Attempts to weaken the ability of CSOs to protect public interest & concerning cyber security law
On 17th of October 2022, the Romanian legislators adopted three laws which aim to reform the judicial system of Romania. The Law on the Superior Council of Magistracy, the Law on the Judicial Organisation and the Law on the Status of Judges and Prosecutors were harshly criticised by the opposition and the Ombudsman. The main line of criticism was that the laws allow for the oligarchisation of the justice system.
On 9th November 2022, the Constitutional Court of Romania rejected all the objections submitted by the opposition Save Romania Union (USR, centre-right) and the Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR, populist-right) parties and the Ombudsman and declared all three justice laws constitutional. USR demanded a delay to wait for the opinion of the Venice Commission, which was formed in an emergency procedure and published on 18th November 2022. However, these demands went unheeded and the laws were adopted.
In its Urgent Opinion, the Venice Commission noted several positive developments but points out that these laws should not have been adopted in an urgent parliamentary procedure. The Venice Commission has also expressed scepticism about the application in practice of certain provisions of the laws but has not been critical in general.
Attempts to hinder NGOs from protecting society
In November 2022, 160 non-governmental organisations and citizen groups issued a statement and called out the Romanian Parliament for "illiberal tendencies" due to a legislative project signed by 32 senators that makes it harder to challenge administrative acts in court. According to the bill’s explanatory memorandum, the new legislation aims to reduce the amount of litigation flow initiated by some NGOs that delay major infrastructure works (highways, hydroelectric plants).
“The proposed changes are an attempt to weaken the ability of civil society to exercise its mission to protect the public interest and are in line with illiberal trends in other European countries.”
According to civil society organisations, the proposal would prevent or complicate the process by which NGOs can notify courts of possible illegalities committed by public institutions. The signatories protested the introduction of additional conditions for NGOs which includes:
- payment of a deposit of one per cent of the investment value by an organisation, when an administrative act is challenged.
- Introducing the patrimonial liability of the members of the board of directors for any damage caused to third parties, if the action has been rejected by a final court decision.
- Organisations must have been registered for a minimum of two years and the promotion of environmental protection must be their main objective.
The CSOs argued that the changes are seen as an attempt to weaken the ability of civil society to protect the public interest and as yet another legislative initiative which restricts the terms by which NGOs can challenge urban planning documents. The statement also highlighted that supporting texts of the two legislative proposals describe non-governmental organisations as enemies of the public interest and use accusatory language inappropriate for a democratic society. For example, it states that NGOs “bring serious harm to the public interest by depriving a modern and developed society of essential services, harm caused to the state budget, as well as the other branches of the horizontal economy."
In addition, there has been a concerning development with environmental NGOs being targeted by real estate developers in a series of Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation (SLAPP) cases by which they seek their closure. In 2022 two NGOs were closed at the request of real estate developers, in cases where NGOs contested real estate projects before national courts, but lost, and had to pay the legal fees of the real estate investors. Because they did not have the means to pay these costs, the investors asked for and obtained their closure, which resulted in them being liquidated. The first case was against the NGO Militia Spirituala, while the second case was against NGO SOS Orasul.
Cost-of-living protest turned to anti-government protest
On 2nd October 2022, about 3,000 people participated in an anti-government rally organised by the radical party AUR. Initially, the protest was supposed to be an expression of public discontent with rising prices and utility bills. However, during the demonstration, supporters of AUR leader George Simion and former AUR member MP Diana Sosoaca attacked each other, but the authorities intervened.
Militarisation of Romanian cyberspace
On 21st December 2022, the Romanian legislature passed a new law on cybersecurity. The draft law was heavily criticised by civil society organisations and was also challenged before the Constitutional Court by Romania’s Ombudsman.
The Association for the Defence of Human Rights - Helsinki Committee, APADOR-CH, highlighted the list of dangers of this law. According to APADOR-CH, one of the most harmful articles amends another law, the law on national security (51/1991), criminalising online expression of opinions contrary to state actions. With the law in force, for example, some anti-vaccination opinions, expressed on Facebook, could be classified as threats to national security, a criminal offence punishable by imprisonment from six months to five years.
The government states that the changes as set out in the new law will protect Romanian cyberspace from disinformation and propaganda. However, the opponents point out that the law is ambiguous as it does not define propaganda or disinformation campaigns and leaves it to service professionals to detect the dangers. They argue that the law expands the powers of the Romanian Intelligence Service without guarantees of external control over the agency and protection against abuses. The Minister of Research, Innovation and Digitalisation stated civil society's fears were unfounded and that the law was not intended to militarise the internet, but to ensure transparency and increase the effectiveness of cyberspace protection.
After Radio Free Europe revealed in several articles the lack of transparency in how political parties spend taxpayers’ money, in November 2022, the Permanent Electoral Authority (AEP) requested the amendment of the law on political parties. AEP is an institution that manages party funding, grants subsidies and accounts and monitors their spending.
The bill AEP proposed was criticised by NGOs specialising in public policy. According to their joint press release, although there are elements in the bill that can be considered as an improvement in the current situation, there are serious problems too. For example, the draft does not ensure an appropriate level of transparency on spending. In addition, annual subsidies to political parties and the expenditure ceilings are too high, and not appropriate to Romania’s current economic situation.
After public consultations, at the end of December 2022, AEP proposed a slightly amended version, but still a problematic bill, to the government. According to the draft law, parties should spend no more than 30 per cent of the subsidies received from the state budget on advertising. The bill authorises and sets limits on receiving donations from individuals and legal entities; it also allows for loan agreements with individuals with an obligation to return the money within five years. According to the draft AEP proposal, all party propaganda contracts in the media and all donations from sponsors have to become public.