Press freedom remains a cornerstone of democracy in the European Union (EU). However, recent findings from the Civil Liberties Union for Europe indicate that the freedom of expression and information in several EU countries, including Romania, is threatened by inadequate measures to protect national security, combat hate speech, and counter disinformation.
Additionally, imbalanced enforcement of data protection laws and slow processing of freedom of information requests hinder the free flow of information. This article aims to provide an overview of the current situation and highlight some of the challenges journalists face in the EU, focusing on Romania, as extracted from the latest report on the State of Press Freedom in the EU.
National Security as a Pretext for Restricting Freedom of Expression in Romania
The report’s findings include that in countries like Romania and Slovakia, growing concerns have arisen that national security is being used as an excuse to draft laws restricting freedom of expression. Such laws often pose a threat to media freedom and limit the ability of journalists and media outlets to report on critical issues.
Some platforms are labelled as “pro-Russian” and treated as an enemy during the war, while others are subject to public criticism for publishing against the Government’s foreign policy directives. Such practices are standard in Romania, and the freedom of speech has been replaced by what we can call “conditioned freedom of speech” – you are allowed to speak and publish freely as long as you don’t disturb the current establishment.
Lack of Transparency in Funding Allocation by the Romanian Government
In Romania, there is no transparency in the funding allocation by political parties, as quoted in the report. Public funds are used to bribe media outlets, as happened during the pandemic. This way, newspapers have become political party propaganda tools. Civil society actors have attempted to expose this issue through freedom of information requests, but the parties have declined to disclose information.
There was an intention to support the press during the pandemic. Still, beyond the Government’s intention, one cannot help asking: how many publications avoided criticizing the authorities just because they paid the publications with public funds?
The Case of Emilia Șercan
The case of Emilia Șercan is presented separately in the report. Romanian investigative journalist Emilia Șercan published an investigation in early 2022 that claimed Romania’s Prime Minister had plagiarized his doctoral thesis. Shortly after, Șercan received a threat from a stranger containing personal photos of her. Despite reporting the incident to the police, the screenshots she sent were leaked, leading her to file several criminal complaints against the police and the Minister of Interior. The journalist’s case is the subject of seven criminal cases at various stages in several institutions.
Notably, officers from the Romanian Police Academy are the accused in this case, as they are charged with threatening the journalist to abandon the investigation.
Increasing Censorship and Content Restrictions
The report mentions that civil rights organizations in Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, Ireland, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Spain report increased censorship and content restrictions. Public order and security are being used as arguments to propose new laws allowing for even further restrictions on free speech.
This is not good news for the evolution of the Romanian press or civil society, as pressures against the press mean less information and less freedom for the whole society.
As the European Union continues to grapple with the challenges surrounding freedom of expression and information, it is essential to protect the rights of journalists and media outlets to ensure a healthy democratic environment. The abovementioned cases are just a few examples of journalists and civil society actors’ ongoing struggles. Ultimately, the EU must address these issues and ensure that the fundamental principles of press freedom are upheld.