September 14, 2017 / By Alla Rosca
The greatest propagandist of Moldova pretends to be the great propaganda fighter,” remarked Maia Sandu, the pro-European leader of the Action and Solidarity Party, about Vladimir Plahotniuc’s recent legislative initiative. In June 2017, Plahotniuc, the chairman of Moldova’s Democratic Party, introduced legislation ostensibly intended to bolster the security of Moldova’s information space by restricting Russian propaganda. Sandu’s sharp statements, however, allude to the fact that Plahotniuc, a media mogul who owns roughly 70 percent of Moldova’s media industry, frequently rebroadcasts Russian programs on his television channels. The paradox of Plahotniuc’s initiative is telling. An investigation into his actions reveals a great deal about the country’s current politics, the high degree of monopolization within the media market, and the serious obstacles to journalistic freedom that afflict Moldova’s media.
Plahotniuc’s proposed new legislation calls for the elimination of news programs retransmitted from Russian TV stations, through which propaganda allegedly is broadcasted. The new initiative would ban news programs from Russian TV stations, but not entertainment programs, which are popular in Moldova. The proposal would allow television stations to broadcast news programs only from the European Union, United States, Canada, and other member states of the European Convention on Transfrontier Television—but not Russia.
This restriction on the country’s media environment is far from the first challenge faced by Moldovan democracy. In 2014, the European Union considered Moldova a “success story,” and the country was the first member of the EU’s Eastern Partnership initiative to receive visa-free travel to the EU. However, the seemingly pro-European coalition of center-right parties that governed the country (that is, the coalition between Vladimir Plahotniuc’s Democratic Party, Vladimir Filat’s Liberal-Democratic Party, and Mihai Ghimpu’s Liberal Party) turned out to be highly corrupt. The coalition’s message did not align with its actions, discrediting members. The fallout from the corruption also reduced citizens’ trust in European integration. According to public opinion polls, in 2009, approximately 67 percent of Moldovans supported EU integration, but in 2016, only 38 percent did.
After a power struggle between the country’s two most powerful politicians, Plahotniuc and Filat, resulted in Filat’s arrest, political power in Moldova has become concentrated in the hands of one person: Vladimir Plahotniuc. Plahotniuc swiftly moved to reduce all other pro-European parties to insignificance, and in doing so, effectively transformed Moldova into a “captured state.”
Ultimately, the combination of Plahotniuc’s grasp on political power and his dominance of the media raises an important question regarding journalistic freedom in Moldova. This issue is particularly pertinent as some of the country’s most influential channels undergo redistribution of ownership in the lead up to 2018 parliamentary elections. The current state of media in Moldova forces us to ask important questions: How does oligarchic control of the press affect media freedoms? Is the media free to represent public interest?
Who Controls the Media Market?
In 2015, in an effort to increase media transparency, the Moldovan parliament passed an amendment to the country’s media laws that required media companies to publically disclose the names of their owners. As a result of this legislation, it was revealed that the media market was highly concentrated in the hands of politicians and people linked with political parties. In particular, the public learned that Vladimir Plahotniuc owned four of the five national TV stations (Publica TV, Prime TV, Canal 2TV, and Canal 3TV), as well as three radio stations (Publica FM, MuzFM, and Maestro FM). Rumors of Plahotniuc’s media dominance were confirmed: he owned a shocking 70 percent of Moldova’s audiovisual market. The 2015 transparency legislation led to revelations about other political forces as well. Chiril Lucinschi, former parliamentarian of the Liberal Democratic Party and son of a former president, owned two TV stations: TV7 and TNT Bravo Moldova. It was also revealed that the Party of Socialists controlled three TV stations: Accent TV, NTV Moldova, and TNT Exclusive; Russian companies owned RTR Moldova, Ren TV Moldova, and Accent TV; Moldovan businessman Victor Topa owned Jurnal TV; and American billionaire Ronald Lauder owned Pro TV. These revelations showed that the media in Moldova was concentrated in the hands of the few.
In March 2017, parliament again introduced new regulations to the Audiovisual Code, which stipulated a limit of two licenses per person for TV channels and radio stations. Additionally, new regulations prohibit a physical or legal person from holding more than two broadcast licenses in the same region unless a different person also has a license in the area, allowing for competition between stations. This stipulation should encourage competition. The legislation, however, had little effect on the degree of media pluralism in Moldova. Plahotniuc’s company, General Media Group, responded to the new law by transferring the rights for two of its channels (Canal 2TV and Canal 3TV) to one of Plahotniuc’s top advisors and to a newly created company, Telestar Media.
Is Mass Media Free to Represent Public Interest?
The U.S. Department of State’s “Moldova 2016 Human Rights Report” analyzed whether or not mass media in the country is free to represent the public interest. The report concluded that the high degree of monopolization—and, in particular, the strident “oligarchization” and politicization of Moldovan media—threatens media freedom and impedes Moldova’s democratic development. Freedom House’s 2017 “Nations in Transit” report similarly concluded that the lack of media pluralism constitutes a serious obstacle to the country’s overall level of freedom.
The clear bias inherent in a media owned by political elites is evident in coverage of political campaigns. Reports by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) stated that many major television channels demonstrated a strong bias in favor of certain candidates during Moldovan 2016 presidential election. Media outlets frequently presented more coverage of their preferred candidates and reported negative or false news about political opponents. Prime and Publika TV—channels owned by Plahotniuc—openly supported the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, Marian Lupu, before he withdrew from the race. Conversely, Igor Dodon, the Socialist Party’s candidate, was the clear favorite on NTV and Accent TV, the two channels owned by that party. Jurnal TV, owned by businessman Victor Topa, followed suit and gave strong preference to Maia Sandu, the Action and Solidarity Party’s candidate.
This degree of media ownership, concentration, and politicization not only hinders freedom of the press in Moldova, but it also gravely affects the quality of information disseminated to the public. According to a recent Barometer of the Public Opinion poll, popular trust in the media has significantly declined. In 2014, about 60 percent of the population stated that they had high trust in the media. By April 2016, that number dropped by almost 20 points to 42 percent.
Does Content Matter? “Russian Propaganda” in Moldova
The economic interests of Moldova’s media magnates have led many television stations to rebroadcast Russian channels in Moldova. In doing so, media moguls may uphold their commercial interests and, in some cases, advance their political ambitions. The tendency to simply rebroadcast foreign content is influenced, first and foremost, by the unwillingness of media tycoons to invest in the development of original content. Other factors, however, also play in their favor: Moldovan citizens are accustomed to Russian-language media from Soviet times, and the high production quality of Russian television programs, which are entertaining and professionally produced, attract viewers.
The rebroadcasted news programs originating from Russian media outlets constitute a large segment of Moldova’s information landscape. According to a public opinion poll conducted by the Institute of Public Policy in 2015, about 40 percent of the Moldovan population reported receiving their news from Russian sources, and 54 percent said that they trusted Russian media. These numbers have slightly increased over the past few years: in April 2017, 43 percent of citizens got the news from Russian TV and radio stations, and about 56 percent reported as trusting the Russian media. These numbers show that the Russian press has a large impact in shaping public opinion in Moldova. Vladimir Putin’s status as the most popular foreign politician among Moldovans (62.1 percent) demonstrates this point.
This rebroadcasting of Russian news is not without consequences, however, because its popularity sways public opinion and electoral outcomes. Accordingly, Moldovan viewers become inclined toward the interests of a foreign power. Some recent electoral campaigns provide several relevant examples of the influence of Russian media in shaping political preferences among Moldovan voters. During Moldova’s 2014 parliamentary elections, the Party of Socialists and its leader Igor Dodon explored the technique of image transfer—that is, publishing photos of Socialist politicians together with Putin to gain political legitimacy and to assure voters of their pro-Russian orientation. The Party of Socialists won the largest number of seats in the Moldovan Parliament (25) and continues to promote pro-Russian policies today. In the March 2015 elections for Bashkan governor in the autonomous region of Gagauzia, the winner, pro-Russian candidate Irina Vlah, received significant positive coverage from Russian TV stations throughout her campaign.
This trend of appealing to other state and foreign political leaders continued during the 2016 presidential elections. Igor Dodon promoted a pro-Russian foreign policy and the cancellation of the Moldova-European Union Association Agreement. The high trust in Russian media played into the hands of the pro-Russian candidate, and Dodon won the election. During Moldova’s 2016 presidential campaign, the media failed to promote political pluralism and provide balanced campaign coverage. Major TV stations owned by political elites and business magnates egregiously promoted their own interests, leading journalists to self-censor.
Proposed Measures Could Further Harm Moldovan Press Freedoms
Under pressure from NGOs, Moldovan authorities began taking steps to fight propaganda and to protect the country’s information space. The two aforementioned media laws were prepared in the spring of 2015, but parliament postponed legislative hearings in order to obtain OSCE expert analysis. At the same time, civil society activists warned that fighting Russian propaganda could counterintuitively result in Moldova’s oligarchs maintaining control over the media market, creating further obstacles for journalists to critically address government activities.
On June 13, 2017, Vladimir Plahotniuc launched his initiative against Russian propaganda. In a press briefing, he announced that propaganda delivered by rebroadcasted Russian television was inimical to Moldova’s interests, and countermeasures were urgently needed. His Democratic Party presented proposals to counteract Russian propaganda later that day.
This controversial initiative—it’s no secret that Plahotniuc broadcasts Russia’s main television channel, Perviy Kanal, on Prime TV—would have been commendable if not for a couple of coincidences. First, it was recently revealed by Moldovan media experts, such as Petru Macovei, the executive director of Association of Independent Press, that Russian television channels declined to extend their broadcasting contracts with Plahotniuc and instead will likely offer a contract to the Socialist-backed stations. It seems that in response, the media mogul decided to win political capital and maintain profitability by proposing a topical legislative initiative that would impose restrictions on his competitors.
Second, Plahotniuc’s proposed countermeasures notably only include informational news programs from Russian TV stations, and not entertainment programs, which are made in production houses in Russia. The most likely explanation for this exception is that Plahotniuc’s General Media Group has already signed agreements with those producers. Otherwise, it’s hard to believe that the businessman would willingly cut access to this profitable industry.
This initiative is also a two-handed political play for Plahotniuc and Dodon to gain political capital. The latest news that Dodon promised to block the bill banning Russian propaganda on Moldovan TV stations is confirmation of this. Both came with proposals that would appeal to their political bases. Dodon would promote his pro-Russian orientation, while Plahotniuc would enhance his image as a pro-European leader. In reality, neither politicians’ proposal would improve Moldova’s media landscape.
So long as mass media in Moldova is highly concentrated in the hands of oligarchs, the prospects for freedom of expression and an independent press are not bright. Plahotniuc’s legislative initiative opens the door for media owners to exercise greater control over the content broadcasted on their outlets. The vague language of the legislative proposal and the content restriction could be used to limit journalistic freedom and encourage self-censorship. This new initiative advances media oligarchs’ own interests rather than actually addressing Russian propaganda. As the 2018 parliamentary election campaign approaches, the media struggle between oligarchs will only intensify.