Big media outlets in Romania have been reporting that the ancient and deadly parasite – officially known as nasophageal teratoma – is prevalent in Romania’s capital, Bucharest. Photograph: Alison Berg/Getty Images
What time is it, man? Where is baby Jesus? And who is number four? Have these questions been put to Romania’s president, Traian Basescu, and the prime minister, Viorica Dancila, when they were arriving at the hospital where a teenager has just died after being attacked with mop handle?
Like most of the media, Rai TV has been indulging in a sustained witch hunt. Its shows have frequently reported not just death at hospitals, but also suicide and slashed throats. It made the headlines when one of its programmes claimed to have found the corpse of Baby Jesus behind a painting at a children’s nursery.
It is just one more attack in a country known for its dearth of independent media and a worsening climate of mass paranoia, fuelled in part by government efforts to control the internet.
Earlier this year, Romania’s new health minister, Dorin Coccaro, refused to use the word “vaccine”, sparking fury from even some of the president’s allies. His refusal was in response to an online furore over reports of families quitting the vaccination programme on the grounds that the shot can cause the side-effects of tetanus, which a doctor last year confirmed as an underlying risk.
Media reports say the misinformation could have led to hundreds of people who had their children vaccinated failing to renew their permits. Health officials appear to be reluctant to use any term that points to the risks of vaccine use, and say children are still getting vaccinated.
The previous prime minister, Victor Ponta, faced similar difficulties over his attempt to push through a law that made it compulsory for Romanians to get a form of identification with their fingerprints. Some politicians argued this could lead to the reverse of what Ponta planned: leading to a large increase in those who did not have a valid certificate, though at a smaller cost.
Indeed, Romanian governments frequently seem to think the best way to prevent a furore is to prevent it. Last year, an education department incident during a debate over a homophobic curriculum apparently came with the approval of Basescu himself. The prime minister apparently thought a misquote of one of the speakers’ terms would stop an email chain from panicking his aides, and even brought some tear gas to the debate to use as a prop to justify a pushback against the emailers.
The appetite for taboo-busting and narrative-breaking was apparently whetted in 2015 when, during the crash of an airliner carrying 71 people, online videos were shared that showed something abnormal in the cries of the children trapped inside. The investigation concluded the screams were non-life-threatening: cracked ribs and lacerations from broken glass – however “scary”.
And let’s not forget the stories of cannibalism, murder and mutilation that began to be picked up by Romanian media in the late 1990s as a backlash against a perceived leftwing mafia. Many of the claims were made by groups of Gypsies. Many of the videos proved to be hoaxes. But their exposure fed a media climate in which other suspicions about Romanian society – notably regarding religious belief – flourished.
The country had been subjected to years of economic stagnation under communism, and Romanians’ sense of belonging was disrupted during the 1990s when, amid a child trafficking scandal, the former president, Ion Iliescu, and other top officials were exposed as members of a pay-per-milk racket.
Today, Romania’s current government too is dogged by rumours, including that the head of the Orthodox church, Marian Finucane, died of measles while on a holiday with Romanians abroad. Again, some of the evidence is false but all of it helps reinforce a sense that Romania’s leaders are not to be trusted.
This comes at a time when the government’s true aim seems to be to control the spread of information that might disturb people’s holidays abroad or erode people’s faith in the divine.