Last November, tens of thousands of Romanians brandishing placards and megaphones marched through the streets of Bucharest. They were united in fierce protest against the widespread corruption that doesn’t just eat away at their country’s political and media institutions – it kills.
Simmering public frustration and tensions were ignited after a fire that broke out in a city nightclub claimed the lives of 63 people on 15 October, 2015. Many believe the club only passed fire safety regulations by paying off officials – and that the true cause of death was corruption, a long-standing issue that continues to plague one of the poorest countries in the EU.
The protests, led mainly by a younger Romanian generation demanding political reform, held the incident up to international scrutiny. They were swiftly followed by the resignation of the Prime Minister, his government and the mayor of the local area. It was clear that Romania is country desperate for change.
According to Aaron Israelson, this will soon come to Bucharest in the form of a street paper – birthed in one the city’s poorest districts.
The former editor of Swedish INSP member, Faktum, plans to launch his new publication in Romania’s capital this September. He believes the country is in dire need of an independent media voice to tackle poverty and corruption head on.
“All countries have a poverty and homeless problem but Romania is the second poorest country of the EU, so I think the need for a modern way to combat poverty is stronger here than anywhere else,” said Israelson.
The street paper’s distribution base will be located in Ferentari, a poverty-stricken area of the city where just 30% of the population is legally employed.
The project is partly inspired by the Romanian vendors Israelson worked with during his four-year tenure as Faktum’s editor in chief. He says 50% of vendors at the Gothenburg street paper were from Romania.
“Talking to many Romanian vendors over the years, I realised that, while some of them actually wanted to stay in Sweden and make a life for themselves, the majority admitted that if they had a job in Romania they would never have come to Sweden,” Israelson told INSP.
In 2014, Romania had an estimated national GDP of just €7,500 per capita. The same year saw 37,000 Romanians and Bulgarians migrate to the UK to seek a better life. Many Romanian vendors selling street papers across Europe told INSP that low wages and few work opportunities make it impossible for them to remain in their home country.
But a lack of appropriate qualifications means many fail to find work abroad. For people like Milian, selling a street paper offers an alternative means of survival.
Milian left Romania after he lost his factory job, and then struggled to find permanent work due to health problems.
“At my age to leave my country and all the people I know to go to a different place is not easy. I would have preferred to stay at home but I had no hope of leading a normal life there,” he said.
But things are improving for the 58-year-old, who now sells The Big Issue on the cobbled streets of Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital city.
“Selling The Big Issue was a start for me. It gave me the opportunity to work without having any skills. I have met new people, I’m going to English classes and I’m also volunteering in my spare time.”
Milian’s story is familiar across Europe. But the pressure to leave could soon change when Romania gets its very own street paper, providing an alternative source of income for those who need it.
Israelson’s mother is Romanian and he speaks the language. He has been visiting the country since he was a child and moved to Bucharest in September.
Since then, he has formed a partnership with local charity Project Ruth, which supports up to 170 families in Ferentari. The street paper’s main distribution will be located in Project Ruth’s school and adult education centre.
“It will be the first magazine of its kind in Romania.”
“This is a very poor area and the situation is very bad,” Project Ruth’s Executive Director, Mihai Ciopasiu, told INSP.
“Access to jobs is very low so many people live in very bad conditions. Around 50% of families don’t have central heating. As well as poor housing, there is a lot of drug and alcohol use and lots of garbage lying around.”
In 2014, the average daily income per person in Ferentari was 4.35 RON (€1.07/£0.76). Out of 170 families supported by Project Ruth, 56% of parents were unemployed and 14% worked without legal documentation. Roughly one third of parents have little or no education.
Ciopasiu hopes that a street paper here could help “break the cycle of poverty and give them better opportunities in life.”
“It will be the first magazine of its kind in Romania, so it is very important,” he added.
“I think this could be something good not just regarding the topics of magazine – addressing poverty, social justice and corruption – but the impact this opportunity can have to change people’s lives. Vendors will have self-esteem, more money to support their kids in school and could start earning enough to qualify for social insurance and medical insurance.”
Israelson and Ciopasiu pitched their plans to around 30 parents at Project Ruth last week. They now have 17 prospective vendors interested in the project. Having their children attend school will be prerequisite for vendors, who will also have access to educational support programmes delivered by the NGO.
The project is initially being funded by backers in Sweden, but Aaron hopes to secure more local support further down the line.
But the publication will not only provide income and support for homeless and socially vulnerable people in Bucharest. Aiming the paper at a younger generation, Israelson plans to call out corruption and campaign for political reform, while also tapping into the beating pulse of Bucharest’s vibrant and diverse social scene.
After four years at the helm of Faktum, Aaron Israelson knows a thing or two about running a successful street paper. But launching one in Romania’s capital city comes with its own unique challenges.
Since the 1989 revolution brought an end to communism in the eastern European country, Romanian print media has been plagued by high levels of corruption.
Israelson says his publication will act as one of the few independent media outlets in Romania, where the majority of newspapers and TV and radio stations are controlled by powerful politicians or businessmen seeking to promote their own agendas.
As independent media, more than 100 INSP street papers around the world provide a platform for alternative viewpoints and underrepresented voices, advocating for social justice and fighting against homelessness and poverty.
But will the model triumph in Romania, which currently ranks 52 on the World Press Freedom Index, compiled by non-profit organisation Reporters Without Borders?
Stefan Candea has worked as a reporter in Romania for over 15 years. He co-founded the NGO Romanian Centre for Investigative Journalism (RCIJ) and has taught classes on the subject in Bucharest.
He said a new street paper, particularly one that aims to be a watchdog on corruption, could shake up Romania’s stagnant print media landscape.
“There is no one printing this kind of content that is independent, so it will be an interesting experiment,” he said.
But Candea also advised caution, adding that “print media is dying – in a country of 2.2million people, daily newspapers will print around 10,000 copies”.
Investigative journalists in Romania face a lack of resources and the absence of powerful amplifier for their voices, either in print or online, he said.
While several grassroots projects, including the RCIJ, have managed to successfully publish investigative reports online, their audience is limited. Candea believes this will remain the case while no sustainable business model for objective, quality, independent journalism exists in Romania.
“Corruption and lack of transparency are problems but there are ways of getting around that. What journalists lack right now are the resources to do it with a long term approach,” he explained.
— The Romania News (@TheRomaniaNews) November 7, 2015
Razvan Martin of Active Watch, a human rights NGO that monitors media within the country and focuses on defending and promoting freedom of speech, agrees.
“It’s exactly what is missing on the market,” he said. “Even though the market is full of good, honest journalists, they either work independently or work in newsrooms that are corrupt.
“The mainstream media covers issues like poverty and social injustice but very superficially. The only problem is that people just aren’t used to buying printed media right now.”
Another foreseeable risk, according to Martin, is that deeply entrenched stereotypical attitudes towards homeless people and those living in poverty could affect sales.
“Generally there is a very contemptuous if not aggressive attitude towards homeless people and those affected by poverty. There is a need in our society for a change in perception,” he said.
Like most street papers, Israelson’s project would seek to address this issue, as well as stand up for the rights of Romani people, members of Romania’s largest – and most heavily persecuted – minority. Israelson predicts the majority of his vendors from Ferentari will be of Romani origin.
“It’s exactly what is missing on the market… There is a need in our society for a change in perception.”
“There are a lot of positive reactions to this project, but a lot of negative reactions too,” said Israelson.
“There’s a lot of racism in Romania against the Romani minority and they will be the main vendors of this magazine. It will be a rough ride but I meet a lot of people who think it’s a great idea and want to see this country change for the better.”
The decision to target a younger readership is a smart move, says Martin. He also backs Israelson’s plan to employ young, talented journalists well-placed to tap into a growing desire to fight against corruption, and political and social injustice.
“I think there is a public [audience for the paper] – I would be interested in reading it, as would a younger generation,” he said.
“There are also a lot of free unemployed young journalists who are really into this kind of journalism and are covering those issues but only publishing them online. Such an initiative would certainly appeal to and help them.”
Despite the challenges ahead, Israelson remains optimistic. He plans to have vendors sell the monthly street paper around Bucharest’s city centre, in areas popular with a younger demographic. He hopes to have 20-30 vendors on board by the time he launches, and says he will start off with an ambitious print run of 5,000 copies per edition.
Big Issue vendor Milian still has his concerns: “It is a good idea and I really hope it will work well for people in Bucharest. I’m afraid it will not work as well as [in the UK] because people don’t have money.”
But Israelson believes there is a good basis for finding readers, and that the paper will be affordable for young Romanians. He cites the continuing success of Greek street paper Shedia – launched in 2013, with the help of INSP, while the country’s debt crisis raged on – as an example of hope.
“People who have felt poverty themselves usually feel more solidarity with people who are even worse off,” he said.
“I’m very optimistic and full of faith. Having worked with Faktum in Sweden and having seen a lot of other street papers and magazines around the world become very successful, I’m very confident that it will work here too.”