January is usually a creative month dedicated to family and personal life. At least that's the case with me. On January 21, however, I received a mail from my PEN colleague Bogdan Ghiu, who pointed out a change in tax law, "Declaration 600". It meant that, as of 31 January this year, all taxpayers had to declare income from their freelance work. This applied to many writers, journalists and translators. However, one paragraph of the amendment to the law was worrisome, namely that in the future we would have to pay upfront the equivalent of our previous year's tax bill for income from self-employment. This applies to all sorts of earnings, lumping together dividends, rental and interest income as well as fees for copyrighted texts. But payment for journalistic articles or fiction texts makes an irregular, unpredictable income. Advance payments would therefore hit journalists and writers particularly hard.
We came up with a protest note, warning how detrimental the law would be for Romanian culture and freedom of expression. For some time now, Romania has been clouded by an atmosphere of mistrust and fear. People are on edge about a growing authoritarianism which the governing party is seeking to embed through legislation.
In many countries, intellectuals tend to be left leaning. Not so in Romania. The left-wing political spectrum is occupied by the Social Democratic Party (PSD), which many see as a follower of the Communist Party. The wounds of communism have not healed in the country yet. Since 1990, writers and intellectuals have been disappointed by the legislative push of the PSD. Sometimes, as with the "Declaration 600", the laws seem to have been designed to punish those who criticize them.
It is too early to talk of a restriction of the free expression of opinion. So, what are we afraid of? Three autocratic regimes, headed by Viktor Orbán, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan are in the immediate vicinity of Romania. Civil society is therefore on high alert. Many of us lived under Ceausescu's dictatorship and are haunted by the allegation that we lacked the courage to act in time. Driven by the fear that the ruling party and its leader, Liviu Dragnea, could separate our country from the European family, people took to the streets in major cities earlier this year, protesting against a legal reform and the dissolution of the National Anti-Corruption Agency.
For the time being, our resistance has led to a renegotiation of the tax reform. But much of the population remains faithful to the PSD party, lured by promises of pay and pension increases. The ubiquitous propaganda makes it difficult for independent writers and journalists to differentiate between news, post-truths, and manipulated opinion. Fearful of losing hard-fought freedoms, we now spend part of the day staying up to date with the latest from the Parliament, the Senate, and the government. Within six months of the PSD’s electoral win, the government was reshuffled three times. Twice the designated Prime Minister did not seem to be sufficiently devoted to party chairman Liviu Dragnea, who is not allowed to be a PM himself because of his criminal record. Nothing justifies such a rapid change of government. But these moves are revealing about the political figure Liviu Dragnea. Such personalities attract crowds to satisfy their own vanities. So we, as civil society, have a duty to stay on high alert.
Translated by Adina Danisch