INTERVIEW: On Guard on the Prut – the Shadow of Russia and the Free Press in Moldova. An Interview with the ZdG Director, Alina Radu
On August 27, Moldova celebrates three decades of tumultuous post-Soviet existence, thirty years of prolonged transition, and attempts to confirm independence in 1991. A time when society has matured with difficulty, because of a balance maintained by temporary governments, supported from the East. A balance between Moscow and Europe, between old and new, between habit and challenge, between state and private property, between subordination and self-determination. A balance that the Moldovan diaspora, directly or through influence, recently ended, sowing between the Prut and the Dniester the hope that revolutionary enthusiasm, when it is doubled by responsibility and lucidity, can restart an entire social system.
The Romanian press notes that in the context of recent political reconfigurations, the independent press in Moldova has played a fundamental role in changing the face of Moldova. Journalists who, thirty years ago, were protesting for the right to an opinion or going on a hunger strike for freedom of speech, refusing to this day to compromise professional principles and values, have raised, brick by brick, the foundation of this year’s success.
Alina Radu, the director of Ziarul de Gardă, is one of these meritorious toilers of the unserved press, a journalist whose journalistic work of social reconstruction is contemporary with all three decades of identity struggle in Moldova.
Podul.ro reporter: Alina Radu, in the three decades since the Declaration of Independence, how independent has and is the Moldovan press and how dependent are its readers on free speech? There is still control, there is still manipulation, effective propaganda, captive public…
Alina Radu: We, as journalists, only in 1989 understood what freedom of expression means. It didn’t last long. In 1994, censorship was reaffirmed on state television after the parliamentary elections, and reporters then decided to leave and be able to express themselves freely elsewhere. Some journalists have also found that an association with politicians would be beneficial, at least until the election campaign, when all sorts of obstructions can occur. In all this context, some politicians also realized that they can create the press, that they can control the press, that they can use it, but this did not help them in the long run, they committed political suicide. The post-Soviet nomenclature controlled a lot of things in Moldova, and many of the current politicians have “forgotten” to evolve. And the post-nomenclaturists took over their habits.
Plahotniuc, for example, in 2018, when he entered the Parliament, came to the first meeting with a convoy of cars, with armed bodyguards. Dumitru Alaiba, a deputy from another party, came near him by bicycle. That was the day Plahotniuc declared that he had won the election, but in fact, lost the next election. In 30 years, so much has been stolen and so many individuals lacking integrity have become rich, that many became aware of the situation.
During all these years in Moldova there were two processes that went at the same time: on the one hand, journalists, in their shyness, explored as much as possible the freedom of expression, on the other hand, the politicians explored as deeply as possible the variety of possibilities to use the vulnerabilities of journalists. As a result, a class of journalists that belonged to the oligarchs appeared. They did journalism far from the public interest, and yet they had good salaries, houses, vacations. It was a time when we thought we lost, that the journalists who put moral and professional integrity above all else, the reporters who suffocated in investigations or the reports that showed the real problems of the people lost.
As a result, by 2018 freedom of expression has been marginalized, it existed, but on the periphery of the mainstream media. Politicians also tested the benefits of social networks, troll armies, purchased likes, but everything that was created and artificially maintained collapsed after 2018. In the press, only those organically raised media institutions remained impactful, on feedback and direct support from the real reader.
What do we have now? The captive audience shrank. Televisions are still well controlled by politicians, but people no longer watch so much television, they have begun to abandon it. The newspapers in the print edition have started to die, and those that resist do it thanks to the readers who appreciate the quality content and buy their subscriptions. Fortunately, control and manipulation are increasingly difficult to exercise, because citizens have begun to find out by accessing independent online portals, which actually answer their questions. Despite this fact, the propaganda, however, is not silent, and I would give here only the well-known example of the press lies fabricated and broadcast, both in Moldova and in Romania, by those from Sputnik.md.
Reporter Podul.ro: To what extent does Moscow currently patronize the media in Moldova? How is Russia’s shadow felt in the press between the Prut and the Dniester?
Alina Radu: We have the shadow of Russia everywhere, at the moment, in the Moldovan press. We can talk about two kinds of propaganda, control, and financing from Russia: one, on the press, the second being the one manifested in the public space.
In the press, we have the shadow of Russia at the official level, talking about sites like Sputnik.md or publications like Komsomolskaya Pravda. Consider that in Moldova, an independent state proclaimed for 30 years, the newspaper with the largest circulation is Komsomolskaya Pravda, a newspaper from the former USSR now published in the Russian Federation, along with other similar publications. An extremely read newspaper in the Transnistrian region, with an easy content, in which propaganda and misinformation are slipped among the mundane news, and from which you can find out, for example, how bad life is in Europe, how the churches will close, how it will be forbidden to cut the pig and how the whole population will become gay. That would be Russia’s declared propaganda.
On the other hand, despite declining interest in television, Russian-language TV stations are still extremely popular because they have a grid loaded with films and entertainment productions among which, or even within which, propagandistic messages are inserted, which sometimes demean, the Moldavian, the Ukrainian or the Romanian for example.
There was a lot of talk about Russia’s control over the media in Moldova. It has always been said in public that Dodon brings money to promote the official Russian propaganda message. The owners of the fiercest Russian propaganda media are affiliated with the Socialist Party in Chișinău and, unfortunately, there was no interest of the authorities in proving all this and showing how the payment with the bag works. Because Russia does not make bank transfers, as far as is known. They prefer to pay cash.
In the public space, control and funding could be detected through the dynamics of opinion groups. False account groups that are very active on social networks, attacking attempts to elucidate who this press belongs to and how it is financed. On May 9, for example, I wrote a comment about the atrocities committed by the Russian army. “Haven’t they made soap of you yet?”, That’s how their comments were.
Reporter Podul.ro: Is there complicity of some of the journalists with the financing offers coming from politics, a response formula that would transform, at the same time, the censorship imposed in the past, into self-censorship?
Alina Radu: Unfortunately, yes, the so-called journalists accept all this. Many justify their complicity with well-known formulations such as “I have loans to pay”, “I have a family”, etc. Unfortunately, all these behaviors of some began to be tolerated by others, or overlooked, on the principle of a claimed solidarity of the guild.
Between 1989 and 1993 there was a wave of purification in the Moldovan press, a period in which the journalist considered it honorable, to tell the truth, and only the truth and to serve only the community. Since then, however, the commercialization or mercerization of Moldovan journalism has followed. The times have created, on the one hand, a very narrow segment of journalists who have adhered to principles and values and have given rise, on the other hand, to a considerable army of political press servants.
So, after years of censorship, the present has brought us another form of repression of free expression, self-censorship based on the satisfaction of personal needs. We often receive, at Ziarul de Gardă, calls from journalists from various media institutions, who give us uncomfortable topics motivating that they cannot approach them for such reasons.
Maybe the future will change such a state of affairs. A lot of young journalists have appeared who have understood that they can do something small in the various independent press projects, on investigations, social, human rights, etc. I hope that this new generation will give a lesson to journalists enslaved by politicians.