In December, six pro-Russian TV stations had their licenses to broadcast taken away by the Moldovan Commission for Emergency Situations. They are still active, however, through web platforms, social media, or, in some cases, on other TV channels.
According to President Maia Sandu, Moscow was preparing an attempted coup d’etat in Moldova, thus showing once again its intention to maintain influence in its neighborhood at all costs. Even before this breaking news became widely known.
A harsh contest for the hearts and minds of Moldovan citizens was taking place in its media landscape.
Six Moldovan TV stations had their broadcasting licenses suspended in December last year by the Commission for Emergency Situations in Moldova for repeatedly violating the Code on Audio-Visual Media Services. These channels mostly broadcast programs produced in Russia. After Russia invaded Ukraine, they stopped directly transmitting Russian news. Still, news programs criticized Moldovan authorities, praised the channel’s owners, and avoided mentioning the war.
On December 16, 2022, the Commission for Emergency Situations (CES) of the Republic of Moldova suspended the licenses of Primul Moldova, RTR Moldova, Accent TV, NTV Moldova, TV6, and Orhei TV.
The Commission said that its decision was made “to protect the national information space and stop the risk of misinformation by spreading false information or trying to change public opinion, based on the list of individuals and legal entities subject to international sanctions.”
It used the findings of the Audio-Visual Council, which show that there aren’t any professional standards for telling the truth about what’s going on in the country and about Russia’s war against Ukraine. The Audio-Visual Council gave examples like news stories that only quoted the Russian side of an event in Ukraine and stories that didn’t talk about the war at all.
A few days later, the head of the Audio-Visual Council said that these TV stations were either facing many penalties for breaking the Audio-Visual Media Services Code or had not given enough information about who owned them. In other cases, the owner (fugitive oligarch Ilan Shor) was under US and UK sanctions. American and British authorities have evidence suggesting that Shor is corrupt. However, his case is still dragging on at the Moldovan Court of Appeal due to numerous appeals from Shor’s lawyers, which the Court fails to deal with timely.
Moldova’s civil society split over the suspensions. Some experts found the decision was right because the owners of the stations are oligarchs who are working with Russia to make things worse in Moldova by spreading false information. Others said that the authorities should have done a better job of explaining why the licenses had to be taken away.
Alina Radu, director of the independent investigative newspaper Ziarul de Garda, wrote that the channels that were shut down didn’t follow basic professional rules and didn’t do journalism, just propaganda. Therefore, the Commission’s decision was justified. Nevertheless, the People’s Advocate believes that the decision could limit freedom of expression.
As most of the six channels rebroadcast programs from Russia, Moscow had a reaction, too. Maria Zaharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, said that Chişinău’s leaders were “continuing the trend of putting an end to any kind of dissent in the country through totalitarian censorship.” She called the decision a “cynical violation of the rights of national minorities.”
Vladimir Solovyov, head of the Russian Journalists’ Union, claimed the decision was an attack on the Russian-speaking population of Moldova. Russian authorities often insist on freedom of expression for their own channels abroad. At home, strong censorship prevails with year-long prison sentences.
Pro-Russian deputies in the Moldovan Gagauzian Autonomy Region even found a link between the suspension and the alleged intent of authorities to destroy the Orthodox Church. Other pro-Kremlin politicians and Russian state outlets claimed that the West is selectively behind. selectively. However, they cannot now broadcast via ordinary TV. Most of them—NTV Moldova, Primul in Moldova, Accent TV, Orhei TV, and TV6—focus now on their websites, Facebook pages, and YouTube channels.
It is hard to know whether people who watched these channels on their TV sets are now looking for their programs online. The measurements that are available to the public do not show a big change in how many people watch a station, but this information may not be correct. For example, it looks like there are big differences between data that is available to the public and data that is provided by Google Analytics.
Orhei TV and TV6 found a way
to bring their shows to the public through a previously little-known platform: Orizont TV. This platform said that it has a deal with the owners of the two channels that were taken down to use their content in its own shows.
The website for RTR Moldova has been down for a few months because the channel chose to do so. Its Facebook and YouTube pages have remained dormant for weeks. However, RTR Moldova was the first to find a way around its suspension. Its main shows and news programs are now broadcast on another channel, Cinema 1. Viewers figured out how to make the switch. In the last month, the number of people watching Cinema 1 has gone through the roof, but not to the level it was at before RTR Moldova.
Where did the audience go?
Since the suspensions, there has been an increase in viewers for Publika, Canal 2, Canal 3, and Canal 5. All are associated with another fugitive oligarch, Vlad Plahotniuc.
The jury is still out
All six TV stations went to the Moldovan Court of Appeal to fight the decision made by the Commission for Emergency Situations. The Court merged all their complaints and sent the unified version to the Chișinău Court. However, the judge decided that he could not examine the case and redirected it to the Supreme Court, which will decide which court will handle it. The high court held a hearing on January 18, but it hasn’t said when it will make its decision public.
Meanwhile, journalists from the suspended channels staged protests in Bucharest and Strasbourg to draw the European Parliament’s attention to their situation. No immediate reaction followed.
As the political situation in Moldova is tense, this situation is worth following both from a legal perspective and as a case study of audience behavior.
Moldova under pressure from Russia – but not alone
Moldovan authorities are exposed to constant pressure from Moscow. Russian authorities often raise the issue of the Transnistria separatist region and pressure Chişinău by threatening to increase energy prices or cut off supplies.The successful EU / Moldova Association Council held on February 7, noted, inter alia, that “The EU and Moldova reiterated their commitment to strengthening political association and deepening economic integration… The EU condemned Russia’s continued use of energy as a weapon to destabilize Moldova and expressed appreciation for the constructive way in which the government has handled this crisis. Moldova thanked the EU for its solidarity and continued support to Moldova since the beginning of the energy crisis in October 2021.”