Moldova’s Infowar in the Wake of Ukraine Invasion

As thousands of Ukrainians cross into Moldova, the country fights its own information battles.

Moldova’s Infowar in the Wake of Ukraine Invasion

As thousands of Ukrainians cross into Moldova, the country fights its own information battles.

More than two million Ukrainians have fled across western borders of the country after Russia's armed invasion on February 24, 2022. Among the neighbouring countries, Moldova is the one that has received the most refugees in proportion to its population. This is a major challenge for this nation among the poorest in Europe.
More than two million Ukrainians have fled across western borders of the country after Russia's armed invasion on February 24, 2022. Among the neighbouring countries, Moldova is the one that has received the most refugees in proportion to its population. This is a major challenge for this nation among the poorest in Europe. © Andreea Campeanu/Getty Images
Thursday, 17 March, 2022

As Moldova grapples with an influx of Ukrainians fleeing the war, narratives whipping up hostility toward refugees and the West are on the rise. The aim, politicians say, is to destabilise the country and divide public opinion.

Like other former Soviet republics, Moldova has long been a target of Russian influence and political manipulation. This has increased since Chisinau started looking less to Moscow and more to Brussels for its development, a move process culminating in the formal application to join the European Union filed on March 3.

The country of 2.6 million is the Eastern Partnership’s most vulnerable country to disinformation, specifically promoting interests and beliefs close to the Russian Federation’s.

Disinformation circulates through multiple channels: traditional media, social networks, politicians, community activists and religious leaders. Distorted, incomplete or utterly false news have run wild, including allegations that the breakaway region of Transnistria was directly involved in the invasion of Ukraine, that adult men were banned from leaving Moldova, that Moldova had a shortage of gasoline and medicines, and that diplomatic missions were evacuating.

Attempts at containing the phenomenon have increased. Sites like www.stopfals.md/ro/ specifically monitors various sites and debunks fake news, while www.moldova.org works as a news aggregator.

“It is important for us that readers develop critical thinking, that they question their information sources,” Ana Gherciu, moldova.org’s executive director, told IWPR.We identified and tried to solve two problems of mass media in Moldova: the existing news aggregators prioritise fake news and propaganda, while the huge amount of online media content makes it difficult for the readers with no media training to differentiate between propaganda and quality journalism.”

Experts warn, however, that these debunking efforts are not enough.

“Moldova needs an efficient legal strategy for protecting the informational space, and we do not have it,” Petru Macovei, executive director of the Association of Free Press (API), told IWPR.

In early March, public institutions and NGOs established a working group to develop a strategy to combat disinformation. Meanwhile, the Security and Intelligence Service (SIS) began taking action, with several news sites accused of disseminating information that incited hatred and conflict being blocked. SIS has also set up a section on its website where citizens can report eventual information inciting hatred they have received.

Between February 25 and March 15, nine sites, including www.gagauznews.md and www.sputnik.md, the official site of Sputnik Media in Moldova were blocked. SIS stated that the www.vkurse.md news site sowed hatred through the publication of reports that justify Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine.

However, the ban is only valid in the 60 days of the state of emergency, which was declared on February 24, and SIS orders however can target only one specific outlet at a time.

Media have been quick to circumnavigate the ban; after sputnik.md was closed, the agency opened three other websites under different names but with the same content. They can continue to open pages with different names without changing the narrative.

On February 28, after the Sputnik site in Romanian was closed, the editorial staff resigned en masse, stating that they no longer agreed with the agency’s editorial policy. 

Macovei pointed to another loophole in the current law, which mandates local broadcasters to air a certain amount of content produced in the country. SIS could only close Sputnik’s web page, not the Sputnik Media Agency, which does not have a license in Moldova. The venture produces media content, including for the radio, which is syndicated and broadcast across the country by two national radio stations: Hit FM and Radio Alla.

The opposition Socialist Party of Moldova (PSRM), the pro-Russian faction of former President Igor Dondon, accused the government of limiting media freedom and contradicting Moldova’s neutrality as enshrined in its constitution.

A recent investigation by the NewsMaker portal showed links between some Moldavian bloggers, PSRM activists and the Russian state media. On March 2, several videos of Moldavians complaining about Ukrainian refugees began circulating on social media. All shared the same features, with bloggers accusing refugees of Russophobia, lack of gratitude and bad behaviour and calling on them to go back home.

The videos gained traction, but none of them provided evidence. They were distributed in newsgroups by a PSRM activist and picked up by Russian TV channels which invited politicians in talk shows where they repeated and amplified the information.

Anti-Ukrainian propaganda, however, fhas ailed to have a serious impact on public opinion. A survey conducted by the social research firm Magenta Consulting in early March revealed that the majority of Moldovans support Ukraine – 51 per cent of respondents versus 20 per cent in support of Russia – and had a negative attitude towards Russian President Vladimir Putin – 61 per cent of interviewees. The research also revealed that 26 per cent of respondents indicated pro-Russian TV channels as their primary or secondary source of information; but Media Radar, a platform that monitors Moldovan media, indicated that pro-Kremlin news outlets scored low in a trust index.

An investigation published by G4media showed that disinformation campaigns had often murky financial backing.

“A key step would be to check the financing of these media outlets as it would increase the informational space integrity,” said Valeriu Pasa, who leads NGO group WatchDog.

Blocking news sites was an efficient but short-term measure, noted Macovei.

“We need to increase public resilience to fake news… [working] in different directions: educating the youth on one hand, and on the other to persuade the people who consume certain media to change, vary their sources, to analyse the information,” he said. “Otherwise, they'll keep on being victims of propaganda.

“I am in favour of media education, but it is part of a long-term vision. We need decisions that will have an impact today and [some outlets] have noticed that the state has started taking action.

This publication was prepared under the “Countering Disinformation in Moldova Project”, implemented with the support of the United Kingdom's Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO).

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