ROMANIA: Сoronavirus response bill should not curb freedom of information, stresses OSCE Media Freedom Representative

Article originally published on OSCE website, 30 March 2020 – accessible here

The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Harlem Désir, expressed his concerns today about the provisions of the Romanian coronavirus response decree that grants the government special powers to curb freedom of information in the country.

On 16 March 2020, the Romanian President Klaus Iohannis signed an emergency decree that included provisions to counter the spread of disinformation related to COVID-19 online and allowed for the removal of reports and entire websites, without providing appeal or redress mechanisms.

“I share the preoccupation of the Romanian authorities to combat the dissemination of false information related to the health crisis,” the Representative said. “However, at the same time, I want to recall the importance of ensuring the free flow of information, which is a key component for providing the public with information on the vital measures needed to contain the virus, as well as the respect for the right of the media to report on the pandemic and governmental policies. These provisions of the emergency decree, as they stand today, pose a risk of undue restriction to the work of journalists, of self-censorship for media actors trying to inform the public, and could even be counterproductive. The media and independent journalists have an important role to play in the fight against disinformation, especially online, and should not be unduly restrained in their reporting on the pandemic.”

he National Authority for Management and Regulation in Communications (ANCOM), an institution for communication infrastructure established under the Romanian Parliament, with no previous expertise in dealing with such content issues, was made responsible for implementing the removal of content through hosting service providers.

ANCOM has to implement the relevant recommendations coming from the Strategic Communication Group, a task force at the Ministry of Internal Affairs charged with managing the pandemic. The task force is to provide, on a daily basis, all COVID-19 related data at the national level. A separate decision provided for an extension of the time allowed to the authorities to respond to freedom of information requests from 30 to 60 days, which could further impede media access to information about the pandemic.

The Representative noted similar concerns of the national union of journalists, other civil society organizations, as well as the European Federation of Journalists in this regard.

“There is a great risk that the new regulation will not so much penalize the disseminators of harmful disinformation, but will make independent journalism more difficult. I therefore urge the Romanian authorities to restore the capacity of journalists to act in the public interest, without undue restriction,” said Désir. “I call for the respect of media freedom in the context of the current crisis, and for the authorities to respect the principles of necessity and proportionality in any decision related to the emergency situation.”

The Representative recalled the joint statement that he published last week with David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and Edison Lanza, IACHR Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, which emphasized that: “Human health depends not only on readily accessible health care. It also depends on access to accurate information about the nature of the threats and the means to protect oneself, one’s family, and one’s community”. The Representative and the two Special Rapporteurs also stated that: “The right of access to information means that governments must be making exceptional efforts to protect the work of journalists. Journalism serves a crucial function at a moment of public health emergency, particularly when it aims to inform the public of critical information and monitors government actions.”