Bernstein and other researchers and journalists point out, but they were far more skilled in hiding it. First of all, there was a time where the media and the CIA were working together. The unquestioned assumption was that everybody has to contribute to “save the country”. What is more difficult to accept or understand is the fact that this bizarre liaison between the CIA and the press continued even after the war8.



As stated earlier, the two world wars can be viewed also as wars fought on a very unusual field, the field on information. Thus, on the 5th of August 1914, the transatlantic communication cables were severed by the British to gain control over the information that was being sent to the American Public. Moreover, Oxford professors also contributed to the war effort by engaging in very skillful propaganda: they translated German books written by extremists and they generously disseminated those books to the American public9. The British secret services identified a list of important opinion leaders and their close acquaintances in order to convince them that America should fight alongside with the British and the French. They were also a constant presence in the press. On the other side, the Germans fought on the information front by providing financial support for pacifist groups organized mainly by women in order to prevent America from entering the war. As I stated earlier, the First World War was also the time when the American government engaged in a large scale public relation effort in order to sell the war effort to the American public. Thus, in 1917, president Wodroow Wilson created the Committee on Public Information (CPI), famous for a very inspired propaganda campaign that finally convinced Americans to enter the war. The head of this Committee was George Creel. He believed it was the task of the government to promote a propaganda campaign but “not propaganda as the Germans defined it, but propaganda in the true sense of the word, meaning ‘the propagation of faith’”. Creel was a journalist with years of experience who had close relations to high ranked officials such as State Secretary Robert Lansing. He previously worked for the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News.

One important member of the Committee on Public Information was Edward Bernays. He proved to be extremely skillful in convincing the public both at home and abroad that, by entering the war, the USA would in fact engage in a military campaign meant to liberate people and spread democracy around the Globe. The thirties were the years when the business of Edward Bernays flourished together with all the techniques we see today: employing doctors to tell what is the most important meal of the day, dressing famous actors he represented with clothes of firms he was also representing, spreading the idea that it is ok to borrow significant amounts of money from banks he represented, placing products in famous Hollywood productions, staging events, etc.

The Great Depression meant the end of unlimited trust enjoyed by free-market capitalism. But it also meant entering the war for a second time. During the War, the freedom of expression was no longer taken for granted, a number of publications being closed as a result of the accusation of making Nazi propaganda. But the collaboration between the newly formed CIA and the press continued, as stated earlier. For the Romanian public and also for the countries of the Ex-Soviet Block this may come as a surprise, but here is what Karl Bernstein is writing near the end of the cold war: “In 1953, Joseph Alsop, then one of America’s leading syndicated columnists, went to the Philippines to cover an election. He did not go because he was asked to do so by his syndicate. He did not go because he was asked to do so by the newspapers that printed his column. He went at the request of the CIA. Alsop is one of more than 400 American journalists who in the past twentyfive years have secretly carried out assignments for the Central Intelligence Agency, according to documents on file at CIA headquarters. Some of these journalists’ relationships with the Agency were tacit; some were explicit. There was cooperation, accommodation and overlap.”10 The 25 years of unquestioned collaboration meant an incredible powerful relation between journalists and the CIA. There have been, and there are still several forms of collaboration between the secret services and the journalists. As Bernstein points out, few of the journalists were actually spies. The journalistic profession offered the perfect cover for professionals who were used to recruit foreigners to work for them. Among the approximately 400 journalists collaborating with the Agency there were only a handful of CIA trained professionals. Most of the journalists were secretly providing useful information. Most of them were journalists who were reporting on external affairs and were visiting other countries. The relation of the secret services and the journalists was not seen at the beginning as being harmful although journalists were signing a contract forbidding them to disclose their collaboration and the information they exchanged with the Agency. In the years following the Second World War, this type of activity was accepted as “normal”, even something to be proud of. “Absolute nonsense,” said Joseph Alsop of the notion that his brother was a CIA agent. “I was closer to the Agency than Stew was, though Stew was very close. I dare say he did perform some tasks—he just did the correct thing as an American.... The Founding Fathers [of the CIA] were close personal friends of ours. Dick Bissell [former CIA deputy director] was my oldest friend, from childhood. It was a social thing, my dear fellow. I never received a dollar I never signed a secrecy agreement. I didn’t have to.... I’ve done things for them when I thought they were the right things to do. I call it doing my duty as a citizen”11.

The CIA was very interested in cultivating this type of relation, especially since they began to gain a bad reputation (.) “It’s tough to run a secret agency in this country,” explained one highlevel CIA official. “We have a curious ambivalence about intelligence. In order to serve overseas we need cover. But we have been fighting a rearguard action to try and provide cover. The Peace Corps is offlimits, so is USIA, the foundations and voluntary organizations have been offlimits since ‘67, and there is a selfimposed prohibition on Fulbright Scholars. If you take the American community, and line up who could work for the CIA and who couldn’t, there is a very narrow potential. Even the Foreign Service doesn’t want us. So where the hell do you go? Business is nice, but the press is a natural.”12 This type of behavior proves the typical mentality of an undemocratic institution. There is a complete lack of interest in terms of the social responsibility or social accountability or democratic principles. It is not that those professionals are “evil” and wish to undermine democracy. They simply do not care. And this is not entirely their fault. The principles that should guide the activities of such institutions, the professional boundaries, the regulations that should guide the relations between a secret service and other democratic institutions are not enough debated in the media and in the academic journals. The fact that strokes me the most in talking with specialists in national security is that they don’t even see what the problem is! They believe that everybody does it and so must we. Recent terrorist attacks come as a perfect justification for this type of perspective and Romanian officials were the first to announce that “the discussion about rights (i.e. human rights ed. note) is the theoretical luxury”13 in the context of granting the Romanian Information Service some prerogatives that were previously rejected as unconstitutional.

The American press was in fact used for decades as a propaganda tool outside the borders of the USA. Although the Agency denies any involvement in the editorial policy of the mainstream press, the external reporting was controlled and propaganda turned up in the journals pages. One particular case documented by Karl Bernstein is the American Press involvement in the Chilean political movements in the sixties. “In the Sixties, reporters were used extensively in the CIA offensive against Salvador Allende in Chile; they provided funds to Allende’s opponents and wrote antiAllende propaganda for CIA publications that were distributed in Chile. (CIA officials insist that they make no attempt to influence the content of American newspapers, but some fallout is inevitable: during the Chilean offensive, CIAgenerated black propaganda transmitted on the wire service out of Santiago often turned up in American publications”14.

This particular episode proves that external politics means for the USA officials the extensive use of the mass-media and the propaganda techniques. Recently, the Romanian journal Adevărul published an article15 about the way our most important anti-communist intellectuals were trained by National Endowment for Democracy – a Congress founded institution, meant to promote democracy around the Globe, that was created in 1983 as a result of a an investigation showing a financial link between the CIA and some “volunteers associations”. It was Lyndon Johnson that suggested that a mixed institution, privately and publicly funded, was to handle this type of “promotion of the USA interests abroad”16. In the days following the Romanian Revolution, any collaboration with the USA was viewed as necessary and “good”. For instance, as the Romanian journalists point out, Mugur Isărescu, the person who would be the head of the Romanian National Bank for more than two decades, never hid the fact that he went in 1990 to Washington to inform the American officials about the “new face of the economic reform taking place in Romania”17. The Romanians took very lightly these declarations that nowadays may seem very controversial. It was something to be proud of – that is informing another country during a private visit about what is going on in Romania. If he were to go to any other country on the Globe, this type of declaration would have seemed outrageous, but since it was the United States, Romanians accepted it without any kind of criticism. It is easy to see that if instead of USA we put Hungary or Sweden or Island. We may wonder how it was possible for this very unusual type of event to take place. The answer can be found in the disillusion with the totalitarian regime but also in the very efficient propaganda carried out by the CIA hand in hand with one of the most important press institutions: CBS. “The details of the CBSCIA arrangements were worked out by subordinates of both Dulles18 and Paley19. “The head of the company doesn’t want to know the fine points, nor does the director,” said a CIA official. “Both designate aides to work that out. It keeps them above the battle.”20 According to CIA officials, Dr. Frank Stanton, for 25 years president of the network, was aware of the general arrangements Paley made with Dulles—including those for cover, Stanton, in an interview last year, said he could not recall any cover arrangements. But Paley’s designated contact for the Agency was Sig Mickelson, president of CBS News between 1954 and 1961. On one occasion, Mickelson has said, he complained to Stanton about having to use a pay telephone to call the CIA, and Stanton suggested he install a private line, bypassing the CBS switchboard, for the purpose. According to Mickelson, he did so. Mickelson is now president of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, both of which were associated with the CIA for many years.”21

In his investigation, Karl Berstein found out that every single mainstream press institution was infiltrated by the CIA. The New York Times, CBS, ABC, CNN and many others were in some sort of relation with the Agency. Their heads were close acquaintances of the CIA officials, the reporters working abroad were briefed and debriefed once they exited and then re-entered the country, sensitive information was “leaked” in the press through those reporters.

We can find a possible explanation for the fact that even today Romanians watch with compliance the declarations of Mugur Isărescu and other public intellectuals such as Vladimir Tismăneanu, Doina Cornea, Marian Munteanu, Petre Mihai Băcanu and others who publicly thanked the National Endowment for Democracy for their support offered before 1990. The possible explanation is related to the constant and very efficient propaganda made by Radio Free Europe – a very popular radio station broadcasting clandestinely during Ceausescu’s totalitarian regime. Their message proved to be extremely useful since in 1989 the USA was considered the Promise Land, the Land of the Freedom, an ideal society that nobody was criticizing. The propaganda used extremely popular and highly trained intellectuals who offered radio shows of indisputable quality. It is not the present goal of this article to analyze the evolution of Romanian radio shows, but I think it is fair to say that, sadly, once Romania gained its freedom, the journalistic quality of the shows broadcasted by Radio Free Europe was never to be matched again. This captured the ideals of the most part of Romanian intellectuals who voluntarily transformed themselves in anti-regime activists. The most part honestly believed all the ideas that even their CIA disseminators were questioning. They truly believed that the USA is the greatest country in the world, that the American leaders are the source of good engaged in an epic battle with the “evil empire” – that is the Soviet Union, that capitalism is the best economic system. Probably the only good reflex that Romanians have was the fear and suspicion towards the secret services. Our secret services, because the CIA was seen as the force of good on the planet.

In the USA, the press became very suspicious with regard to the activity of the CIA during the Vietnam War. Many believe that this war was lost as a result of the critical voice of the press although it took a while for American journalists to become critical about war spending and war effort. Unfortunately, after this episode, the military elites learned their lessons two. They learned that the critical voice of press can have catastrophic results. So after the Vietnam War they knew the war had to be short and that the critical voice of the press must be silenced during this time. They began to know the habits of the press better than the press knew them. After Vietnam, the USA invaded Granada but nobody wrote about it after the event was over. They learned that the press has a short memory span and they used it as a strategic advantage.


  1. 4. CASE STUDY

I interviewed five journalists and three specialists in national security. My aim is to provide a broader perspective on this very controversial issue by consulting with specialists in the two professional fields. In the first part of my article I offered some theoretical and historical considerations on this very obscure episode of the press in the country that advertises itself as ”the land of the freedom”, that is, the USA, and in this part of my article I try to find out what our journalistic and security professionals think about the press working for secret services. For more than two decades, the idea of the Romanian journalists collaborating with the secret services – Romania has currently six secret services: SRI, STS, SIE, STS, DIPI, DGIA – is considered highly unethical and unprofessional. But, as the terrorist attacks became more frequent and the budget for the secret services soared, it became common knowledge that the secret services infiltrate the press. In the past several months, I conducted a series of interviews with journalists and specialists in national security about the controversial relation between the journalist and the secret services. As I stated earlier, I am not trying to put the “who question” – I am not interested in a journalistic investigation about the persons who had a relation with the secret services. What I am interested in are the principles and moral values that guide the professionals in these fields.

Thus, my first question regarded the possible relation between the journalists and the secret services: are there any instances where this is an acceptable relation? For the most part, the journalists said this is not even open for debate. „Being a journalist and working for the secret services is like posing for a TV presenter and being in fact a prostitute. Is like the case of Romanian TV hosts who were posing as Tv stars but were arrested since they used this public job to gain more clients” said a Romanian investigative journalist. Besides the ethical argument regarding the absolute incompatibility between the status of journalists and that of collaborator of a secret service, some journalists talked about the completely different mission and objectives of the two professions. According to a professional specialized in monitoring the press, „It is an offence to even debate such an idea. The collaboration with a secret service while pretending to be a journalist means in fact to lie to the public. The only duty of a journalist is to his/her public. The secret services are military institutions that are based on strictly obeying orders.” „The two professions are opposed: one presupposing the dissemination of information while the other means hiding the information,” said a former editorial director and important Romanian journalist.

But the things are not so obvious when we move to the professionals working in the security field. The common belief is that reporters working abroad must work with the authorities and especially with the secret services. There are many arguments put forward by those professionals. First of all, they say that working as a reporter in a hostile country means that the information you gather must automatically be made available for the secret services as a result of the patriotic duty the reporter must fulfill. In fact, „there is nothing wrong in promoting our country(’s) interest abroad, especially in territories we have interests in,” said a former worker for the service of communication of the Romanian Ministry of Defence. This worker gave me the example of Republic of Moldova that, in her opinion, was being infiltrated by many reporters working for the Russian secret services and doing a very aggressive propaganda in this country where we have „strategic interests”. For this reason, it would be advisable that Romanian reporters work hand in hand with the Romanian secret services in order to fight this type of Russian propaganda! She described the process of training the Romanian journalists who were going to report form war zones that Romanian Army was involved in – i.e. the Afghanistan war – before they went to the battle field. She even disclosed the fact that she was in charge of this type of training and proposed that the Romanian journalists who were reporting to receive honorary military titles of „PR officer for the Ministry of Defence”. She did not find this controversial at all. Of course, I asked her if the reporters were critical in their articles and she agreed they were not but insisted they did not tell the journalists exactly what to write. I wondered, in this context, whether it would have been possible for journalists to do investigative journalism on their own. She responded: “you know the case of the three Romanian journalists that were kidnaped. They were working on their own.” In this interview, she mentioned the fact that Robert Turcescu – one of the Romanian journalists who publicly declared he was a secret service agent working for the Ministry of Defence – was given along with other journalists the opportunity to become a “PR officer”. Another specialist teaching in a Security academic department who also worked as a journalist for a while said he saw nothing wrong in helping the secret services with information about what he saw in foreign countries but he would be deeply offended if someone asked him to share information about his colleagues. What is interesting to see is that neither the specialist working for the Ministry of Defence, nor the professor working in the field of security studies thought about the civilians outside our country. While accepting that it is not ok to infiltrate Romanian press institutions, they saw nothing wrong in infiltrating press institutions abroad.

That is, while the Romanians have the right to a free press, the Moldavians do not: they are simply means to a greater end. They live in some sort of “tactical field” and our primary ethical duty as journalists is not to those who are reading what we publish, our duty is to our country. Thus, our actions should be guided against Russian propaganda even if that means doing our own propaganda. As long as it is not our fellow Romanian citizens who suffer, we must protect our strategic interests whatever the cost. An old moral imperative asked people never to treat other people as means but always as ends in themselves. But he Kantian imperative is the last thing the military elites are interested in. What is important to see is neither the deontological nor the utilitarian ethical perspectives can accommodate this type of strategy. In terms of the utilitarian perspective, the hidden assumption is that national security is more important that freedom of the press. This is a very questionable perspective since it entangles dangerous consequences. Thus, one of the investigative journalists I interviewed warned me about the dangerous consequences deriving from this strange situation where reporters become spies. It is really dangerous for other reporters since the shadow of doubt is cast over the whole profession. He mentioned a situation where some members of a gang who agreed to meet him spent hours questioning him about his possible collaboration with a secret service. This came right after a journalist was discovered to be a secret agent.

Moreover, it is very difficult for a journalist to protect its sources and even to find reliable sources if people begin to lose faith in the press.

An important question of my research regarded the claim that secret services must infiltrate press institutions because there is no other way to prevent spies from other countries from being there. This is the main argument that security specialists use to justify this questionable practice. Most of the journalists, when asked this question, simply laught claiming that this is typical “securistic” mentality. Other pointed out that everyone who read an espionage novel can figure other ways of catching enemies. For instance, someone can take the role of the doorman or the secretary if he or she wants to find out if someone is spying for another country. Another journalist said that this is simply futile since the journalists publish what they write and their work is public and the secret services would better read the press instead of trying to control it. On the contrary all the security specialists I interviewed believed that this is a serious threat to the national security that must be seriously taken into account.

Another question I asked professionals from both fields – media and national security – regarded the possibility of making clear regulation preventing the secret services from infiltrating the press. The answers professionals gave me were very interesting. Although they all agree it is vital to have clearer regulations and a law forbidding secret services to recruit journalists, some professionals working in press institutions pointed out some major difficulties. Today’s online media allow any person to spread information in the public sphere. Publishing an article is no longer the privilege of the trained journalists. Almost anybody can become a journalist. And then there is the difficulty of defining a press institution. Some journalists are full time employees but write from their homes, others are stringers. In this context, it is very difficult, but not impossible, to have clearer regulations that forbid secret services from infiltrating the press.

Robert Turcescu was the journalist that publicly declared he was spying for the Romanian Defence Ministry and he did so in prime time during a live show. It was a “press-bomb”, everybody being shocked by his declarations since he was a respected and famous journalist. This prompted vivid reactions in the press since he was the journalist that hosted an important electoral debate between Mircea Geoană and Traian Băsescu, a debate where he asked Mircea Geoană whether he visited the controversial businessman Sorin Ovidiu Vântu. The famous Robert Turcescu even provided a video record of Geoană’s car reaching the home of Sorin Ovidiu Vântu. Many claimed he got this information from the secret services that were directly involved in the electoral race. There was a heated debated, as I mentioned earlier, but no clear result. Robert Turcescu continues to appear on the screen as if nothing happened. This case was in itself an open question. All the professionals said some further investigation is needed in this case for it is not clear exactly for what service was he spying, what kind of particular tasks was he assigned while collaborating with that secret service or even if he had stopped being a collaborator. One of the professors who is also one of the former rectors of the National University of Defence “Carol I” said journalists such as Turcescu were never full-time employees of the secret services. In his opinion, Turcescu was “too unstable and unreliable”, he was used only to promote the interests of the institutions he was collaborating with, as an agent of influence. Robert Turcescu did not provide specific information about his tasks, but it is plausible that this was his main job as a collaborator of the secret service.



The impossible double commitment – to the press institutions and to a secret service – is far from being debated enough. Although it is a very interesting theme with important implications in terms of ethical standards of both professions, there is an intriguing lack of interest in discussing and analyzing this issue. The journalists wrote intensively about the persons involved in such scandals but very little attention was paid to the structural conditions that made those scandals possible. This article is the beginning of a more profound research program aiming to bring to the forefront of the academic debate the ethical principles, the social, historical and political conditions that favor especially in post-Revolution Romania this very controversial type of double commitment – that of being a journalist writing for his public and that of working for a secret service and responding to specific tasks assigned by the hierarchical superior. It is very difficult to offer definitive solutions in this matter and this is why I interviewed specialists working in both professional fields. As expected, their answers differ and this is a further reason to transform the academic research into a place where opposed points of view are brought together in order to offer a clearer perspective on this problematic relation shaping our public sphere.




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