Dumitrița Holdiș, Project Manager, CJI
The first case of COVID-19 was registered in Romania on 26 February, 2020. Three weeks later, the country was passing emergency decrees limiting freedom of expression and access to information, temporarily withdrawing from the Convention of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and moving to monopolize all official communication regarding the spread of the virus. The speed and ease of passing such measures is extremely concerning for media professionals and should be for all members of the public. It is vital in times of crisis to remember that free access to reliable and accurate information could save lives.
In their attempts to manage the coronavirus pandemic, governments around the world are taking extraordinary measures and the Romanian government is no exception. The first confirmed infection with COVID-19 was registered on February 26 2020, and since, the numbers have been steadily increasing. Looking at the spread of the virus in other countries, three scenarios were drawn by the state, based on the number of official registered cases. On the 16th of March, President Klaus Iohannis decreed a state of emergency as scenario 3 – between 101 and 2000 confirmed cases – kicked in. Starting with the 25th of March, Romania is in a strict lockdown, where movement outside the house will be restricted to shopping for basic goods and going to work, where surveillance measures, such as electronic bracelets for people in isolation, will be introduced, and where the Army will be called to aid the Police in implementing these measures.
Once closing down schools and universities, securing emergency funding for hospitals and speeding up public procurement of sanitary goods became a matter of urgency, the necessity of this decision was made obvious. However, the decree included an article on countering the spread of pandemic related “false information” in the online space, which allowed for the takedown of articles and entire websites. The decision came as a shock to many media professionals, as rumours of such restrictions being introduced were refuted by government officials one day before the emergency decree was declared. The National Authority for Management and Regulation in Communication (ANCOM), a manager of communication infrastructure with no expertise in dealing with thorny issues such as disinformation, was made responsible to implement the removal of content. No appeal and redress mechanisms were provided. A second controversial decision included limitations to requests for information, specifically the extension of the response time allowed to authorities from 30 to 60 days.
Both articles could pose significant barriers to journalists trying to inform the public during tense and uncertain times. Adding the pressure of censorship and the lack of access to information to the fear of infection and the overwhelming amount of data journalists currently have to process, is not just unwelcomed but dangerous. The spread of disinformation in the online space is a serious concern and should not be dismissed, however combating it with censorship seems inefficient at best, and counterproductive at worst. The fact that an opaque state is trying to suppress information, might legitimise said information, not discredit it in the eye of the public.
The reactions to the decree were swift, coming from civil society and media organisations alike, condemning the decree as an attack on freedom of expression, freedom of information and freedom of the press. On the side of the government, clarifications were soon made regarding the role of ANCOM in the matter, who announced that it would just implement the content take-down, based on recommendations coming from the Strategic Communication Group, a task force, charged with managing the pandemic. The Group is part of the Ministry of Internal Affairs – a ministry with expertise in matters of security and control and with equally no expertise in media was now in charge of free speech.
Two days later, on March 18, the Permanent Representative of Romania to the Council of Europe informed the Council of a partial and temporary withdrawal from the Convention of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. While the derogation from the Convention is limited and temporary, it is vague about the rights it limits and was requested far from the public eye. The widrawal was not officially communicated by the authorities to the Romanian public, but was announced by the national news agency, Agerpres, which was quoting Agence France-Presse on the matter. The lack of communication and of transparency on the matter raised alarm on the way the state is keeping itself accountable during the crisis.
Additional decisions to limit the circulation of information and to monopolize communication are raising grave concerns. As of 21st March, county districts cannot publish data on the number of locally confirmed Covid-19 cases, on the number of tests applied and the health state of the patients infected with coronavirus. The Strategic Communication Group will now centralize the data nationally and will give updates once a day. The data will not reflect the distribution of cases per county. Again, journalists and civil society organisations are scrambling to find adequate data to publish and petitions are being signed to request the urgent release of accurate and reliable data by the authorities. In spite of this lack of transparency, the state, through several of its institutions, starting from the Presidency to the Liberal Party led Government, are urging the population to consume information coming only from official sources. But when official information is released with such reluctance, the public could turn to spaces perceived as free – such as social media platforms and online publications – to satisfy their need to consume news on the pandemic.
Reactionary measures such as policing of speech, of data and of free communication will further chip at the already skim level of trust Romanians have in their government. In times when social responsibility, solidarity and concerted efforts are vital to save lives, the Romanian state is showing an example of authoritarianism and a sledge-hammer approach to leadership. It took 3 weeks and 300 cases of Covid-19 to bring these tendencies out. The natural assumption is that these tendencies were not that far under the surface to begin with. As we are steadily approaching phase 4 of the pandemic, when over 2000 confirmed cases will surely put immense pressure on our most basic safety nets, it is time to reassess our relationship with the state and the level of comfort we have with the power imbalance made evident by the current health crisis.
 The text of the decree is available online, here: https://www.mai.gov.ro/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/MILITARY-ORDINANCE-on-measures-to-prevent-the-spread-of-COVID-19.pdf
 See the manifesto signed by several civil society organisations to request for greater transparency of data related to the spread of COVID-19 in Romania: https://covid19.geo-spatial.org/dashboard/manifest