Memorandum on freedom of the press in the Republic of Moldova (3 May 2021 - 3 May 2022)
World Press Freedom Day, marked annually on 3 May, is an opportunity to remind people about the role of free, independent and pluralistic media in strengthening democracy, and to point out the many obstacles and impediments faced by the press in carrying out its professional mission of informing citizens about issues of public interest.
This year, in the context of World Press Freedom Day, the non-governmental media organisations, signatories of this memo, express their solidarity with journalists covering the war unleashed by the Russian Federation in Ukraine, as well as their deep regret at the large number of media professionals who have lost their lives as a result of war crimes committed by the aggressor state. The signatory NGOs underline the efforts of all reporters, including from the Republic of Moldova, who, at the risk of injury or arbitrary detention, continue to inform the public about events in the zone of armed conflict.
Expressing their conviction that free, independent and pluralistic media is one of the fundamental components of a democratic society, media NGOs:
Underline that maintaining and strengthening the freedom and independence of the press must be a priority for the Republic of Moldova, a state aspiring to democratic reforms;
Note that journalists in the Republic of Moldova continue to face a multitude of obstacles and impediments while carrying out their mission of informing citizens on issues of public interest;
Regret that the media is frequently used as a propaganda tool and that the principle of editorial independence from political parties and interest groups remains illusory;
Considers it imperative to improve the decision-making process of the audiovisual regulatory authority in order to protect the public from war propaganda without affecting press freedom;
Notes that the trend towards concentration of media ownership in conglomerates is a threat to the freedom and pluralism of the audiovisual media;
Stresses that impunity affects not only press freedom but also the daily work of journalists, creating a climate of fear and self-censorship.
PRESS FREEDOM IN THE REPUBLIC OF MOLDOVA
(3 May 2021 - 3 May 2022)
Between 3 May 2021 and 3 May 2022, press freedom in the Republic of Moldova continued to be affected by serious problems. Although there were minor improvements in the media environment compared to previous years, they were far from addressing major systemic problems in the work of journalists. The pandemic situation, electoral and political "battles", the crisis in the energy sector and Russia's war against Ukraine were among the main events that generated real "earthquakes" in the Moldovan media space.
Financial sustainability remained a challenge for media institutions during the reporting period. Timid attempts to diversify funding sources did little to help independent newsrooms break the economic deadlock, with support from external development partners remaining vital for most media outlets.
Politically affiliated holding companies, resulting from the unhealthy mix of business and politics with the press, have continued to be characterised by a slavish editorial policy, and this mix of interests continues to threaten press freedom. The post-election period was marked by the regrouping of political forces. The relative political stability after the elections began to erode against the backdrop of the pandemic and energy crises and the tense situation caused by the war in the neighbouring state.
The information space in the country remained subject to major security risks, flooded with foreign media products, especially from the Russian Federation, some of them clearly toxic and manipulative. The anti-COVID vaccination campaign, the energy crisis and military aggression completed the list of traditional favourite topics for falsehoods and disinformation. With the outbreak of the Russian Federation's war of aggression against Ukraine, the authorities took, during the state of emergency, restrictive measures in relation to the toxic and propagandistic media products of the aggressor state. However, these actions were late, the population of the Republic of Moldova being already symptomatic, and the effects of systemic disinformation from the Russian Federation being difficult to counteract. The legislator's efforts to counteract the spread of false information that affects the information security of the state have not yet generated tangible results, as the draft laws are at an intermediate stage of legislation.
Inadequate enforcement of access to information legislation continued to be a major problem for the press. When, how and under what conditions authorities should "guard" information from the media is another dilemma for civil servants. Establishing effective legal mechanisms to counter unfair competition, reducing the concentration of media ownership and, subsequently, reducing economic pressures were not on the authorities' priority list. During this period, the legislator focused mainly on the audiovisual legislation, and the legislative changes aimed at appointing and revoking the members of the Audiovisual Council and the top management of the public media service provider provoked criticism from some national and international media experts.
The activity of some mass media institutions and journalists, especially from the independent press, was disrupted by multiple intimidation and threats, mainly from political actors.
This state of affairs is also confirmed by the Index on the situation of the media in the Republic of Moldova in 2021. The diagnosis of the domestic media sector reveals major systemic problems in the media's activity.
The legal framework: insufficient developments to stimulate media activity
In the period May 3, 2021 - May 3, 2022, the national legislation was insufficient to respond to the regulatory needs of media activity. The regulation of the fields of print and online media remained incomplete and insufficient. The precarious legal norms dictating the legal regime of ownership of media institutions prevent the monitoring, prevention and countering of anti-competitive practices. Political advertising remains for the time being not covered by the law, as the new law on advertising, adopted in March 2022, is to enter into force within 9 months from the date of publication in the Official Gazette. The rules for coverage of election campaigns in the mass media are not sufficiently well developed to prevent dishonest conduct on the part of media service providers or electoral competitors.
Although a good part of the national legal framework corresponds to international standards, some of the changes made in 2021 to the Audiovisual Media Services Code are far from good practices. At the same time, the reference period was also marked by legislative interventions beneficial to the press. The cancellation, after nine years, of the obligation to register and authorize as a personal data operator, exempted media institutions from this burdensome procedure.
Arbitrary interpretation and uneven and inconsistent application of media legislation continued to be felt. The most problematic segment remains access to information of public interest. During the reference period, the authorities preferred, more often, press briefings where journalists do not have the opportunity to ask questions. Several media institutions have reported cases of refusal by state institutions to provide public interest information in writing and on time. Often the same legislative framework is understood and applied by the authorities differently and often not in favor of journalists.
Media (in)security conditions
Media institutions and journalists, mainly from the independent press, did not carry out their professional mission in full security conditions. Although there were no cases of violation of professional premises or serious injury to the bodily integrity of media employees, the intimidation and threats against journalists, coming mainly from the political sphere, continued during the period May 3, 2021 - May 3 2022.
In context, we recall the cases of intimidation of journalist Mihail Sirkeli (Nokta.md) by the mayor of Chirsova, UTAG; the unfounded accusations brought to TV8 moderator Mariana Rață by the politician Renato Usatâi; the aggressive behavior of the president of the Party of Regions from Moldova, Alexandr Kalinin, towards journalist Lorena Bogza from Pro TV; the aggressive and defiant behavior of the candidate for the position of deputy in Parliament Alexandr Nesterovschi and the members of the PSRM Youth Guard directed against the reporters from Nordnews.md; the disqualifying conduct, verbal attacks and threats launched by Nicolai Chirilciuc, candidate for mayor of Bălți, to the director Veaceslav Perunov from the SP publication. The series of regrettable cases can be completed with the intimidation of journalists Viorica Tătaru and Andrei Captarenco from TV8 by the mixed peacekeeping forces in the Transnistrian region and journalists from the Newsmaker.md portal by employees of the Police of the Republic of Moldova or with the threats of the lawyer Cătălina Galușca of rapture with the journalists of the SP editorial office in Balti. Similar cases targeted journalists from Ziarul de Gardă, RISE Moldova and Jurnal TV. After the publication of a press investigation about the prosecutor Igor Popa, who allegedly hid his wealth, the prosecutor's wife, lawyer Ala Popa, continues for more than a year to harass the reporters of the Center for Journalistic Investigations with offensive messages and the filing of criminal lawsuits. Some politicians, economic operators and other people with integrity problems, especially protagonists of press investigations, have sued investigative journalists and/or the editorial offices of which they are a part (Ziarul de Gardă, TV8, CU SENS, RISE Moldova, etc. .).
The stated examples, the list of which is not exhaustive, reveal the state of insecurity of the press. The lack of an adequate reaction to these cases from the law enforcement agencies is the determining factor in the perpetuation of these practices. Thus, journalists are not effectively protected, and impunity may encourage new attacks on media professionals.
All the mentioned circumstances drastically diminish the media's ability to carry out its social mission in a democratic society.
The tense situation caused by the outbreak of the war in Ukraine determined the need to take preparatory measures in order to ensure, as much as possible, the safety of the media representatives. The rigidity of the legal provisions of the Republic of Moldova constituted a real burden for the journalists who decided to go to Ukraine to inform the public about the war in the neighborhood. The reporters, objectively, were unable to procure their protective equipment in the Republic of Moldova. Thanks to the CJI's efforts, several reporters were provided with bulletproof vests and helmets, a mandatory prerequisite for obtaining war correspondent accreditation. The current geopolitical context imposes the need for the state to develop legal mechanisms that streamline and ease the process of obtaining protective equipment for media representatives who, being subject to the many risks inherent in military operations, choose to exercise their professional mission in the public interest.
The security of the information space of the Republic of Moldova, in the face of multiple threats
During the period May 3, 2021 - May 3, 2022, the phenomenon of the polarization of society on geopolitical criteria continued, being fueled by a series of events that also emphasized the division of the media (the pandemic crisis, the elections anticipated parliamentary elections, the crisis in the energy sector and the outbreak of war in Ukraine).
The effects of the cancellation in 2020 of the bans provided by the so-called anti-propaganda law became extremely visible during the reference period. The information space of the Republic of Moldova remained subject to risks their major security concerns, being flooded with foreign media products, especially from the Russian Federation, some of them clearly toxic and manipulative. In the offer of media service distributors, the share of Russian television stations continued to be the majority. Foreign media institutions with representatives in the Republic of Moldova, such as "Komsomolskaya Pravda", "Argumentî i Faktî", "Sputnik-Moldova", etc., promote interests far from the national interests of the state. The efforts of the independent press to counter the risks have been diminished by the lack of effective communication by the authorities with society in general and the mass media in particular. The efforts of the audiovisual regulatory authority and the state, in general, aimed at securing the local media space were few and unsystematic.
The anti-Covid vaccination campaign, the energy crisis and military aggression rounded out the list of traditional subjects favored for fakes and misinformation. With the launch of the war against Ukraine by the Russian Federation, the authorities have taken restrictive measures in relation to the toxic and propagandistic media products of the aggressor state. However, these actions were late, the population of the Republic of Moldova being already symptomatic, and the effects of systemic disinformation from the Russian Federation being difficult to counteract. In the context of the informational restrictions imposed during the state of emergency, the politically regimented domestic press chose to carry out its activity according to the so-called technique of manipulation by omission. The monitoring reports of the Audiovisual Council, as well as those of the civil society, found that in the broadcast grids of the providers that, until recently, rebroadcasted propaganda content, either informative content is found that reflects the events in Ukraine in a distorted way, or it is completely missing.
The war in Ukraine taught a harsh lesson about how media falsehoods, spread in an unsecured information space, directly affect the opinion of the general public. The legislator's efforts to counter the spread of false information affecting the information security of the state have not yet generated tangible results, the amendments are still at an intermediate stage of legislation. The fight against disinformation about the pandemic, the energy crisis and the war in Ukraine served as the basis for the Intelligence and Security Service to block several websites.
The political context, insufficient developments to stimulate media activity
In the period May 3, 2021 - May 3, 2022, the Republic of Moldova had two governments that contrasted the activity of the mass media. In the first part of the year, the Executive operated under the leadership of an interim prime minister, and in the Legislature there was a parliamentary majority of 54 deputies (PSRM, Pentru Moldova, Partidul Şor and three independent deputies) who, repeatedly, demonstrated a hostile behavior in relation to some media institutions. Thus, the political context of this period was characterized by pronounced instability, with damaging repercussions on the media's activity. The electoral fever generated by the anticipated parliamentary elections amplified the phenomenon of unbalanced and biased information of the electorate through the politically affiliated mass media.
After the electoral period, a political stability favorable to media activity was not reached, this being eroded, on the one hand, by the new waves of the pandemic, felt during 2021, by the regional energy crisis, by the lack of transparency on the part of the new government and the military aggression from the neighboring state. The political context from May 3, 2021 to May 3, 2022, although an improvement compared to the previous reference period, generated hopes rather than opportunities for proper media activity.
Although an improvement in the economic condition of the media was felt during the reference period, financial sustainability remained a challenge for media institutions. Timid initiatives to diversify funding sources did not help independent newsrooms to get out of the economic impasse, the support of external development partners remains vital for most media institutions. Politically affiliated holding companies, resulting from the unhealthy merging of business and politics with the press, have continued to stand out through a servile editorial policy, and this mix of interests means that press freedom is still under threat.
Among the main causes that condition the fragility of the financial sustainability of actors in the media sector are:
the lack of competence in the activity of the media management authorities;
the lack of a coherent policy for the training of managerial staff for the media field;
insti capabilities reduced tutional management of the field, resulting in a chaotic development of it, including an exaggerated share of media institutions in the capital of the Republic of Moldova in relation to the rural environment;
the lack of a functional institutional framework that would ensure fair competition and prevent the emergence of dominant positions in the formation of public opinion;
the lack of policies to encourage internal and external investments in the development of the media field;
the lack of transparency in the management of the field, as well as in its economic activity;
the lack of legal provisions to support the mass media, especially the local/regional one, a fact which, in crisis conditions, generates the disappearance of some media institutions and, therefore, diminishes the possibilities of informing citizens;
delays and failures in managing the transition process to digital terrestrial television;
the lack of a functional national body that would coordinate the management policies of the entire media field.
The major role of the media in shaping public opinion and strengthening democracy in a state remains indisputable. In the light of the particularities of the current geopolitical, social and economic context, supporting the mass media in the exercise of the primary mission of ensuring the correct, prompt and equidistant information of citizens on issues of public interest has gained even more importance.
In order to encourage and protect the free press, as well as to ensure the impartiality of media communication, we recommend that the Government and the Parliament, by virtue of their legal attributions, develop, legislate and implement democratic mechanisms capable of ensuring:
Improving the decision-making process of the regulatory authority in the field the audiovisual, to protect the public from war propaganda, without affecting the freedom of the press;
Preventing and ending acts of threat and/or aggression in relation to the mass media, as well as holding the perpetrators accountable;
Elaboration and implementation of legal mechanisms to ensure media representatives the opportunity to procure protective equipment;
Strengthening institutional capacities and professional skills to counter propaganda, disinformation and media falsifications;
The implementation in good faith of the National Media Development Concept, the approval and implementation of the National Media Development Program for the period 2022-2025, elaborated with the participation of representatives of ministries and civil society;
The implementation of legal-economic public policies that ensure conditions of fair and transparent competition in the activity of media institutions, able to protect them from the danger of bankruptcy and disappearance; Improving the legislation on access to information, ensuring the correct and uniform application of the law;
Strengthening the institutional capacities and professional skills of civil servants who resolve requests for access to information;
Promoting the transparency of media funding sources as an important credibility factor;
Diminishing the influence of the political factor on media activity by expanding the independent media sector;
Adjusting the training process of journalist staff to the real needs of mass-media institutions;
The development of real media pluralism, including by stimulating the emergence of new thematic audiovisual media services at the local/regional level, and by capitalizing on the potential of non-linear media services; Supporting and encouraging investments in the diversification of media products offered to the public;
Abandoning the practice of hastily amending media legislation in order to obtain questionable provisional effects;
Elaboration and implementation of economic support policies for media institutions operating in the public interest;
Center for Independent Journalism
Association of Environmental and Ecological Tourism Journalists
Electronic Press Association
Independent Press Association
Association of Investigative Reporters and Editorial Security