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Press freedom in Moldova: time to walk the walk

The citizens of Moldova have finally elected a democratic government committed to European liberties and values after decades of struggle. However, will this fundamentally improve media freedom in the country?

November 12, 2021 - Anda Bologa - Articles and Commentary

Publika TV is a Moldovan news television channel, co-launched by Moldova's ​wealthiest oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc in 2010. Photo: Shutterstock

This year’s World Press Freedom Index ranks Moldova 89th out of 180 countries. Compared with other Eastern Partnership states, Moldova was ranked higher than Azerbaijan (167th), Belarus (158th) and Ukraine (97th). Despite this, the country still lags behind Armenia (63th) and Georgia (60th). Overall, the country’s media freedom has declined in recent years, as the state was ranked as high as 55th in 2013.

At first glance, the prospects for Moldova’s media environment indeed look bleak. Political parties are still closely connected with the mainstream press and even many of the country’s television stations. Alongside concerns over media independence and diversity, journalists struggle to access information and various sources of funding. Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders have repeatedly highlighted four major challenges that media activity faces in Moldova. These include limits on access to information, the intimidation of journalists, internal misinformation and external propaganda, and political and oligarchic control of regulators and the media as a whole.

The new democratic government led by Natalia Gavrilita has been in office for less than 100 days. It already has a long list of priorities, including dealing with the ongoing gas crisis, fighting corruption, and living up to its ambitious commitment to undertake deep structural reforms. While reforms to the press’s legal framework are certainly on the government’s agenda, journalists and civil society leaders remain sceptical of a rapid improvement in their circumstances.

The issues that are directly responsible for the decline of Moldova’s media independence are deeply rooted in the socio-political context of the country. Essentially, a large part of the media is editorially dependent on political and business interests. The state’s respective legal framework is outdated and does not encompass social media and online media outlets. Enforcement and compliance with these laws also remain weak. Investigative journalists and independent media outlets are often obstructed with regards to access to information. Journalists continue to face intimidation and harassment, which often result in costly lawsuits and funding cuts.

A well-functioning business environment that would allow the media to access money from advertisements and other sources of funding still remains a dream. In its absence, independent journalists struggle with funding and mostly rely on foreign grants. As a result, it is unsurprising that many journalists are leaving the country and that student enrollment rates in Moldova’s journalism faculties are experiencing a steady decline. 

While it offers important guidance to journalists, the national Code of Ethics could be more precise in describing the duties of the profession. This is especially true following a recent scandal related to a personal relationship pursued by Natalia Morari, a famous anti-corruption journalist with Veceslav Platon. This infamous oligarch, allegedly involved in several large corruption schemes was repeteadly interviewed by Morari before the information on their personal link was made public. The scandal increased the concerns over journalistic deontology and transparency. To this end, a stronger self-regulatory body would prove useful for both journalists and the public and would help rebuild trust in independent media.

Limited access to information and intimidation of journalists

It is clear that the new government needs to revisit the legislative framework regulating the national press. For instance, the country’s current advertising laws date from 1997, while those related to access to information were made official in 2000. When asked by journalists to provide information of public interest, the authorities have often hid behind ambiguous interpretations of data protection legislation. This directly impacts the work of investigative journalists and the ability of news outlets to properly inform the population. In addition, governmental agencies have now introduced taxes related to accessing certain state information. This often acts as a barrier for independent news agencies that run on low budgets. 

Apart from the state’s general reluctance to cooperate with the press, civil servants often lack the necessary skills to operate both physical and digital archives. Requests for information are often honoured after a significant delay and this only makes the work of journalists harder. Political journalists are constantly subject to verbal harassment. They are also often threatened with costly lawsuits that could cost more than their entire budget.

The COVID-19 pandemic further obstructed the press’s access to information. This was especially true during the height of the pandemic, when communications from governmental authorities were often incomplete, delayed or simply unavailable.

Internal misinformation and external propaganda

It is perhaps unsurprising that the biggest source of propaganda in the country comes from the Russian-speaking networks and Russia itself. Fake news and misinformation reached their peak during the pandemic and continue to intensify around electoral campaigns. With every campaign armies of trolls on social media appear with the aim of dividing the population into the country’s traditional pro-Russian and pro-European camps.

In the absence of a legal framework that directly addresses issues such as disinformation and fake news, various civic initiatives have attempted to fill this gap. For instance, the Trolless project aims to detect false profiles and those engaged in trolling, misinformation and propaganda. While useful, the Trolless browser extension is directed at an already educated and well-informed minority and currently does not appeal to the public at large. 

The country’s Intelligence and Security Service (SIS) blocked over 50 sites that were spreading fake news during the recent state of emergency caused by the pandemic. The SIS has justified its actions by claiming that these sites had launched “campaigns to alter the content of information circulated in the public space in order to generate panic, tension or social conflicts.” The lack of a clear and transparent mechanism of accountability for SIS’s actions raises concerns over the legal nature of these measures. 

What now?

At a time when both the presidency and the government are led by democratic, pro-European forces, the Moldovan citizenry is more hopeful than ever for real change. While these expectations cannot all possibly be met within one electoral cycle, the Gavrilita government should prioritise improvements to the media environment’s operations.

The government must adopt relevant legislation such as the National Programme and the Action Plan for Media Development. These are both currently being drafted by a joint civil society-government taskforce. Chisinau should also establish a body that will be responsible for coordinating policy and reforms in the media sector. This organisation could possibly operate as part of the Ministry of Justice.

Access to information remains an important issue and the parliament should work on a legislative package focused on this topic. Many civil society experts have already provided assistance with regards to this project. Equally, the parliament should revisit the country’s advertising law. This process of reassessment started all the way back in 2010. 

Following these reforms, the Moldovan press should become less politically dependent. Media groups needs to better understand how to diversify their funding sources and inform the public about disinformation and fake news. Most importantly, making press reform a priority would improve the country’s internal democratic environment and restore the media’s role as a public watchdog. This would make sure that Moldova actually walks the walk with regards to its European aspirations.

Anda Bologa is a Fulbright scholar and a graduate of the College of Europe in Natolin. She is an Affiliated Expert on cybersecurity and data privacy with the Romanian think tank Europuls and a Denton Fellow with the Transatlantic Leadership program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). 

This article is part of a project titled “Freedom of speech under duress – today’s experiences and their consequences“ co-financed by the Warsaw office of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung.

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