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Moldovan televisions: post-election metamorphoses

31 January 2020
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Both the beginning and the end of 2019 found us in electoral campaigns, each with its own peculiarities. Nevertheless, few people could have anticipated the political events of June 2019 though these events had a direct and almost immediate impact not only on the political configuration of the Republic of Moldova but also on the media sector. Despite being considered the most powerful owner of media outlets in recent years, the fact that Vlad Plahotniuc fled the country and the Democratic Party gave up power significantly weakened the strength of his holding company which had been built continuously and systematically for years. While it initially seemed that we might actually witness the demonopolization of the media sector and the creation of fair and free conditions for the development of a pluralist and balanced press, new media monopolization trends emerged very soon, especially in relation to the audiovisual sector. In other words, the transfer of power at the political level occurred in the media too. Subsequently, the two election campaigns of 2019 have made it clear that the Socialist Party (PSRM) will seek to strengthen its own media holding company rather than ensuring media pluralism and taking measures against the concentration of media ownership.    

General information

On the whole, the ten TV stations monitored by the Independent Journalism Center (IJC) in Moldova during the autumn election campaign provided air time to all candidates and broadcast their activities. Even though most election items were quotations of what candidates had said without in-depth analysis or the provision of relevant background information, we could say that in general, the audience had access to a plurality of voices. However, taken individually, the number of television stations that clearly revealed their political sympathies thus limiting the pluralism increased from one week to the next. Several important national stations got involved in political partisanship during the campaign for general local and new parliamentary elections. The analysis pointed out that the closer the election date was, the stronger was the bias, favor and/or disfavor of some audiovisual media service providers towards certain electoral contenders.

PSRM builds up its media Arsenal

To be precise, monitoring data showed that two TV stations affiliated with the PSRM (NTV Moldova and Accent TV) heavily promoted the candidate of this party for Mayor of Chisinau, both through the quantity of air time and portrayal in an only positive context. At the same time, other candidates were either ignored or mentioned briefly in neutral or negative lights on these stations. Last but not least, during the second round, the PSRM opponent was repeatedly disparaged on both TV stations which proves bias and prejudice. It is important to note in this context that on 21 October 2019 the National Broadcasting Regulatory Authority (BC) approved the request of Accent TV to change its name to Primul în Moldova subsequent to signing a contract to rebroadcast Russian station Pervîi Kanal programs from Moscow. At the beginning of August, the BC included Accent TV on the list of “must carry” stations to be broadcast compulsorily by all cable operators in the country. At the same time, Prime TV continues to broadcast certain products of Pervîi Kanal; it is not clear so far if this is legal or not.

Sor Political Party and the Democratic Party do not give up 

TV station Central Television was also biased during the election campaign. It is affiliated with the Sor Political Party according to the monitoring reports of civil society. In this case, partisanship was obviously in favor of this party’s candidates, especially disfavoring the two candidates who made it into the second round of elections for Chisinau City Hall. 

According to the same reports, two TV stations closely related to the Democratic Party (PDM)—Prime TV and Publika TV—were not so involved in political partisanship though they particularly disfavored the ACUM Bloc candidate for mayor of the capital city by selecting a negative context for any news that targeted him even though the number of attacks decreased considerably compared with previous election campaigns. During the second round, the two stations concentrated on PDM candidates running outside Chisinau and reported only briefly on their Chisinau candidate’s activities with no obvious bias. At the end of October, the current president of the PDM, Pavel Filip, explained this change during a TV show stating that the party had no more influence on any television station: “Unfortunately, we have no media resources. It is an issue that we will have to solve and see what media package we could have.” (TVR Moldova, 28 October 2019, ‘Punctul pe Azi’, min. 38).

From the camp of the (more) balanced broadcast

At the same time, the coverage of the candidates for Mayor of Chisinau by two other media service providers (RTR Moldova and Jurnal TV) was close to balanced; however, sometimes they did slightly favor or disfavor one of two contenders with the best chances either with expanded coverage or presenting their activities in a positive light.

As for the national public channel, monitoring data showed that it oscillated from balanced, quantitative coverage to slightly favoring the socialist candidate or ignoring several candidates in the first round.
At the same time, the IJC reports show that two regional TV stations (TV8 and ProTV Chisinau) were balanced in covering the election campaign, coming closest to meeting deontological standards and legal provisions.[1]

What should be done?

The authors of the monitoring reports recommended that TV stations cease appraising/commenting on election events and candidates in the news to ensure pluralism and diversity of opinion and that they should also offer the right to reply to all parties concerned in cases of conflict. At the same time, the BC was urged to develop intervention tools and to apply them promptly and efficiently when media service providers deviate from the legal provisions and also to rule on penalties proportionate to the frequency and degree of infringements.

In its turn, the BC sanctioned seven stations, including five of those monitored by the IJC, for violations of electoral and media legislation; however, the authority monitored only the six national service providers during the election campaign:[2] four TV stations and two radio stations. With a few exceptions, none of the six presented a real danger of contaminating the information space or the brains of their audiences with harmful products. The really important ones in this equation were left out of the broadcasting regulator’s monitoring, seriously violating both the legislation and media professionalism. Furthermore, when they were applied, the sanctions were disproportionate in relation to the number, frequency and degree of the violations committed. As a result, the penalties were rather ceremonial and were not taken seriously by the media service providers concerned.    

Lessons (still) to be learned

Thus, political partisanship, limited pluralism of opinions and the disfavoring of opponents continue to dominate the way election campaigns are covered by the TV stations that can shape public opinion. The change of dominant actors on the political scene seems to have deepened the bias of TV stations affiliated with these actors. We know in mathematics that one can change the order of the terms in a sum and the result will be the same. To get a different result, we need to change the terms, not just move them around. 

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