Articles in this rubric are published as part of the "European Integration as a National Idea with a Potential to Consolidate Moldovan Society" Project, financed by the German Foundation Hanns Seidel

Struggle against Russian propaganda in Moldova, touching of U.S. and European content, OP-ED

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05:30, 11 Dec 2017

Struggle against Russian propaganda in Moldova, touching of U.S. and European content, OP-ED

 

 

The real struggle against the Russian propaganda is a short- and long-term imperative. That’s why this should be depoliticized and turned into an objective necessity...


 

Dionis Cenușa
 

The assiduous further building of a more attractive and credible pro-European profile at home and abroad dominates the agenda of the government controlled by the Democratic Party and its leader, oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc. The affiliation to the European course requires yet clear political will and verifiable, consistent and complete implementation of reforms.

For now, most of the results displayed by the government include the adoption of laws, but obstacles to reforms appear at the stage of their materialization into tangible benefits for the citizens. The inconsistency between the initiation of the reforms assumed before the EU and the superficiality in their implementation considerably diminished public confidence in the government. That’s why to distract public attention from the inefficiency of reforms or the insufficiency of reforms, the government resorts to measures to “geopoliticize” the domestic policy, deliberately resuscitating the discussions on the negative influence of the Russian factor.

Struggle against Russian propaganda

Among the series of recent measures that apply to Russia is the rapid amendment of the Broadcasting Code (Parlament.md, December  7, 2017), apparently based on the necessity of protecting the Moldovan information space from foreign propaganda. The new provisions do not refer directly to the Russian media and are aimed at media content (news, military, political, feature programs) produced in countries that didn’t ratify the European Convention on Transfrontier Television. This group of countries includes Russia and other CIS states (four countries) and even EU counties (seven), as well as Georgia. (See Table)
 

Countries that do not apply European Convention on Transfrontier Television (not signed, not ratified)

Country

Convention not signed

Convention signed, but not ratified

Commonwealth of Independent States

Armenia

X

 

Azerbaijan

X

 

Russia

 

X

Belarus

X

 

Other countries of Eastern Europe and Caucasus

Georgia

 

X

European Union

Belgium

X

 

Denmark

X

 

Greece

 

X

Ireland

X

 

Luxembourg

 

X

The Netherlands

 

X

Sweden

 

X

Source: Council of Europe

For the restrictions imposed by the new Code to bypass the European countries, it is explicitly favored the use of media content (feature, military or political) from the U.S., Canada and countries that ratified the European Convention and from all the EU member states. Besides Russia, the new Code can also affect the media products of Belarus, which, given that they are transmitted in the Russian language, are watched and have loyal consumers in Moldova (which is not relevant to Armenia, Azerbaijan or Georgia). 

The media market operators are to pay between 70,000 to 100,000 lei fines (€3,500 to €5,000 per violation) if they broadcast banned media products. The imposition of fines could obstruct the activity of the media outlets that will retransmit Russian TV channels without filtering out their content, in breach of the law.

The reaction of the Gagauz authorities (executive and legislative power), which refuse to restrict the retransmission of Russia TV channels, prefigures a new conflict between Chisinau and Comrat over the implementation of the new provisions, when the law takes effect. The opposition to the restriction of foreign media content, which is described as propagandistic, is fueled primarily by President Igor Dodon, who said he will not promulgate this law. The impasse will be yet broken by the government based on the Constitutional Court Judgment of October 17, 2017. Thus, the President can be temporarily removed from office when he refuses to fulfill his constitutional duties, including the one to promulgate laws. This way, the Speaker of Parliament will be able to promulgate swiftly the amendments to the Broadcasting Code, ignoring thus Igor Dodon’s objections, as Andrian Candu did in the case of the appointment of the new Minister of Defense this October.

Rooting out of misinformation, U.S. and Russia’s actions

The measures to counteract external misinformation, which are primarily aimed at Russia, not accidentally coincided with the visit paid to Washington by Speaker of Parliament Andrian Candu and the Democratic leader Vladimir Plahotniuc, who is considered the coordinator of the ruling alliance (PDM.md, December 5, 2017), during December 7-8. In the meetings with a number of American lawmakers, the delegation of the Democratic Party underlined aspects of the “hybrid war” waged by Russia against Moldova, which includes instruments of pressure in bilateral trade, media and security sectors (through the refusal to pull out the Russian troops from the Transnistrian region).

The swift adoption in two readings, the same day, of the amendments to the Broadcasting Code took place amid press reports about the taking of legal action against Vladimir Plahotniuc in Russia (Case No.3/1-0358/2017, registered on November 30, 2017), over a murder attempt. Using this occasion, the PDM accused Russia of “harassment and persecution” through fabricated criminal cases and attempts to use international investigation mechanisms (Interpol) against members of the PDM and Moldovan officials affiliated to this. Besides the fact that they are arranged as part of a victimization scene, Russia’s actions are also used to shape at least two images of the PDM. The first resides in the fact that Russia punishes the government of Moldova for its pro-Western geopolitical orientation. The second image is based on the perception that Russia targets the PDM because this fights regional money laundering schemes that involve the Moldovan banking system and Russian officials.

The criticism of Russia that involves the PDM fully matches the anti-Russian moods cemented in the U.S. around the new economic sanctions, of the last few months, following evidence showing that Russia interfered in the presidential elections of 2016. So, there is an evident causality between the anti-Russia messages of the Moldovan government and its attempts to step up contacts with U.S. officials. More than US$500,000 is used by the PDM to stage lobbying activities in the capital of the U.S. and the pursued goal has several levels.

In the short run, the government wants to improve the image in the West, including that of Vladimir Plahotniuc. At the same time, even if many of the critical arguments concerning Russia are justified (imposition of commercial bans or information war), the way in which these are used shows a clear intention to provoke Russia to take revenge. The harsher the Russian authorities are, the greater will be the sympathy expected by the Democrats from the population with anti-Russian views, especially given the electoral context. Moreover, Russia’s reactions will be used to stimulate solidarity and support from the U.S. and the EU.

In the long run, the Democrats get ready for the post-electoral negotiations of 2018, where they see themselves as the main protagonists. The representatives of the PDM try to convince the U.S. to assist the pro-European forces to keep power so that they stop Moldova’s geopolitical reorientation to Russia by the pro-Russian parties. This shows the PDM’s increased interest in attracting the U.S. to imminent discussions with Maia Sandu and Andrei Nastase about the necessity of forming the future government coalition that the Democrats want to join.

European subtext

The limitation of the Russian media products’ access is not a novelty for the region. During 2014-2016, the Ukrainian authorities had banned over 70 TV channels of Russia. The black mass media list applied in Ukraine includes not only feature and news programs, but also recreational or scientific ones. The source of these interdictions was and remains Russia’s interference that caused the disintegration (separatism in Donbas region) and even the occupation of Ukrainian territories (annexation of Crimea). The European officials have always underlined, including in the fourth Ukraine-EU Association Council, the importance of taking proportional measures to ensure national security, taking into account the freedom of the media and media pluralism.

The EU’s attitude to the attempts to place particular impediments in the path of Russian media outlets was as visible in the case of Moldova. Earlier, when proposals to amend the Broadcasting Code’s provisions concerning the retransmission of foreign TV channels  were submitted (April 2015), ex-Head of the EU Delegation Pirkka Tapiola warned that the initiatives concerning the important sectors, such as the freedom of the media, necessitate the preliminary appraisal of the Venice Commission, attentive monitoring and debates with civil society. Under the pressure of the EU and civil society, the modification of the Broadcasting Code was put off in 2015 and the discussions centered on the necessity of adopting a new Code, which was drafted with the financial support of the EU in 2011, but was later abandoned.

The swift amendment of the Code occurred amid the EU’s assessment of the fulfillment of the pre-conditions for obtaining the first tranche of macro-financial assistance. Even if it is an evident risk, the government nevertheless imposed restrictions on media content that threatens the information security of the state. This zeal of the Democrats is due to a “perfect storm” for the geopolitical games of the Moldovan government in which the animosities towards Russia have a considerable political-electoral importance.

First of all, the regional and international context is favorable. The European institutions and leaders, as well as the American ones, recognized in public the toxic nature of the misinformation promoted by Russia. Besides interference in the elections in the U.S., there was also noted the influence of the Russian propaganda in the Brexit and in promoting Catalan separatism (Reuters, November 13, 2017).

The concrete measures adopted by the EU to fight the misinformation acts of Russia are the second favorable moment. Thus, the EU budget adopted by the European Parliament at the end of November 2017 envisions a rise in EU costs for fighting misinformation. Over €1 million will be used to train EU personnel in Brussels and capitals of Eastern Europe and Western Balkans to counteract false news. Also, about €3.8 million will go to improve strategic communication between the European Commission and the European External Action Service. In parallel, the European Commission started to work on a new strategy for managing the dissemination of false news. A Group of High-Level Experts representing the academic community, online platforms, NGOs and others, constituted by the Commission, is to develop the strategy until next spring.

Last but not least, the fast adoption of changes to the Election Code is related to Vladimir Plahotniuc’s visit to the U.S. (December 7-8, 2017), during which the attention of U.S. politicians was to be attracted by resonant facts. In this regard, the coincidence of the legislative proposal to restrict particular foreign media products, including from Russia, and the active promotion of the PDM’s reaction to the criminal case started against Vladimir Plahotnic in Russia seems suspicious.

Using the described circumstances, the Democrats managed to amend the media legislation without facing major opposition on the part of the U.S. and the European partners that themselves adopt measures to fight Russian propaganda. Moreover, the law was adopted by 61 MPs of the 87 attending and the subject remained without an immediate official reaction of the extraparliamentary opposition (PAS and PPPDA) and the EU Delegation and U.S. Embassy. The Gagauz leaders and the PSRM and Igor Dodon, the PCRM and Vladimir Voronin were the only political forces that openly showed their opposition. This thing emphasizes again the geopolitical segmentation of the Moldovan political class where the Democrats manage to take sides with the PAS, PPPDA and other parties that have critical views of Russia.

Instead of conclusions…

The sudden steps taken by the Democrats to limit the access of particular foreign media content were immediately connected to the anti-Russia campaign launched by these in 2016. It is a moment of rupture in the relationship that is over ten year old between the mass media controlled by Vladimir Plahotniuc and the main TV channels of Russia (First Channel), which is used by the Kremlin to misinform its close neighborhood – the CIS states. This can result in financial costs for the media holding owned by the Democratic leader, but this sacrifice is made for vital strategic political objectives.

The amendment of the legislation on the mass media is a powerful blow for the pro-Russian forces that practically free, through Russian media coverage, formed the necessary opinions among the pro-Russian electorate. The Democrats yet obtain a new instrument for filtering out the media and removing the content considered toxic before the parliamentary elections of 2018. The opposition to freeing the Moldovan public space from Russian media products, put up by the Socialists, Communists and the authorities of Gagauzia, will strengthen the perception that the government is anti-Russia. This facilitates Democrats’ efforts to strengthen a pro-European profile.

The media pluralism in Moldova will be influenced, but the access of Russian propagandistic products will be simultaneously restricted. This does not yet mean that the misinformation propagated by Russia will not enter the Moldovan public sphere at all. This circulates efficiently through other sources than the traditional ones, namely through social networking sites where it can be detected and counteracted with difficulty.

The real struggle against the Russian propaganda is a short- and long-term imperative. That’s why this should be depoliticized and turned into an objective necessity that should be assumed consciously and should be correctly communicated to the public so as to protect the national interests and ensure the security of information and of the state in general. There should be avoided the substitution of the discussions on the speed and quality of reforms in Moldova with the “hunting for witches” against media products used in the informational war of Russia.
 
Dionis Cenușa

 


IPN publishes in the Op-Ed rubric opinion pieces submitted by authors not affiliated with our editorial board. The opinions expressed in these articles do not necessarily coincide with the opinions of our editorial board.

05:30, 11 Dec 2017

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