German journalist Paul Arne Wagner never expected to be arrested while covering an anti-corruption protest in Bucharest. He spoke to DW about the day he was detained, and the confusion that surrounded it.
For the past year-and-a-half, German journalist Paul Arne Wagner and his wife Madalina Rosca have covered protests against the Romanian government. But during a rally on June 20 in the capital, Bucharest, their role as reporters suddenly changed.
It began when a group of Romanian police officers in full riot gear waded into the crowd of protesters, who, though perplexed, remained calm. "Usually, Romanian protesters will not let themselves be provoked," said Rosca, who is from Romania and also works as a journalist. But even so, added Wagner, "there was that moment when chaos broke out." He told DW it was unclear whether the government intended to provoke confusion, "but suddenly, all hell broke lose." And amid this chaos, two officers grabbed Wagner and dragged him to a police van.
Worried about her husband
"I saw how security forces took my husband, but continued filming," said Rosca. She described how she felt guilty that she was unable to do something to free her husband, who still does not know if Romanian authorities deliberately singled him out.
It is certainly possible that Rosca and Wagner provoked the ire of the Romanian government. Their media company, Passport Productions, made a documentary about abject poverty in the constituency of politician Liviu Dragnea, who leads the country's Social Democratic Party (PSD) and serves as the president of the Chamber of Deputies, Romania's lower house of parliament. The couple have also filmed numerous attacks by Romanian security forces on protesters at previous rallies.
After Wagner was dragged off, a third police officer blocked Rosca's path, making it almost impossible for her to film the arrest. "I got my smartphone out and tried streaming everything live on Facebook, but I had no reception and the police car sped off quickly," Rosca said, adding that soon after, other protesters were also bundled into police vans.
Prohibited from contacting a lawyer
"It took just a couple of minutes until they had me in the police van," recalls Wagner. He said he did not receive an answer after asking why he was arrested or where he was going. Although he noted that occasionally the car door would slide open a little, allowing him to get a sense of his whereabouts. Eventually, Wagner found himself sitting in a police station. For the next two-and-a-half hours, a police officer by the name of Niculescu listed the reasons that supposedly legitimized his arrest. "He did not tell me all the reasons at once, but instead gradually, one by one," said Wagner, adding that the officer "was unable to name me any laws I had actually broken."
Wagner was forbidden from making phone calls, and was repeatedly left alone with one of the officers who had forcefully dragged him from the protest — something he said made him feel intimidated. "I demanded to be allowed to leave the room," Wagner said. He was prohibited from contacting a lawyer or translator, or even the German embassy. "You are obliged to switch your phone off at the police station so I could not have called a lawyer anyway," he said. In the end, Wagner was presented with an official description of what happened, which he was asked to sign. It claimed Wagner had "obstructed police officers."
"The writing was very small and difficult to make out, even more so because they didn't allow me to pick up the document to read it," he said, explaining that they only showed it to him from a distance, as if to intentionally prevent him from fully understanding it. "I told them I do not understand what it says and cannot sign it."
Wagner said that the police officer Niculescu held the document up to his own face, mumbling "that I done this and that, including grabbing an officer by the arm." Even though, Wagner explained, the officer in question was much taller than him and fully protected by riot gear. "So I refused to sign the document," he said. "It was full of lies."
For refusing to comply with the officer's demands, he was threatened with a roughly €100 ($115) fine. In the end, Wagner was let go, but without the official police description of events and without having to pay a fine. Only then was he able to finally call his wife.
When Wagner returned to Bucharest's Victoriei Square after the ordeal, few protesters were left. Those that were hugged him as he approached. Wagner told them the authorities were confused when they could not find a CNP ID code in his German passport, something that all Romanian passports contain. So police officers tasked Romania's military police force with checking Wagner's details. When they learned his identity, he was released immediately.
The military police in Bucharest, meanwhile, now claim Wagner was arrested for breaking through a police cordon. They contend that even a clearly visible press badge does not count as an official identity document.
"For the other people that were arrested, there is no German embassy and no German Foreign Ministry that they can complain to about their arrest," Wagner wrote on Facebook after the ordeal. "That's because they are Romanian."