Romania’s Threatened Freedom of Speech
A report on an authoritarian backlash
On October 7, the Romanian Senate passed a law whereby anyone accused of “social defamation” can be subject to penalty. The financial sanction for individual charges varies between 1.000 RON and 30.000 RON (225 Euros-6.750 Euros), whereas fines for group defamation can go up to 22.500 Euros. The person who initiated such a mind-blowing act, Liviu Dragnea, is arguably one of the most questionable politicians in Romania. He is currently interim president of the Social Democratic Party, the same Tammany that strangely backs Prime Minister Victor Ponta, who has been accused of plagiarizing large sections of his doctoral dissertation, and houses a long list of members charged for acts of corruption.
In the meantime, several NGO’s have expressed their bewilderment and asked for immediate dismissal of the law in the Chamber of Deputies, the decisive body. The organizations held that the Act contains ambiguous definitions that would allow for abuses and gross violations of constitutional rights, such as restricting the freedom of expression. Indeed, this is basically an attempt at introducing a new form of censorship for which the defamation charge is just a camouflage. It is worth remembering the words of Van Vechter Veeder, a former United States federal judge: “Perhaps no other branch of the law is as open to criticism for its doubts and ambivalence, its meaningless and grotesque anomalies.”
No matter how one looks into this issue, it is clear that several institutions of the Romanian state and certain politicians have tried in recent years to impose laws by which fundamental legal rights are infringed. The responses by civil society organizations have been so far praiseworthy. The democratic body politic itself is being challenged by this unending assault on the citizens. Most of the legislative initiatives seem to be crafted for private interest groups or other peculiar entities exclusively. This creates a growing sense of social distance, even alienation, between the electorate and the political class. Under these circumstances, it may be a long time before Romanians reach a functional democracy. What Romania needs at this very moment, first and foremost, is a shared feeling of trust and solidarity among its subjects. This proposed law undermines precisely these values. It makes citizens suspicious of the state, generates a sense of insecurity, and allows the government to indulge in authoritarian methods bound to intimidate its critics.