How Moldova is trying to regain control of its informational space
In December, the Moldovan Commission for Emergency Situations suspended the broadcasting licenses of six pro-Russian TV stations. They are still active, however, through web platforms, social media or, in some cases, on other TV channels.
According to President Maia Sandu, Moscow was preparing an attempted coup d’etat in Moldova – thus showing once again its intention to maintain influence in its neighbourhood at all costs. Even before this breaking news were made public, a harsh contest for the hearts and minds of Moldovan citizens was taking place in its media landscape.
Six Moldovan TV stations had their broadcasting licenses suspended in December last year by the Commission for Emergency Situations in Moldova for repeatedly violating the Code on Audio-visual Media Services. These channels mostly broadcast programmes produced in Russia. After Russia invaded Ukraine, they stopped directly transmitting Russian news. Still, news programmes criticised Moldovan authorities, praised the channel’s owners, and avoided mentioning the war.
On 16 December 2022, the Commission for Emergency Situations (CES) of the Republic of Moldova suspended the licenses of Primul in Moldova, RTR Moldova, Accent TV, NTV Moldova, TV6, and Orhei TV.
The Commission explained that its decision was taken
‘in order to protect the national information space and prevent the risk of misinformation by spreading false information or attempts to manipulate public opinion, based on the list of individuals and legal entities subject to international sanctions’.
It quoted the Audio-visual Council’s findings which show a lack of professional standards in accurately reporting events in the country and of Russia’s war against Ukraine. Examples provided by the Audio-visual Council included news stories that only quoted the Russian side concerning an event in Ukraine and a lack of stories reporting the war at all.
The head of the Audio-visual Council explained several days later that those TV stations were either subject to numerous sanctions for violations of the Audio-visual Media Services Code, or failed to provide information of their ownership structure. In other cases, the owner (fugitive oligarch Ilan Shor) was under US and UK sanctions. American and British authorities have evidence suggesting that Shor is corrupt. However, his case is still dragging on at the Moldovan Court of Appeal due to numerous appeals from Shor’s lawyers – which the Court fails to deal with timely.
Moldovan civil society split over the suspensions. Some experts found the decision justified, as the stations’ owners are oligarchs supported by Russia to destabilise the situation in Moldova through a disinformation campaign. Others alleged that authorities should have better explained why suspending the licenses was necessary.
Alina Radu, director of the independent investigative newspaper Ziarul de Garda, wrote that the suspended channels failed to observe basic professional standards and did not perform journalism but only propaganda. Therefore the Commission’s decision was justified. Nevertheless, the People’s Advocate believes that the decision could limit freedom of expression.
As most of the six channels re-broadcast programmes from Russia, Moscow had a reaction, too. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zaharova accused Chișinău’s authorities of ‘maintaining the course of liquidating any form of dissent in the country through totalitarian censorship methods’ and called the decision a ‘cynical violation of the rights of national minorities’.
Vladimir Solovyov, head of the Russian Journalists’ Union, claimed the decision is an attack on the Russian-speaking population of Moldova. Russian authorities often insist on freedom of expression for their own channels abroad. At home, strong censorship prevails with year-long prison sentences.
Pro-Russian deputies in the Moldovan Gagauzian Autonomy region even found a link between the suspension and the alleged intent of authorities to destroy the Orthodox Church. Other pro-Kremlin politicians and Russian state outlets claimed that the West is behind this decision, and its aim is to make Moldova ‘anti-Russian’.
What is going on now?
The suspension of a broadcasting license does not mean that journalists become unemployed or lose their press accreditation. The TV stations still exist. All suspended channels produce the same programmes while using the same selective approach for their reports. However, they cannot now broadcast via ordinary TV. Most of them – NTV Moldova, Primul in Moldova, Accent TV, Orhei TV and TV6 – focus now on their websites, Facebook pages, and YouTube channels.
It is hard to know whether people who watched these channels on their TV sets are now looking for their programmes online. Publicly available measurements do not show a significant change in station viewership, but this data may not be accurate. For example, publicly available and data provided by Google Analytics appear to have significant differences.
Orhei TV and TV6 found a way to bring their shows to the public through a previously little-known platform: Orizont TV. This platform announced that it has a cooperation agreement with the owner of the two suspended channels to include their content in its programming.
RTR Moldova’s website has been inaccessible for several months due to the channel’s own decision. Its Facebook and YouTube pages have remained dormant for weeks. However, RTR Moldova was the first to trick around its suspension. Its main shows and news programmes are now broadcast on another channel, Cinema 1. Viewers figured out how to make the switch. Cinema 1’s audience has skyrocketed during the last month, although not to RTR Moldova’s previous level.
Where did the audience go?
Other channels that registered an audience increase since the suspensions include Publika, Canal 2, Canal 3, and Canal 5. All are associated with another fugitive oligarch, Vlad Plahotniuc.
The jury is still out
All six TV stations challenged the decision taken by the Commission for Emergency Situations in the Moldova’s Court of Appeal. The Court merged all their complaints and sent the unified version to the Chișinău Court. However, the judge decided that he could not examine the case and redirected it to the Supreme Court, which will decide what court will handle it. The high court held a hearing on 18 January but postponed the announcement of its decision for an undetermined period.
Meanwhile, journalists from the suspended channels staged protests in Bucharest and Strasbourg to draw the European Parliament’s attention to their situation. No immediate reaction followed.
As the political situation in Moldova is tense, this situation is worth following both from a legal perspective and as a case study of audience behaviour.
Moldova under pressure from Russia – but not alone
Moldovan authorities are exposed to constant pressure from Moscow. Russian authorities often raise the issue of the Transnistria separatist region and pressure Chișinău by threatening to increase energy prices or cut off supplies.
The successful EU / Moldova Association Council held on 7 February noted inter alia: ‘The EU and Moldova reiterated their commitment to strengthening political association and deepening economic integration…The EU condemned Russia’s continued use of energy as a weapon to destabilise Moldova, and expressed appreciation for the constructive way in which the government has handled this crisis. Moldova thanked the EU for its solidarity and continued support to Moldova since the beginning of the energy crisis in October 2021.’