Illiberal discourse
Illiberal discourse in Romania: the year of exception 2020

Discursul iliberal in Romania
© Author: Center for Independent Journalism

The coronavirus pandemic strongly affected the Romanian society and the illiberal discourse became a tool often used by politicians in achieving their goals. Vulnerable groups became scapegoats overnight, accused of introducing and transmitting the virus. The rights and political representation of women and gender or ethnic minorities are constantly questioned by the political class, without taking into account the long-term effects on these groups. All this while, far away from the eye of the mainstream press, probably the most aggressive promoter of illiberal discourse, AUR (The Alliance for the Union of Romanians), was being born.

The report “Illiberal discourse in Romania: the year of exception 2020. The health crisis and the electoral campaigns, vectors of hatred in public discourse” was published by the Center for Independent Journalism, with the financial support of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom Romania. The report presents the elements of the illiberal discourse practiced in Romania during the coronavirus pandemic, how this discourse is being disseminated in public and by whom, sets the health crisis management and the results of the 2020 parliamentary elections into a context-sensitive narrative and provides recommendations to combat this type of discourse.

Illiberal discourse facilitates the attack on fundamental human rights, endangers democratic values ​​and polarizes society, encouraging hateful attitudes and behaviors, both at an institutional and interpersonal level. During the monitored period, the illiberal discourse served as a weapon for discrediting and disregarding ethnic and gender minorities and provided a platform for legitimizing military control over the population.

Among the elements of the illiberal discourse in Romania, identified by monitoring press, we find:

  • Isolationism – anti-EU feelings
  • Racism and xenophobia – anti-Roma, anti-Hungarian
  • Classism – anti-socially assisted, anti-emigrants
  • Gender and sexuality – anti-LGBT (homophobia, transphobia), sexism (misogyny, anti-abortion discourse, discourse against sex education)
  • Authoritarianism – militarism, anti-justice discourse, population control

The study has also monitored the type of speech that attacks the fundamental rights which guarantee the freedom of the press – the right to freedom of expression and the right to access to information.

The monitorization of the press focused on three moments, in particular:

  • The state of emergency (March 16th – May 15th) and the state of alert (May 16th – August 15th 2020) (224 incidents)
  • The campaign and the local elections (August 28th – September 26th 2020) (79 incidents)
  • The campaign and the parliamentary elections (November 6th – December 5th 2020) (91 incidents)

The main source of the illiberal discourse were the politicians, but the press also played an important role in its dissemination, by reproducing it without intervention or proper contextualization.

The results of this report show that:

  • During the state of emergency and the state of alert (monitoring March-August) the most common illiberal themes were: anti-Roma racism, intolerant speech against Romanian citizens working abroad or the “diaspora”, attacks on fundamental rights such as the freedom to expression and the right to information, and anti-justice discourses. Topics such as population control and militarism were also very popular, especially in the months of the state of emergency. The actors who most commonly spread these themes are politicians (representatives of all governing political parties), both from the local and the national level.
  • During the local elections (the pre-campaign and the electoral campaign itself, July 20th – September 26th, 2020), the illiberal discourse instrumentalized the perceived – or the assumed – minority identity of candidates in order to discredit them. Predominant were anti-feminist, anti-LGBTQ and xenophobic sentiments, which sought to minimize and downplay violence against women, children and minorities, weaponizing it to serve political interests. Politicians have been the main vehicle for the spread of this type of discourse.
  • The illiberal discourse during the parliamentary election campaign was dominated by nationalism with an emphasis on anti-Hungarian sentiment, religious discourse against anti-Covid-19 protection measures and attempts to restrict fundamental rights such as the right to information. Although less present in the mainstream press, the illiberal discourse during the parliamentary election campaign was very present on social media platforms, especially on Facebook and at rallies organized by the AUR party, where the most virulent illiberal topics were intensely promoted.

Conclusion of the report:

Ignoring the existence and spread of this discourse can have grave consequences on the state of democracy in Romania, as seen in the case of the mainstream press having ignored AUR. What remains certain is that the crisis showed more than ever the need for a well-prepared press that deciphers public discourse, politicians’ intentions and social tensions. At a time when disorientation and insecurity rule society, the press needs to step in against discursive abuse in order to combat the way in which it gives rise to discriminatory institutional and interpersonal behaviors.

To this end, CIJ has proposed a series of recommendations for coordinated actions at a societal level (for the mass-media, civil society, politicians and authorities), of which we list only a few:

  • Diversifying topics and points of view in news and information programs is essential to provide a fair representation of minority or disadvantaged groups in society.
  • Diversifying sources by including the voices of groups who are voided of power or appropriate representation: the voices of workers, retired people, Roma, women, people with disabilities, sexual minorities and others must be included in all coverage dealing with issues that affect them.
  • Diversification of human resources in newsrooms by including ethnic, racial, gender minorities, people with disabilities among journalists and editors.
  • Creating guidelines for recognizing the elements of illiberal discourse, organizing courses or workshops for journalists where they are introduced to positive practices of documentation and responsible coverage of illiberal topics in the press.
  • Monitoring illiberal discourse done by civil society organizations, as a current practice, not only as singular projects.
  • Public denial and sanctioning, firmly and promptly, of any racist, sexist, homophobic or other forms of illiberal discourse, especially those committed by politicians.
  • Trainings for law enforcement agencies, starting with the community police, the gendarmerie, the Ministry of Interior, to distinguish between hate speech and other types of speech.

The report "Illiberal discourse in Romania: the year of exception 2020" can be downloaded here: