Text and Picture by Marine Leduc, France
The Internet played a big role during the recent protests in Romania. Some experts and even the media called it ‘a digital revolution’. Other specialists urged that the impact of this online engagement should be contextualized and put in the proper perspective. The communist era ended 25 years ago but “Romanians are still afraid to tell their opinions in the public space,” explains Bianca Mitu, a PhD researcher at the University of Bucharest. Her research focuses on communication and online engagement, especially on the Arab Spring and Indignados movements.
“The Internet and social media offer a way to express oneself without any constraints,” she notes. In January 2012, thousands of Romanian gathered to protest against the new health care legislation. “It was the first time when massive protests started online,” Mitu adds.
Online Protests vs. Offline Protests
The foreign media covering the protests often described it as the “rebirth” of Romania’s civil society; however, Mitu has another take on the matter.
“There are many people protesting online but they are relatively few on the streets,” she states. “The protests in Romania are characterized by this huge gap between online engagement and offline action.”
According to her, the marches against the exploitation of a gold mine in Rosia Montana and the one against shale gas explorations in 2013 did not have a big impact. “Politicians do not pay attention to the online protests as they think it was a small part of the population on the streets,” she explains.
Even if the exploration in Rosia Montana is now put on hold, Mitu notes that the government’s retreat maybe linked to the “upcoming elections.” She adds: “It won’t stop them from exploiting the gold mine in the future.”
On May 6, U.S energy major Chevron already begun drilling for shale gas at its exploration well site in Pungesti, despite various online movements and locals trying to block the area.
A Significant Digital Division
“To be able to protest online, people need a computer, a web connection, and the ability to use the Internet,” Mitu notes. “This is not the case for everybody in Romania”.
Even if Romania has the highest download speed in the European Union—57,39 Mbps versus 25,4 Mbps in the EU, the spread of Internet access is highly variable. In 2012, a report from the International Telecommunication Union revealed that only 15,9 percent of the Romanian population is connected to a fixed broadband, while the European average is 27 percent. This is the lowest Internet penetration rate in the EU after Slovakia at 14.6 percent. The mobile subscription is higher: 23.7 percent, but the report shows that it is the third lowest rate in the EU after Lithuania at 8.6 percent and Hungary at 23.1 percent.
“This is one of the reasons why politicians also think that it is only a small part of the society protesting online and offline,” Mitu explains.
“The digital divide really exists in Romania until today,” says Valentina Marinescu, a PhD researcher in the sociology of mass communication from the University of Bucharest. In a country where the cost of an iPhone or a computer is equivalent to a month’s salary, staying connected is a huge challenge.
“First, there is a geographical division between urban and rural areas where it is sometimes hard to get electricity,” Valentina explains. “Then, social and demographic factors such as economic status, age, and education attainment are also contributing factors. Interest on joining online protests is very important, because even if someone has Internet access, it is mainly used to stay in touch with friends or to play games.”
Television remains the main source of information in Romania, especially in rural areas where nearly half (47 percent) of the population resides. Politicians and businessmen own major TV networks that broadcast programs favorable to their owners.
Meanwhile, independent media outlets are mainly found online. “Only a small ‘bubble’ is really interested in politics,” Valentina adds. “If we talk about an ‘online revolution’, it concerns young people who are from the cities with enough money to use the Internet and have an interest in getting good information.”
In 2010, a research on “Digital inclusion” in Romania explains that the Internet “reinforces the already existing inequalities across social categories” and no political measure is taken to overcome these.
“E-inclusion” and bridging the digital divide for every Romanian still has a long way to go.