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Journalism Within Elections, or Reading Between the Lines

26 October 2016
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Journalist, CAT STUDIO Director
Probably, no single citizen in Moldova believes the so-called ‘election campaign’ started on September 30, one month before the presidential elections, as provided for by the law. The battle for the hot seat was launched much earlier and, unfortunately, as always involved journalists along with candidates and their counselors. Limited freedom of speech, manipulations, and truncated or even fake messages are still used to the full and without reserves by a good part of Moldovan media.
Praise Your Own King

Like an acid test, presidential elections 2016 have highlighted the deficiencies of the Bessarabian press. Politically affiliated media abide by the principle ‘there are two views – ours and the wrong one’. It is relevant how the activity of political actors was covered throughout the campaign depending on press agency’s affiliation.

TV channels from the media trust of Vladimir Plahotniuc, as one, sang the PD candidate Marian Lupu as they followed his every public appearance – from meetings with his constituents at community centers, schools and hospitals to the cabbage roll fest, accompanying their dithyrambs with pieces on the current government’s successes and achievements and interviews with public officials and commentators who all share the same view. TV hosts and their guests have never differed: they would complement each other and every time come to the unanimous conclusion that the best president for Moldova would be one ‘of a feather’ with the parliamentary majority and the government. News with titles like ‘Almost Every Second Mayor in Moldova Wants Marian Lupu to Be President’ was a common thing for Moldexpo channels at that time. As for his opponents, the approach was likewise constant and consistent. Every statement made by Andrei Nastase and his party Demnitate si Adevar (‘Dignity and Truth’) was necessarily accompanied by the specification ‘…backed by the fugitive mobsters Victor and Viorel Topa’. All pieces covering Marian Lupu’s competitors tended to sound negative or even denigrating. If the PD candidate had been booed and whistled at a meeting with electors, the incident was turned a blind eye to or presented as a provocation on behalf of DA advocates. On the contrary, whenever similar things happened to Andrei Nastase, the approach was completely different: ‘Indignant Locals Boo Topa’s Guy’.

At the other side of the barricade, on Jurnal TV things were pretty much the same. Their guests on electoral shows did not express very different views either, tending to just complement one another. The channel’s news service was sure to keep track of electoral activities carried out by Andrei Nastase, and after his withdrawal in favor of the common candidate the focus shifted on events involving Maia Sandu in tandem with Nastase. Pieces on competitor campaigns mostly featured goofs, failures and lack of popularity, plus the inevitable news on the controversial figure of Plahotniuc. One time during electoral debates the candidates in the studio were discomforted and even offended by the host’s question ‘Who will you support in the second round?” as a supposed allusion at their own inability to obtain enough votes during the first ballot to make it to runoff.

In their treatment of topics and selection of show guests the socialist party’s channels, NTV Moldova and Accent TV, favored (naturally!) Igor Dodon. As for offensive missions, journalists aimed their weapons at a number of right and center-right winged candidates: Maia Sandu, Iurie Leanca, Mihai Ghimpu, and a little less Marian Lupu. The pro-Customs Union and pro-Russia rhetoric was generously laced with stories on the disaster that had almost covered Moldova by the merit of current leaders, with the compulsory conclusion that the only way out is a man like Igor Dodon at the country’s helm.

PRO TV, Realitatea TV and Moldova 1 managed to stay relatively equidistant in relation to all competitors. Still, personally I had the impression these channels hosted electoral debates more out of duty, rather than willingly. This is mostly explained, probably, by the strict regulations for holding such TV events which do not allow TV channels and hosts to build interaction with and between candidates the way they want.

In lieu of conclusion

Once the runoff is over and the new President of Moldova has been inaugurated, the degree of antagonism within society, as well as in Moldovan press will probably fade. However, it is not so soon that we will get rid of selective and biased approach to media coverage of events, or political partisanship, or journalistic disregard for basic deontological principles. As long as press remains the step-daughter of politics Moldovans will be forced to keep ‘reading between the lines’.

The article was published within the Advocacy Campaigns Aimed at Improving Transparency of Media Ownership, Access to Information and promotion of EU values  and integration project, implemented by the IJC, which is, in its turn, part of the Moldova Partnerships for Sustainable Civil Society project, implemented by FHI 360.

This article is made possible by the generous support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The content are the responsibility of author and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.