Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Media Serves to Deepen Divisions

A lack of solidarity, low professional standards and deep divides plague journalism in Moldova and Transdniester.
By Natalia Angheli-Zaicenco

A group of journalists picket the entrance to the National Radio building in the Moldovan capital Chisinau, yet others continue to work. Another group go on hunger strike to draw attention to censorship and poor working conditions, while their colleagues diligently study a "media freedom" initiative by the Moldovan president.

This is a snapshot of the present-day media scene in Moldova, which suffers from a lack of solidarity between journalist, bad employment practices and poor reporting standards.

Journalists remain largely divided along political, linguistic and even geographical lines, while international surveys all point to a worsening of media freedom in the country.

Despite a large number of outlets, few newspapers have a circulation exceeding 10,000, and a limited number of broadcasters can boast a significant amount of original programming in their output. Most newspapers are poorly-designed tabloids which run politically-biased articles. The majority of radio and television channels re-broadcast foreign programmes, largely from Russia.

In the absence of advertising, media organisations largely depend on different forms of sponsorship for survival. As a result, they often run “advertorials” and paid-for “exposés”, and hence have a tendency to hire young or inexperienced reporters who will write whatever they are ordered to.

Indeed, according to a recent survey, two-thirds of Moldovan journalists have been in the profession for less than a decade, and only a quarter admit to having had any professional training in the last five years.

They seldom make more than 100 US dollars a month, and most have to moonlight in order to make ends meet.

Editors prefer their reporters to cover a range of topics rather than concentrating on specific beats. As a result, specialty journalism - and especially investigative reporting - is underdeveloped.

The few investigative journalists are routinely denied access to information of public interest, and are frequently harassed.

In June 2004, Alina Anghel of Timpul weekly was hospitalised with concussion and a broken arm after being attacked in broad daylight near her apartment. Anghel, who had written extensively about cases of government corruption, believed the attack was directly related to her work. Several weeks later the police claimed to have arrested the attacker, but the reporter suspects he wasn’t the real culprit.

Libel suits are another method employed by the authorities to thwart reporters. The law does not impose a ceiling on libel awards, which has left some media close to bankruptcy.

Journalists frequently fail to respond to these challenges in an effective manner. One reason for this is persisting linguistic divisions. The media scene is split between Moldovan- and Russian-language players, and their journalists often belong to different professional associations.

Moreover, events reported in Russian-language media are frequently presented very differently in Moldovan outlets and vice versa. And sometimes, there’s a significant variation in the range of issues covered by both.

Under these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that journalists rarely put up a united front in the face of threats to their profession.

Such was the case of the strike at TeleRadio Moldova, TRM, in the summer of 2004. Protests were sparked by what were believed to have been unfair staffing procedures.

As part of efforts to turn TRM from a state into a public service broadcaster, the authorities decided to replace its entire staff, despite concerns from local and international media experts.

After the new recruits were announced, TRM journalists broke into the National Radio building on July 27 – where the selection committee had been meeting - claiming that the hiring process lacked transparency and that “inconvenient” members of staff had been sacked.

The protesters demanded the resignation of the selection committee as well as the rest of the TRM management. The latter responded by stripping them of their journalist IDs and banning them from the premises.

In August, the stand-off escalated and police used force to disperse a crowd of protesting journalists. International watchdog organisations deplored the authorities’ heavy-handed approach towards the protesters and called for the TRM recruitment policy to be reviewed. At home, however, there was a distinct lack of sympathy amongst their colleagues.

In the meantime, TRM’s management continued to ignore the protesters’ demands and refused to offer them airtime to express their views. The journalists are now attempting to sue the station’s executives for incompetence and several of the former have gone on hunger strike.

Another problem faces by journalists is their limited access to a sizeable part of Moldova – which hampers balanced and comprehensive coverage of the region.

Less than 60 kilometres east of Chisinau, the Transdniester region is effectively run as a separate state.

The media is under the tight control of the authorities, and visiting journalists are viewed with suspicion. Reporters from Chisinau-based media, as well as colleagues from overseas, have had a series of run-ins with the Transdniestrian police.

In September 2004, TRM cameraman Dinu Mija spent several days in jail for "illegally entering the territory of the Transdniestrian republic and offering resistance to the authorities".

Mija was seized and his camera smashed as he tried to film a protest by railway employees in the town of Tighina. Earlier that month, a visiting BBC film crew was detained for several hours after attempting to shoot footage of a Soviet-era munitions dump. According to a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty report, Tiraspol accused the team of "possibly collecting military intelligence for NATO or the United States".

Soviet-style conspiracy theories are rife in the region's media, and Transdniestrians are constantly being urged to remain "vigilant" in the face of "Moldova's subversive activities".

The tone of coverage becomes even more confrontational whenever tensions between the authorities and local leaders mount.

In summer 2004, as negotiations on the status of the region reached their current nadir, Transdniestrian newspapers were full of page-long editorials calling on the local population to stand up in the face of Moldova's plans to "launch military aggression".

Meanwhile, newspapers in Moldova were focusing on the plight of several Moldovan-language schools closed by the authorities in Transdniestria, where Russian is the dominant language.

The communication gap is enforced by Trandsniestrian officials, who discourage local journalists from contacting the authorities in Chisinau to check facts or hear the Moldovan side of the story. Reporters who disobey this unwritten law are routinely summoned for questioning.

With such intimidation, the poor communication between journalists, the biased nature of much of the political reporting, and the overall shortage of money and resources, the people of Moldova and Transdniester are being sold short. They are served a skewed and fragmented picture of reality, and there is no section of the media that can be relied upon to act as public watchdog.

Natalia Angheli-Zaicenco is senior consultant at the Independent Journalism Centre in Chisinau.

More IWPR's Global Voices