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What is the future of Moldova's ‘law against propaganda'?

A man in Gagauzia, an autonomous region of Moldova, watches Vladimir Putin's address to Russia's Federal Assembly, 15 January 2020. Photo (c): Olga Chayuk. Used with permission.

This article is made possible through a partnership with Transitions, a Prague-based publishing and media training organisation

Just over two years ago, on 12 January 2018, Moldova's “law against propaganda” came into force. The law, which restricts the broadcasting of Russian news channels in the country, was the initiative of the Democratic Party of Moldova (DPM), the former ruling party which presented itself as Moldova's leading pro-European political force. The law was controversial from day one; although it had been passed by parliament in 2017, President Igor Dodon twice refused to sign it. For this Dodon was temporarily suspended from his duties by the Constitutional Court, allowing then-Speaker of Parliament Adrian Candu to sign the law.

But then 2019 came along. In June, the DPM was ousted by an unlikely coalition comprising the Party of Socialists (PSRM), and ACUM, an alliance of pro-European reformist parties. That coalition fell in November, leaving the pro-Russian PSRM with the upper hand.

The PSRM and Dodon, the party's informal leader, have redoubled their calls to revoke the law, which the party describes as “discriminatory to Moldovan citizens” in its list of priorities for 2020. Their beliefs are not shared by the opposition; the PDM, with whom the PSRM was believed to share influence despite their opposing geopolitical leanings, also are not enthusiastic about repealing the law. But even with its renewed influence, experts believe that Moldova's socialists will still not succeed in annulling the “law against propaganda.”

Importantly, the text of the law does not actually mention Russia at all. Instead, it states that in order to protect the audio-visual sphere and ensure information security, the only factual, analytical, military, or political-themed television programmes which may be broadcast in Moldova are those produced in the European Union, Canada, the USA, and all other states which have ratified the European Convention on Transfrontier Television. It is widely known that Russia has not yet ratified this convention.

After the law came into force, the only cable guys who refused to obey the new rules were those in Gagauzia (an autonomous region in southern Moldova which is widely seen as pro-Russian – ed.) They argued that they only operated under licences issued in Comrat, the region's capital.

Socialist lawmakers often cite examples such as these as proof that the law is ineffective. Adrian Lebedinschi, chairman of a parliamentary commission responsible for media, told Publika TV (owned by the former PDM chairman and media mogul Vlad Plahotniuc) that the PSRM is poised to repeal the “anti-propaganda law.” “Let people think for themselves. They're smart enough to understand what information is objective and what isn't,” said Lebedinschi on December 5. During a meeting of the commission on December 18, Lebedinschi stated that a small share of the Moldovan population is still able to receive foreign television over satellite without any restrictions, often by using pirated decoders. Indeed, it is quite easy to find advertisements online offering to install satellite dishes providing Moldovans access to popular Russian television channels.

Moldova's Prime Minister Ion Chicu, who was elected last November by both PSRM and DPM parliamentarians, has raised similar concerns. “I believe that the press should be free, and that consumers should have access to all information apart from that which distorts the truth, spreads extremism, or calls for hatred. Any media which comply with the Code of Ethics has the right to access Moldova's media market,” said Chicu at a press conference on December 9. Furthermore, during a November 27 interview for NTV Moldova, speaker of the parliament and leader of the PSRM Zinaida Greceanîi stated that the decision to restore broadcasting rights for Russian television channels had to be taken by a parliamentary majority. “Nobody should dictate which programmes people should watch. But unfortunately, the previous government held the TV remote in one hand,” remarked Greceanîi.

However, it is far from clear that the PSRM would be able to find parliamentary consensus to annul the bill. The PSRM has 36 deputies in Moldova's 101-member parliament; the PDM have 29. The ACUM-DA bloc has 25 deputies. Following the collapse of their coalition with the latter last year, support for the PSRM's move could only plausibly come from the PDM. But the PDM's leaders are not in favour. “[The law against propaganda] was an initiative of the Democratic Party and I see no reason why we should change our approach to the issue from what it used to be,”  party chairman Pavel Filip told PublikaTV on December 6. 

Former PDM member of parliament Corneliu Mihalache, who is currently a member of the State Broadcasting Council, also remarked during a discussion on PublikaTV that the chances of the law being revoked are minimal, as doing so depends on the Democratic Party, which introduced it in the first place. Mihalache himself voted for the law, and believes that it must be kept because Russian propaganda is “too aggressive” and that although it is directed at a domestic audience, “stirs up our society, too.” Andrey Andrievsky, Chișinău-based journalist and editor in chief of Ava.md, countered that the PDM had become much less transparent in recent months, meaning that it was hard to predict how they might approach the issue. He believes there to be a 50/50 chance of the law's revocation, given that some deputies from the PDM and the seven representing the Șor party might vote in favour.

“In the current political context, I doubt that the socialists will be able to change the law,” Petru Macovei, executive director of the Association of Independent Press (API), told Global Voices. “To an extent, it's a matter of pride for the PDM, who made a lot of noise about the introduction of the law. For the PDM, any vote to repeal the law would demonstrate their political incompetence,” said Macovei.

Observers have also argued at length about the supposed inefficiency of the law. Macovei believes that the law's supposed failure was not due to its inherent inefficiency, but because it has not been consistently applied throughout the country and because pro-Russian television channels have learned to circumvent the restrictions. “They just embed Russian propaganda news in their own, Moldovan, press releases under the heading ‘foreign news,'” explained Macovei. The API's director also stressed that popular films and entertainment programmes play a role in spreading propaganda. “In this case, the state didn't go the whole way. Russian propaganda uses a huge amount of resources to expand its influence in our country. [The online news network and radio station] Sputnik Moldova is a prime example of this,” said Macovei.

Chairman of the State Television and Radio Council Dragoș Vicol told GlobalVoices that the law against propaganda must be kept in force. “If the provisions of the law change, then of course we will comply with them. But my opinion is essentially that the law must be preserved, on the grounds that we do not welcome external propaganda, particularly broadcasts of a military or political nature. I believe that this law has proved its effectiveness and should be maintained,” stressed Vicol. Valery Demidetsky, the representative of Russian state-owned news network TASS in Moldova, supports the annulment of the law against propaganda. In December, he told Moldovan news portal eNews that the law was wholly ineffective, given that “in the era of the internet, passing such laws is useless.”

Regardless of the restrictions, Russian news broadcasts still appear to be very popular in Moldova.

According to a survey carried out by TV MR MLD, AGB Nielsen's representative in Moldova, the most highly rated channel in the country between December 16 and December 22 was RTR Moldova, which rebroadcasts content from the Russian RTR channel. The public television channel Moldova 1 comes second place, followed by PRIME TV, a channel until recently owned by the PDM's chairman and media mogul Vlad Plahotniuc, which previously rebroadcast content from Channel One in Moscow (after the PDM passed the law against propaganda, Russia's State Duma called on Channel One to tear up its contract with PRIME.) In fourth place comes NTV Moldova belonging to the PSRM politician Corneliu Furculiță, who also owns the television channel Exclusive TV and is known to be close to president Dodon. NTV Moldova also rebroadcasts content from the Russian channel of the same name. The fifth channel is the recently founded Primul în Moldova (First in Moldova), which rebroadcasts programmes from Russia's Channel One.

There is also evidence that the influence of large Russian media holdings is growing in Moldova. Although President Dodon does not officially own any television channels, there are signs that the PSRM's influence in the media landscape is on the rise. In December Chicu's government recently appointed Stanislav Vîjga, director of Accent TV, as the country's representative to the Mir Broadcasting Organisation, a network operating in several post-Soviet states.

That same month, the website openmedia.io published an article indicating that Igor Chaika, the son of Russia's Prosecutor General, recently acquired a 51% share in the company Media Invest Service. This company owns Primul în Moldova and Accent TV; the latter shows a strong record of pro-PSRM pre-electoral coverage. The remaining 49% share belongs to Vadim Ciubara, a Moldovan businessman who has been described by the investigative website RISE Moldova as a “shadow adviser” to President Dodon.

These moves matter. According to the Moldovan Barometer of Public Opinion for December 2019, 49.3% of Moldovans cite television as their most important source of information, and 33.8% named the internet as such.

But what exactly attracts Moldovan viewers to Russian television channels?

Global Voices spoke to several residents of the capital Chișinău to find out why. The 73-year old writer Anatol Labunschi says that he watches Russian-language channels simply because he speaks the language. “The internet has a translation function, which allows me to understand articles in foreign languages. But I can't do that with television and radio. However, I don't only watch Russian-language channels from Moscow; these days Ukraine is hardly in favour of the Kremlin, but still has many Russian-language programmes… I can compare opinions and draw my own conclusions, not simply believe those which are given to me from a talking head on television,” explained Labunschi.

Ruslan, a 44-year old scholar of religion who refused to provide his surname, says that he watches Russian television channels on a daily basis. “There's just more accessible. There are more TV channels which provide information in real time. I watch channels which are available to us in Chișinău, but it's quite difficult here. They're under pressure,” he remarked. Antonina, a farmer visiting the Moldovan capital, believes that citizens should have as much free access to information as they can. “A person should be able to choose for themselves. But unfortunately our politicians think only about their own interests and bind us to them. These aren't politicians, they're dictators. They don't let society develop freely. That's why they ban things. But people still watch [these channels],” admitted Antonina.

It may be difficult to ever know whether the ban has made Russian media more attractive as the “forbidden fruit,” but in a country with low trust towards its rulers, bans by those rulers could spectacularly backfire. Importantly, surveys show a high correlation between trust in Igor Dodon and support for the PSRM, and respondents’ willingness to watch television channels from Russia.

Petru Macovei believes that the media in Moldova has not faced such a tough situation for 30 years, and complains that the authorities have done nothing to support the economic development of media. The biggest problem, he stresses, is the determination of various party leaders to subjugate influential media resources to advance their own political goals. It seems unlikely, he concludes, that the calls to retain or remove Moldova's “law against propaganda” are much different.

Check out Global Voices’ special coverage of Moldova’s political turmoil

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