The Romanian information space has been subjected to another attack by the Russian special services. Some TV channels, which have been repeatedly accused of spreading Russian propaganda, launched a special information operation. There is a clear Russian trace in the final beneficiaries of these broadcasters.
The Romanian media sector is quite peculiar: in order for hostile narratives to “go viral,” they must be skillfully “wrapped” by creating an emotional roller coaster using topics that society is deeply concerned about. Such a cross-cutting theme in bilateral Ukrainian-Romanian relations is the rights of national minorities.
Even without the war, Russia was stirring up drama around them on both sides of the common border. In the current realities of war, the strategic goal of all this is, of course, to undermine support and solidarity with Ukraine. The propagandists also used the sore subject in the religious context, but obviously overdid it, because even the Romanian Orthodox Church had to come out with explanations.
Russian information operation in Romania
As we wrote earlier, the Russian Federation actively uses its information operations units abroad. This time, the Romanian information space has been targeted.
The Romanian TV channels Romania TV and Antena 3/CNN were quick to pick up on a promising scandalous topic that originated in the depths of social networks. The topic turned out to be really “fat” and caused a lot of excitement.
A priest named Mikhail Jar (Longhin) from the Ukrainian border town of Hertz in the Chernivtsi region, an ethnic Romanian, accused the Ukrainian authorities of persecuting Romanian priests under the guise of opposing the Moscow Patriarchate. Mihail Jar recorded dozens of video messages in which he urged Romania to stop supporting Ukraine.
Although such content disappears from Romanian space surprisingly quickly, and most videos are now blocked, Jar’s statements have gone viral. A circle of today’s anti-globalization and yesterday’s anti-vaxxers have begun accusing Ukraine of persecuting ethnic Romanians because of his “expert” comments.
One of the goals of the propaganda campaign was achieved immediately: Romanian society, which is quite religious and conservative, was swept up in a wave of indignation. Even the Romanian Orthodox Church was forced to explain the situation to Romanian priests in Ukraine.
In an official commentary, the spokesman for the Romanian Church, Vasile Banescu, said that the priests mentioned by Jar, who is allegedly being persecuted, are representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate and have nothing to do with Romanian Orthodox Church.
After Russia occupied Crimea, Longin publicly promoted pro-Putin narratives, calling the Ukrainian government “cursed” and “satanic”. Since the outbreak of hostilities in Donbas in 2014, the figure has prevented mobilization in the region and refused to allow Ukrainian soldiers to attend church services. He blamed “cursed Europe” and the United States for the war. At the same time, Longhin-Jar, as noted in numerous journalistic materials, has Romanian citizenship.
Russian propaganda mouthpieces
The aforementioned Romania TV, Antena 3/CNN, and Realitatea Plus, which began to replicate the statements of the priest from Bukovyna, have repeatedly found themselves at the center of scandals regarding the dissemination of false information, harassment of their owners’ political opponents, and discrediting anti-corruption bodies. And this is even though the owners of all three media companies (all of whom will be discussed below) were themselves accused of various frauds.
Since the beginning of the full-scale war, these information resources have been repeatedly sanctioned for spreading disinformation and propaganda, including on the topic of Russian aggression. It was from these channels that pro-Kremlin narratives about Soros, LGBT people, and the anti-corruption protests that erupted in Romania in 2018-2019 were poured directly onto the heads of Romanian viewers.
After the start of the full-scale invasion, these TV channels seriously discussed fakes about “biological laboratories” and “Nazis from Azov”. These topics became bloody pretexts for the murder of Ukrainians by Russians. And it was against this background that the systematic oppression of Ukrainian refugees in Europe was provoked.
In addition to Romania TV and Antena 3/CNN, the propaganda triad in Romania, excluding “open mouthpieces” and openly pro-Moscow websites, also includes Realitate Plus. At the same time, it is no secret in Romania that these media remain leaders in violating audiovisual legislation.
For example, in March, Realitatea Plus was fined for violating the balance in its coverage of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine when it started talking about “biological laboratories in Ukraine.” In addition, the channel stated that the war in Ukraine was not the fault of the terrorist Putin, but the joint responsibility of Western leaders. Romania TV News has also been fined many times: for an imbalance of opinions, attacks on LGBT people, and tales about Soros during anti-corruption protests in Romania in previous years.
In total, over 10 years, Romania TV received 74 fines totaling 1.4 million lei (almost $300 thousand). During the same period, Antena 3 was fined 1.05 million lei (almost $230 thousand).
Kings of pocket media
Romania TV is associated with Sebastian Ghita, a Romanian politician who is hiding in Serbia. Ghita won a seat in the Romanian parliament – the Chamber of Deputies (Social Democratic Party) in 2012. He was a member of the friendship group with the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, and a member of the committee to oversee the Romanian intelligence service, the Service of Information (SRI).
Later, he was sentenced to prison for financial fraud and money laundering through his IT company Asesoft. But Ghita managed to escape to Serbia, where he remains today.
In 2017, Serbia refused Romania’s extradition request and granted him political asylum. A telling detail: Ghita built his capital and business connections on contracts he received from the Russian oil company Lukoil.
In Serbia, Sebastian Ghita is active in politics and continues to engage in the IT business. In January 2019, the Romanian refugee was spotted at the First Digital Dialogue Serbia-Russia event, attended by more than 60 Serbian IT companies, during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Belgrade. Romanian media reports that Ghita’s inaccessibility to Romanian justice is primarily guaranteed by Russian special services.
Dan Voiculescu, the owner of Antena 3/CNN and founder of the Intact media fund, embezzled between $150 million and $300 million during the anti-communist revolution in Romania in December 1989 and the first months of 1990, according to prosecutors from DIICOT (the Office for the Investigation of Organized Crime and Terrorism) and the Foreign Intelligence Service (SIE), which were made public in 2000. He used this money to set up his companies in 1991. Voiculescu was sentenced to 10 years for embezzlement of public funds but served only a few years.
Realitatea Plus is a news channel owned by Cozmin Gusa and Maricel Pacuraru. Romanian journalists recall how Gusa said during one broadcast that Russia was his second homeland. The Realitatea TV channel received its license in 2013 and is broadcast in Romania, the Republic of Moldova, and the Western Balkans. It is probably no coincidence that a photo of Gusa and Ghita discussing something in Belgrade, where Ghita attends (or organizes?) various pro-Russian IT parties, is circulating online.
Kremlin’s information warfare
In Moldova, Russia has tried to build a system of controlled TV channels using the same scheme: an oligarch Ilan Sor, who is hiding from Moldovan justice in Israel, and leaders of corrupt political forces are the main beneficiaries of the media, broadcasting the same narratives: – about “Soros”, “external rule”, and “the West that wants war”.
We are talking about six TV channels whose broadcasting was suspended at the end of last year. These are Accent TV, Orhei TV, TV6, NTV-Moldova, Primul in Moldova, and RTR-Moldova, which were affiliated with oligarch Ilan Sor, who is hiding in Israel and is financing anti-government protests in Moldova, as well as with owners from the pro-Russian Party of Socialists. On the same days, the retransmission of Romania TV in the Republic of Moldova was also banned.
It is interesting that after the suspension of broadcasting of propaganda TV channels in Moldova, the employees of these information resources went to Bucharest, where their staged protest was covered by their colleagues from Romania TV. At the same time, this situation seems particularly dangerous for the Republic of Moldova, not for Ukraine, which has gathered very convincing expertise in Moscow’s media techniques over the nine years of war.
Propagandists are trying hard to present this ban as an attack on “Russian-language TV channels” rather than a fight against Russian influence. And with the support of Kremlin proxies operating in Romania, they also appeal to the fact that the Sandu “regime” allegedly suppresses freedom of speech.
Therefore, it is worth considering this problem in the information plane, realistically assessing the scope of hybrid influences and cross-border corruption. Therefore, perhaps the case of three pro-Kremlin TV channels from Romania will be of interest to Laura Codruta Kovesi, the former anti-corruption prosecutor of this country and now the director of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office. The three Romanian channels mentioned above were diligently slinging mud at her back in the day.