Romania, among the EU countries with a high risk for the press, says EC rule of law report
Romania is one of the EU countries considered to be at high risk to the press in terms of freedom of expression, according to the latest European Commission report on the rule of law. Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary, Malta, Poland and Slovenia are in the same situation.
According to the report released on Wednesday, journalists’ access to information remains deficient and there is insufficient transparency regarding the dissemination of content paid for by political parties outside election campaigns. The Commission also notes in the document that cases of threats, harassment and physical violence against journalists are more worrying than last year.
A comprehensive protection of whistleblowers is still missing, the report points out. The Ministry of Justice announced at the end of 2020 a draft law on the protection of whistleblowers, which would aim to transpose Directive (EU) 2019/1937 on whistleblowers’ protection. The draft law was adopted by the Senate in April 2022 and by the Chamber of Deputies with amendments in June 2022. Some amendments raised concerns, notably from the European Chief Prosecutor, and the government expressed its intention to adjust the draft law, as the
legislative process is still ongoing. Romania’s RRP provided for the adoption and entry into force of the law transposing the directive on whistleblowers’ protection by 31 March 2022.
The level of perceived judicial independence in Romania continues to be average among both the general public and companies, notes the report. Overall, 48% of the general population and 49% of companies perceive the level of independence of courts and judges to be ‘fairly or very good’ in 20226. According to data in the 2022 EU Justice Scoreboard, no clear trend can be identified in the evolution of the perceived level of independence since 2016. The perceived judicial independence among the general public has decreased in comparison with 2021 (51%) and 2016 (51%). The perceived judicial independence among companies has increased in comparison with 2021 (45%), but it is lower than in 2016 (63%).
A new version of the draft justice laws is under preparation. In its Recovery and Resilience Plan (RRP), Romania committed to amend the justice laws7 by 30 June 2023, as part of the reform aimed at ensuring the independence of the judiciary, enhancing its quality and efficiency. The draft laws were initially put for public consultation in 2020 and again in 2019, and some of the proposals received in this context were included in the new draft laws.
The Ministry of Justice published the amended drafts on its website on 22 June 2022. These are intended to address long–standing concerns for the independence, quality and efficiency of the justice system, in particular by amending the provisions related to the civil and disciplinary liability of magistrates, competitions for admission to the judiciary, and rules on the status, appointment and removal of specialised and high–ranking prosecutors. Having regard that this is the first in–depth reform of the laws governing the judiciary since 2004, a comprehensive and transparent revision process is expected to take place. The new draft laws are still to be tabled in Parliament.
The EC also argues that although the Section for the Investigation of Offences in the Judiciary (SIIJ) was dismantled, yet some concerns related to the investigation and prosecution of criminal offences in the judiciary remain and that the perception among experts and business executives is that the level of corruption in the public sector remains high.
According to the report, transparency of media ownership continues to be incomplete174. In accordance with the law, the CNA must ensure the transparency of the organisation, functioning and financing of the mass media in the audiovisual sector. Information on audiovisual media ownership is available in the company registry and some of these data is also published on the annual activity report175, although this information is not always complete. Media companies not operating in the audiovisual field are only subject to the (less extensive) requirements any other company in Romania must abide by. They have to communicate information on ownership structures, including shareholders, to the National Trade Register Office.
However, it is still possible for a media company to be owned by another company, owned in turn by an entity registered abroad. Moreover, information about the ownership structure of media companies is not publicly accessible without prior registration process (with the
National Trade Register Office or a private company) and the payment of a fee.
The report also mentions the cases regarding threats, instances of harassment and violence against journalists, which are more concerning compared to previous year. In September 2021, two journalists and an environmental activist were attacked while filming a documentary about illegal deforestation. All their footage was deleted and the equipment was destroyed by the attackers. While the then Prime Minister condemned this attack and an investigation was launched, a public petition requesting the General Prosecutor to take over the investigation
was not accepted190. In September 2021, two women journalists were attacked at a congress of the National Liberal Party by party members. The Council of Europe has two active alerts concerning intimidation of journalists in Romania.
The EC recommends to Romania to:
• Ensure that the revision of the Justice Laws reinforces safeguards for judicial independence, including to reform the disciplinary regime for magistrates, and take measures to address remaining concerns about the investigation and prosecution of criminal offences in the judiciary, taking into account European standards and relevant Venice Commission opinions.
• Introduce rules on lobbying for Members of Parliament.
• Address the operational challenges of the National Anti–Corruption Directorate, including as regards recruitment of prosecutors, and closely monitor the impact of the new system on investigating and prosecuting corruption offences in the judiciary.
• Strengthen the rules and mechanisms to enhance the independent governance and editorial independence of public service media taking into account the European standards on public service media.
• Ensure effective public consultation before the adoption of draft legislation.
• Continue efforts to establish a National Human Rights Institution taking into account the UN Paris Principles.