As the coronavirus pandemic spreads, many countries have taken up dramatic measures to contain the spread of the virus. The extent of these measures and the executive power granted to the leaders have left many anxious about how temporary these measures will be. In the wake of the coronavirus will the world be able to retain its current level of democracy or will it experience further backslide?
So far, we have seen how a pandemic like this can play into the hands of leaders with authoritarian ambitions. This dangerous and unprecedent crisis has allowed officials to seize more power as citizens grew more anxious and started to seek more decisive leadership. One struggling democracy amid the coronavirus measures has been Hungary. The Prime Minister Victor Orban has been granted extraordinary powers by the parliament which allows him to rule by decree until the end of the crisis. While there are limits to his power in theory it is questionable how effective they are in practice. The aim of this article is to examine the response of the Romanian government to the COVID-19 pandemic and determine whether any of the measure implemented by the government pose a threat to the Romanian democracy.
The COVID-19 pandemic reached Romania on February 26th, 2020. The preventive measures have been put into place almost a week prior and on March 8th public gatherings with more than 1000 attendees were banned, with schools being shut down the following day. On March 14th the number of confirmed cases rose up to over 101, which meant that Romania was ready to initiate the third scenario prepared by the authorities. This scenario called for measures such as restrictions on movement, increased pressure on hospital such as the prioritization of coronavirus cases which non-emergencies being postponed, and the limit for public gatherings was pulled down to 50 people.
On March 16th President Klaus Iohannis declared a state of emergency for 30 days. At this point the confirmed cases were 168, with no reported deaths. The Center for Independent Journalism (CJI) raised concerns over press freedom in Romania in light of the announcement arguing that the journalists’ “ability to inform the public” can be hurt.[i] One provision allows the government to remove fake information from the public sphere. The risk, as stated by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), is “the removal of reports and entire websites, without providing appeal or redress mechanisms”[ii]. The provision effectively gives the government the ability to decide what is and is not fake news, which has the potential to hurt the public’s right to information. According to news outlets such as Dela0.ro, local branches of the Health Ministry had deferred questions to the Interior Ministry or refused to provide information to journalists citing the fight against the coronavirus.[iii] This is a particularly important development in the Romanian context as press and media freedoms is an area the country has had some troubles with, and the media environment remains politicized.
Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2019 reportnotes that while the media has remained “relatively free and pluralistic” in Romania, it should be noted that many of the major outlets are owned by politically motivated businessmen. Thus, the news coverage tends to reflect the priorities of those who control them. The same report highlights the increased frequency of propaganda and disinformation in the media.[iv] In their coverage of Romanian press Reporters Without Borders (RSF) addresses these issues as well. They argue that respect for press freedom has not improved and address certain issues that may continue threaten press freedom. Among them are government attitudes that pressure journalists, increased radicalization of the nationalist discourse, and the discussions of possibly criminalizing “insulting the state or its leaders”.[v] The current state of affairs makes it clear why this government initiative has left people worrying.
The state of emergency was renewed by the President on April 14 for another 30 days who stated that there were no signs of slowdown of the pandemic. The President highlighted the seriousness of the current situation and said “We all want to regain the life we had before the outbreak of this pandemic, but how fast this happens depends only on compliance with these restrictions. There are measures that temporarily affect some of our rights and freedoms, but which save lives.”[vi] During the state of emergency another worrisome aspect has been accusations about the Romanian police force abusing their exceptional powers. As a Balkan Insight article notes, the fines regarding social distancing rules issued by the police has led lawyers and human rights activists to voice concerns. Some point to the number of fines and deem them unfair, while reports point to several instances of abuse with law abiding citizens being fined. Whereas other experts praise the government for acting fast and argue that some deficiencies are inevitable in the process.[vii]
On May 14th, the state of emergency
ended and was replaced with a less restrictive 30-day state of alert. At the time
of writing, Romania seems to be on a path of normalization with outdoor restaurants
and beaches reopening on June 1st, with some special measures. It
appears that Romania has rose to the democratic challenge during these trying
times and was able to navigate the crisis without many major blows to democratic
Cover Photo: Palace of Parliament, Bucharest Romania. Credit: Dimitry Anikin
[i] Barberá, M. G. (2020, March 31). Romania’s State of Emergency Raises Media Freedom Concerns. Retrieved from https://balkaninsight.com/2020/03/31/romanias-state-of-emergency-raises-media-freedom-concerns/
[ii] Barberá (2020)
[iii] Nikolic, I., Barberá, M. G., Kajosevic, S., & Necsutu, M. (2020, April 8). Central and Eastern Europe Freedom of Information Rights ‘Postponed’. Retrieved from https://balkaninsight.com/2020/04/06/central-and-eastern-europe-freedom-of-information-rights-postponed/
[iv] Romania. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://freedomhouse.org/country/romania/freedom-world/2019
[v] Romania : Status quo: Reporters without borders. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://rsf.org/en/romania
[vi] Romania Insider. (2020, April 14). Romania’s president extends state of emergency due to COVID-19: The danger hasn’t passed! Retrieved from https://www.romania-insider.com/covid-19-romania-president-state-emergency-extended
[vii] Barberá, M. (2020, April 24). Romania Police Accused of Abuse As COVID-19 Fines Soar. Retrieved May 20, 2020, from https://balkaninsight.com/2020/04/23/romania-police-accused-of-abuse-as-covid-19-fines-soar/
I found your blog post very interesting, prior to reading your perspective on the situation I did have a slight idea about the talks of abuse of power by Victor Orban but not regarding how much he’s trying to control the media. State controlling the media is usually one of the first signs of a potential bigger storm that could be coming towards the stability of democracy of a given country. I am wondering if you looked into weather journalists have taken any actions/measures against the restrictions placed upon them or are they keeping relatively quiet for now? I also find the response by the Romanian government towards Covid-19 to be very impressive, in terms of how early on they declared national emergency and shut down all places of mass gatherings. Now with the “second wave” emerging I wonder how things change and whether the Romanian government takes a different approach towards handling the matter.