Twenty years later, Timisoara affair exposes media credulity
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As Romania celebrates the 20th anniversary of the toppling of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, misreporting of events in Timisoara by French media is also not likely to be forgotten.
In France, violent events leading up to Ceausescu’s execution captivated viewers but would go down in history for its hasty and misreported media coverage.
As explains French media historian Christian Delporte, the media rushed to cover Romania’s violent uprising, which they deemed much more fitting of a revolution than the relatively peaceful fall of the Berlin Wall.
Chasing the news
It all began in Romania’s second largest city, Timisoara, near the border with Hungary. On Dec. 17, 1989, a bloody crackdown on a protest against the eviction of dissident ethnic-Hungarian priest Laszlo Tokes left dozens dead, prompting further mass unrest across the country.
French private and public news networks, in fierce competition, broadcasted raw footage streaming in from the Romanian television.
Western media mainly depended on Romanian networks for information, explains Delporte. “French journalists often found themselves watching live reports at the same time as viewers, losing their journalist’s role of choosing what to broadcast,” he says.
On Dec. 22, grim footage of 19 corpses - allegedly victims of the police crackdown in Timisoara - flashed on small screens across France. Yugoslavian and Hungarian news agencies were quoting a death toll of 4,630, a figure picked up by the usually reputable French news agency AFP.
Errors of judgement
Most French media didn’t bother to investigate the figures or check facts. One month later, it turned out that the corpses were of people who died before the protest even took place. The official death toll of the Romanian revolution in Timisoara eventually came down to 93. Twenty years on, the Timisoara hoax remains an example of journalists failing to check the accuracy of the news they broadcast.
“Media should be immune to a large-scale manipulation such as Timisoara. However, fierce competition and imitation in the media industry can always lead to mistakes,” says Delporte.