In the past, the diffusion of Russian media in Moldova was strictly controlled. After President Igor Dodon’s pro-Russian Party of Socialists (PSRM) came to power in June 2019, the rules of the game quickly changed.
As is the case in many countries, the media is often a battleground between opposing ideas and ideologies. In Moldova, this battle hinges on the influences of East and West. So, as Russia seeks to strengthen its media presence in the country, alarm bells have begun to ring for local analysts concerned about the threat of propaganda and concentration of media ownership.
Wedged in a nook between Ukraine to the north and Romania to the south, this former Soviet Union satellite state is arguably one of the latest proxies in renewed Cold War-era rivalries.
In the past, the Democratic Party used to strictly control the diffusion of Russian media in Moldova. After President Igor Dodon’s pro-Russian Party of Socialists (PSRM) came to power in June 2019, the rules of the game quickly changed.
A recalibration of Russian influence in the broadcast media began in earnest. In October 2019, Accent TV, a television network close to Dodon and PSRM, obtained the rights to rebroadcast Russia's Perviy Kanal, or Channel One, in Moldova.
Perviy Kanal is the Russian state broadcaster's flagship station and a mouthpiece of the Kremlin. For many years, the Moldovan broadcasting rights of this channel were in the hands of the now fugitive oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc, a grandee of the Democratic Party who is now facing legal difficulties in Russia, and his media empire.
On October 21, Moldova's Audiovisual Coordinating Council (CCA) unanimously approved a request from the PSRM-affiliated Accent TV to change its name to "Primul in Moldova" - or First in Moldova - echoing the name Perviy Kanal.
Businessman Igor Chaika, son of Russia’s former Prosecutor General, Yuri Chaika, bought Primul in mid-February 2020. As well as his media concern, Chaika is in close and open business relations with Dodon's brother, Alexandru Dodon, in the real estate and public services sectors.
When asked about the business relationship between his brother and Chaika by Moldova’s Ziarul de Garda newspaper, Dodon simply said: "It's his life, his activity, in which he acts as he sees fit, without me getting involved."
Creeping Russian influence is not only evident in Moldova’s broadcast media. Moscow also has a presence within the most read newspapers in the Russian language, as well as online websites and news portals with high audience figures like Sputnik.md, noi.md, point.md, and KP.md.
However, broadcast continues to be the most consumed and influential media; whoever holds the country’s TV stations controls people's perceptions. About two-thirds of their total number are in the hands of the most powerful local politicians who have various connections to Moscow.
To this end, media experts say the concentration of media ownership in Moldova has reached worrying levels.
Two companies control about 80 per cent of the media advertising market, Casa Media and Exclusive Sales House, close to both Plahotniuc and Dodon.
Casa Media has the exclusive right to sell the advertising space of Prime, Publika TV, Canal 2, Canal 3, CTC Moldova, Domashniy Family, N4, Noroc TV, REN Moldova, and Vocea Basarabiei television stations. Exclusive Sales House, in turn, has the same rights to sell advertising for NTV Moldova, Exclusive TV, and Primul in Moldova.
Television continues to be the most influential medium, with 80 per cent of Moldovans saying it was their primary source of news and information, according to a survey by the International Republican Institute (IRI) published in December 2019.
Social media was the next most consulted source nationwide with 35 per cent, followed by the internet (other than social media) on 33 per cent. Radio was close behind on 29 per cent.
In comparison, the print media accounted for just 11 per cent, making it the least consulted medium for information.
Preference of Russian programming
According to the same survey, which also analysed viewing habits, Moldovans preferred the entertainment programmes broadcast by Russian stations in Moldova: Prime had the largest audience share with 31 per cent.
The most recent survey of TV audience shares issued in June 2020 shows that 21 TV stations analysed by TV MR MDL, part of the international research network The Nielsen Company, accumulated a total average daily audience rating of 10.91 per cent.
Of the total, the television channels controlled directly or indirectly by Plahotniuc had the highest share with 3.83 per cent. Many of them rebroadcast Russian language content and have dual language Romanian and Russian news bulletins, TV show and movies.
Another group with a significant share of 2.62 per cent- consists of several televisions controlled by people affiliated with the socialists or President Igor Dodon.
The most-watched of these is Primul in Moldova (1.23 per cent), NTV Moldova (1.17 per cent) and with the lowest share, THT Exclusive TV (0.22 per cent).
However, RTR Moldova, a branch of the Moscow-based Russia-1 (Россия-1), the first channel of the Russian state television, has the biggest audience for a TV station in Moldova with a score of 1.72 out of 10.91 per cent.
Russia's views in the news
"The Russian-language press is financed from Russia in non-transparent ways. These media are close to the policy of pro-Russian politicians, such as President Dodon, hence the passivity of the authorities in combating Russian disinformation and propaganda," Cornelia Cozonac, the Director of the Centre for Investigative Journalism in Moldova, told Euronews.
She added that Moldova does not even have a strategy to combat foreign interference, nor clear policies for the protection of its informational space. The Russian-language press in Chisinau, for example, is mostly manipulative, Cozonac claimed. The messages broadcast and printed, she added, followed the same anti-West news lines from the Kremlin.
These include - but are not restricted to - the perception of the decadent West as morally bankrupt and devoid of faith in God, adopting anti-LGBT and anti-capitalist worldviews while also demonising Western philanthropists like George Soros or Bill Gates.
These points are not disguised entirely in news bulletins or political talk shows, however, but diffused subliminally in entertainment shows.
"I noticed a trend. Russian publications like Komsomolskaya Pravda or Sputnik have at least one anti-Romania news item, one anti-EU and one anti-US or anti-NATO news and something related to Ukraine per day," said Cozonac.
The marks of a hybrid war
For Angela Gramada, the director of Experts for Security and Global Affairs Association (ESGA), Russia’s soft power mechanisms and leverages are as powerful as they were 30 years ago when Moldova became independent in 1991.
"The content that is promoted by the Russian-language press makes us remain captive to a certain way of thinking," Gramada told Euronews.
She added that the qualitative transformation of the Moldovan way of thinking becomes more difficult in an environment where intensive propaganda is pervasive.
"Decision-makers in exchange for this barter control over people's minds for political support - benefit from the resources they need to access or stay in power," Gramada emphasised.
Russian propaganda is very powerful, Petru Macovei, the director of the Independent Press Association, contends.
"If God forbid, we would be in the situation of war like in Ukraine, the local Russian propaganda machine would have been fatal for us," said Macovei.
"If we conflicted with the Russian Federation, Russian propaganda would undoubtedly be the most vigorous cannon in this war," he concluded.
Although Romanian is the official state language in Moldova, all the citizens can switch to Russian in a blink of an eye.
The Russian Federation will spend about €1.3 billion from the national budget in 2020 to support its state-affiliated press.
Broadcaster Russia Today (RT), for example, will receive €325 million in funding from the budget. The TV station broadcasts in about 100 countries around the world.
One of the best ways to secure a more balanced media landscape in Moldova, researcher Nicolae Tibrigan told Euronews, is to boost the presence of Romanian-language media with support from Bucharest. Some 28 per cent of Moldovans still prefer to read Russian-only news.
"Thus, it would be possible to break the media monopoly in the digital sphere of the ‘Dodon media-holding,’ and attract the urban segment of Russian speakers, lately quite refractory to anti-Western narratives systematically launched by the Party of Socialists," said Tibrigan.