Radu Mazare, posing as pharaoh

Radu Mazare pioneered independent journalism in the early days of post-communist Romania. But his excessive craving for fame, wealth and power led to his downfall.

When the weekly Catavencu, a satirical publication named after a character in a play authored by Romania’s celebrated playwright Ion Luca Caragiale, launched its first issue in February 1990, Romanian readers thronged to get a copy.

Some most likely picked it from students selling the newspaper in the street. One of them was Radu Mazare, then a 21-year old student, who could be found shouting his lungs out advertising Catavencu in a downtown area in Bucharest, the Romanian capital city.

But not only was the young Mr Mazare an exceptional peddler; he was also a writer in the making: Catavencu’s first two issues carried his byline.

Mr Mazare indeed followed his journalistic and entrepreneurial vocation, building from scratch a local media empire. But three decades later, following a tumultuous journalistic journey, a lackluster political career and a slew of corruption-related controversies, Mr Mazare ended up behind bars.

A Student Enterprise

After his short stint with Catavencu, the young Mazare went back to Constanta, one of Romania’s largest cities and its biggest port, where he was studying electromechanical engineering.

In those days, Constanta, like every major city in Romania, was swept by the excitement of a new political dawn. Just three months before, in December 1989, the brutal dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu was toppled following a week or so of bloody clashes between the regime’s repressive security forces and anti-communist protesters that left more than a thousand dead. Caught after they fled their palace, Mr Ceausescu and his wife were executed on Christmas Day following a frugal trial carried out by an improvised court.

During more than 40 years of communism, Romania had been faced not only with poverty and isolation, but also with harsh restrictions on media freedom, especially during the last 24 years with Mr Ceausescu at its helm. The media diet during those years consisted of two hours of television a day (most of it communist propaganda), a nationwide newspaper (fully censored by the Communist Party) and local newspapers (mere propaganda sheets run by the party’s local bureaus).

It’s no wonder then that the spate of newspapers launched at a frantic pace in the early 1990s were selling like hot cakes. Those days, people carrying a wodge of newspapers under their arm were a common sight.

In Constanta, Mr Mazare and five of his fellow students began in the spring of 1990 to fundraise for their own publication. With some US$ 5,000 in seed money donated by the local maritime trade union, a hefty amount for Romania at the time, they started Contrast, a weekly, which grew to a print run of 40,000 at its peak. Revenue from the newspaper’s sale (advertising was an unknown concept at the time) was enough to pay a sizable salary to the newspaper’s three staff journalists and a couple of secretaries.

But following a series of squabbles, mostly over cash distribution, the group of Contrast’s founders broke up. However, three of them, Mr Mazare, Sorin Strutinsky and Nicusor Constantinescu, stuck together and, with a fresh cash injection from Mihail Carciog, a late media tycoon, they launched Telegraf, a daily, in February 1992.

Archangels of Justice

With its blunt style and digestible stories, Telegraf broke the mold in the local journalism. Its team grew fast, with only few of the new hires having journalism experience, which was nothing unusual in a country where the only journalists were the former communist scribblers.

With a team featuring a variety of professions and backgrounds, including engineers and teachers, a crane operator and a high-school pupil, Telegraf in a short span of time turned into a solid competitor to Cuget Liber, the successor to Dobrogea Noua, Constanta’s former communist daily.

Threatened by its new challenger, Cuget Liber went to great lengths to stop Telegraf’s ascension. It regularly boycotted Telegraf’s distribution or slagged off its journalists. But Telegraf’s resilience had no boundaries, it seemed. When the printing house owned by Cuget Liber stopped printing Telegraf, a clear attempt to clobber its rival, Telegraf’s management moved the newspaper to a printing house in Slobozia, a town more than two-hour drive away (on the Romanian roads at the time). A team was relocated to Slobozia to oversee the printing process and ensure the newspaper was brought to Constanta on time.

“That was a golden era of journalism and friendship,” says a journalist who worked for Telegraf at the time. “Mazare was a great team leader, he was funny, spontaneous and open to crazy ideas. Nobody in our team felt frustrated or afraid to speak. Our editorial meetings were fun and cool.” (All of the journalists interviewed for this report requested not to be named fearing retaliation from some of Mr Mazare’s friends.)

The newspaper started to break important stories. Its investigations into corruption and illegal deals increasingly nettled head honchos, including politicians, local administration officials or police. Telegraf’s journalists were doing such a valiant job that sometimes they were referred to, even by its adversaries, as “archangels of justice.”

And that was not an exaggeration. Many of the newspaper’s writers were taking their justice-dispensing role seriously. The line between objective journalism and activism became so blurred that Telegraf’s journalists were swimmingly turning into advocates. They reported in the morning, joined public protests in the afternoon and drank with their sources in the evening. During a public protest in Constanta in 1992, one of Telegraf‘s journalists so loudly booed the then Romanian President Ion Iliescu, who was there on an official visit, that the head of state, a former apparatchik regularly trashed in Telegraf’s pages, grabbed the journalist by the neck. The incident made headlines around the country, inspiring songs, jokes and comedy shows.

“We had impact and people knew about us, but some of us started to wonder how much of what we were doing was really journalism,” said another former Telegraf journalist. “Some of the articles we wrote were nothing else than personal attacks. We got carried away and we hardly noticed.”

The publication of a leaked “list of informers” (people who cooperated with the Securitate, Romania’s merciless political police during communism) massively boosted Telegraf’s circulation. People were religiously checking those lists, which were published as a series over many months, to see whether their neighbors, friends or even family members reported them to the Securitate.

Drunk With Power

Telegraf’s clout brought not only notoriety to its owners, but also cash. The newspaper’s publisher, a company called Conpress, began in mid-1990s to expand not only into new business areas, but also across Romania. Among other things, it launched its own press distribution chain as well as television and radio operations including TV Neptun, which became the group’s flagship television channel. Conpress’ media operation became a powerhouse, generating fat profits and exerting considerable influence in political and business circles.

Now, it was the line between politics and journalism that was increasingly blurred as Mr Mazare began to brazenly use the influence of his media to pursue his newly discovered political ambitions.

In the 1996 elections, he won a parliament seat. “This is when he [Mr Mazare] started to become mad, truly mad,” said a journalist formerly with TV Neptun. Telegraf’s office in Bucharest whose original mission was to cover major events in the country’s capital city, now became a PR shop serving Mr Mazare. Its journalists were instructed to follow Mr Mazare in parliament or attack his enemies.

People close to Mr Mazare began to notice how little he cared about and valued the journalists he worked with, those who helped him build his media empire.

“He [Mazare] wanted to look munificent, but, in fact, he was very cheap,” said a journalist familiar with Telegraf’s office in Bucharest. “They [Telegraf’s journalists in Bucharest] were paid shit. Some of them lived in the office, as they called the two rooms they operated from, because they couldn’t afford to rent their own place.” The newspaper’s Bucharest bureau operated out of a flat near the Intercontinental Hotel in central Bucharest. It was equipped with a couple of slow computers and a fax machine.

Mr Mazare’s political rise has also catapulted his family to the top of the business and political life. In 1996, one of his two younger brothers, Alexandru Mazare, was appointed head of Soti Cable Neptun, the company licensed to run TV Neptun. He later became an MP, too.

But the senior Mazare brother, Radu, quickly lost his interest in national politics. His performance in parliament was pitiful: he was seldom present there. His eyes were already on local politics as, by now, it became clear that his influence in the city of Constanta could generate more wealth than a parliamentarian job. Following a campaign peppered with stunts not seen before in a Romanian election (he was painting people’s flats or brawling with illegal kiosk owners just to show off), Mr Mazare beat his opponents hollow in the 2000 elections and became Constanta’s mayor.

“The Mazare clan was now in control of everything,” said a person who used to be close to the Mazare family. “Mr Mazare was unrecognizable,” one of the Telegraf’s former journalists interviewed for this report said. “Nothing was left from the fearless archangel of justice. He and his family were all now a bunch of screwballs only interested in power and money.” When at some point a journalist from the Telegraf’s early years approached Mr Mazare in a restaurant in Constanta almost ten years after they worked together, his former boss pretended not to know him.

But Constanta’s voters were head over heels in love with Mr Mazare. Playing ad infinitum an arsenal of cheap electoral tricks such as giving away bags of foodstuffs to pensioners, Mr Mazare won the Constanta mayoralty for four times in a row.

“He was an adventurer lacking in imagination, but extremely prolific in tomfooleries used to deceive the population of Constanta (and of Romania, generally),” wrote Cornel Nistorescu, a Romanian veteran journalist.

During his years as mayor, Mr Mazare became the tabloids’ darling as his eccentricities reached new heights. He appeared in public dressed as a Nazi officer, pharaoh, African king and Stephen the Great, a famed medieval vaivode known for heroically battling the Ottomans. At a political party meeting, Mr Mazare came wearing a hard hat, a hint to the heavy blows traditionally delivered by colleagues during these gatherings. He rarely hid his lavish lifestyle, driving expensive classic cars and getting extravagant birthday gifts (such as lorries packed with dozens of voluptuous women). He owned a swanky villa on the Siutghiol lake shore near Constanta and a luxury bungalow complex in Madagascar.

But it all came to an end.

Glory Days Long Gone

In 2015, during his fourth mandate as a mayor, Mr Mazare resigned as investigations into his illegal deals were advancing rapidly. The National Anti-Corruption Directorate (DNA), the Romanian graft-busting watchdog, concluded that the illegal transfer of roughly one million square meters of state-owned land along Romania’s Black Sea coast that Mr Mazare oversaw and benefited from inflicted losses of more than €114m.

Last February, a high court in Bucharest sentenced Mr Mazare to nine years in jail for his involvement in these deals. On 20 May 2019, Mr Mazare was brought home from Madagascar where he had fled in late 2017 to request political asylum. Now, he is incarcerated in Rahova, a prison in a Bucharest suburb. Many of his old buddies, former city hall employees or partners, including Messrs Constantinescu and Strutinsky, were also locked up. They all claim to be targets of a political vendetta. But they never explained how they amassed their wealth.

In the meantime, Telegraf and TV Neptun, which have been chugging along through lengthy insolvency proceedings, are facing extinction. When Mr Mazare gets out of the slammer, he might not be able to go back to his first job.

Photo: Mr Mazare, the Pharaoh (source: Click.ro)

Reporting by MediaPowerMonitor

Research by MPM Research