2022 was a bad year for democracy. It was a year marked by decisions of political power that negatively impacted civic space and democracy. Through their legislative initiatives and sustained attempts to limit critical voices in society – active citizens, independent media and activist non-governmental organisations – the government sought to discourage participation in public gatherings, limit access to information of public interest, restrict freedom of expression, and weaken mechanisms for monitoring and reporting illegalities, conﬂicts of interest and abuses in public administration. Decision-making transparency has been severely undermined by the introduction of an arbitrary exception to the law. Among other things, almost all legislation on spending the huge amounts of money from the NPRR was adopted without debate, under the pretext of „urgency”.
In this context, the civic space has been affected by the accelerated moves of politicians to discredit the role of civil society and limit the scope for action of non-governmental organisations. At the same time, state institutions proposed legislative changes aimed at intimidating and hindering the interventions of independent media and activist organisations who sought to halt legislative projects that were deeply at odds with democratic principles and that infringed human rights.
Intimidation and censorship of journalists and citizens were used by state institutions to protect party interests and to prevent investigations into cases of incompatibility or other illegal actions by ofﬁcials.
In this opaque landscape, most major political parties have either refused to provide information on their sources of funding and how they manage money raised from public sources, or have provided truncated information.
In the background, far from the critical scrutiny of society, national security institutions are preparing a package of laws to redeﬁne the ﬁeld. Some of the proposals in this package of laws, exposed by the media, are extremely harmful, and represent an aggressive return to interference and control by security structures over civil institutions and social mechanisms. In 2022, we seemed to be in the Military Republic of Romania.
The authors of this Report, together with other members of the Group ”NGOs for the Citizen” and their partners, have reported and publicly challenged most of the approaches we describe in the chapters below. Our public reactions to political attempts to diminish the space for civic action have balanced or blocked a small part of the initiatives we found harmful to democracy.
These accentuated tendencies of illiberalism, understood as the resistance of elected representatives and state authorities to carry out their public mission in a transparent and responsible manner, with genuine openness towards the citizen, represent major challenges which a society weakened by the social crises of the last three years and still insufﬁciently familiar with the principles of liberal representative democracy can hardly counteract.
The main incidents and actions with an impact on civic space in 2022:
►A legislative initiative to amend the Penal Code, proposed by Nicolae Ciucă and Lucian Bode at the end of 2022, is on the agenda of the Senate; it aims to restrict critical voices by increasing prison sentences for anyone who disturbs public order and peace by „serious attacks on personal dignity”. After protests from civil society, one of the initiators has taken on a number of amendments that have not yet been debated. At the same time, a legislative proposal that would have reformed the Law on Public Assemblies, has been blocked in the Chamber of Deputies since summer 2020. The Bucharest City Hall also questioned the right to participate and organise public assemblies by setting up a new committee within the institution that would, among other things, determine whether the demonstrations are „relevant” to the community. Perhaps even more absurd is that the same committee is responsible for deciding whether the organisers of cultural and sports gatherings demonstrate the „talent” of the initiators.
►Blocking access to information of public interest is a long-standing and constant practice among public institutions and other publicly funded entities. Political parties refuse to comply with the obligation to publish information on how they spend public subsidies worth millions of euros, in deﬁance of the principle that led to their funding from public sources, namely the need to limit links between elected representatives and private sponsors with illicit intentions, who ﬁnanced election campaigns with the expectation that they would later connect to the public budget.
►Also on access to information, there was a legislative proposal as early as 2021 to require public institutions to publish on their websites all requests from citizens, together with their replies. The legislative proposal is still blocked in the Chamber of Deputies.
►Discrediting activist NGOs, harassing whistleblowers and limiting access to justice for groups and organisations have been the subject of several legislative initiatives that have sought to weaken civil society in 2022 and have constructed a toxic public discourse against non-governmental organisations and citizens who report illegal decisions or actions among public institutions. Such a legislative proposal (meanwhile adopted and awaiting enactment),” resolves” the ”major imbalance between NGOs and investors” by restricting the timeframe in which NGOs concerned with urban planning and the environment can address the courts about potential illegalities. Another proposal, fortunately withdrawn by the initiators following a major public scandal, would have limited the right of association and access to justice for organisations challenging administrative acts.
►In the same vein, under the pretext of transposing a European directive, the legislator chose to ignore the demands of civil society and adopted a series of amendments to the Law on the Protection of Whistleblowers in the Public Interest, which drastically restricted, in fact, the right to free expression and the mechanisms for protecting whistleblowers from abuse. It took public and institutional (European Commission) pressure to repair the law and achieve a minimum transposition of the European directive.
►In 2022, there were also serious cases where representatives of public institutions were involved in intimidating and harassing journalists. Public subsidies allocated by the government to the media have altered the editorial independence of a large number of publications and extensive investigations published by the independent press have shown how political party money has massively inﬂuenced the editorial policies of newsrooms with large audiences.
► The abuse of emergency ordinances, the lack of integrity standards when appointing members to the top of key institutions, political interference in the judiciary and the increased inﬂuence of the secret services in the public sphere have contributed to the degradation of the space for citizens and non-governmental organisations to act in the decision-making process and have shown increasing tendencies of politicians towards illiberal measures.
All these side-slips are happening in a context of potential economic growth, based on signiﬁcant amounts of public investment, especially from the European Resilience and Recovery Mechanism. Controlling the ﬂow of investment is, by itself, a major political challenge. Subsidies, privileges and control of public investment (with the associated procurement), this opaque relationship between money and politics, close the jigsaw puzzle of the degradation of democracy in Romania.
Greedy and mediocre politicians need peace and quiet to use public money for personal gain. They ﬁnd them by emptying democratic institutions of meaning, by appointing dubious characters at the head of audit institutions, by politically controlling justice and by intimidating critical voices. All this happened in 2022 and continues in 2023. Sometimes we don’t even realise the connections between them. We hope that this report, which attempts to bring some of them together, will help us see the scale of the problem, and make us realise not only that we need to be concerned about the state of democracy, but that we need to remain vigilant and active in defending it.
This report is not an analysis of the state of play of all the dimensions that determine the quality of a democracy. Starting from the authors’ interest in the quality of civic space (which we see as consisting in the mechanisms and instruments that citizens have at their disposal to participate in decisions that concern them), we have analysed, ﬁrst and foremost, legislative initiatives, as well as actions or inactions of public institutions or politicians, in the areas:
► Access to information;
► Transparency and access to decision-making;
► Freedom of expression;
► Freedom of association and participation in public assemblies.
In addition, considering that the civic space is closely linked to other aspects that determine the quality of democracy, we could not ignore initiatives in other areas, such as the inﬂuence of militarised structures, legislation on the protection of whistleblowers or the lack of integrity and professionalism in the leadership of some public institutions.
In preparing this report, we have constantly monitored both the legislative process and information that has emerged in the public arena relevant to our areas of interest.
The full report “The state of democracy in 2022” is available here.