Partially free and partially fair elections with press clearly dominated by a single party

The July 29 early parliamentary elections have been described as partially free and partially fair by international observers and unfair by national observers as the Communists Party (PCRM) subdued and monopolized the most important radio and TV stations in the country, dominating the media market and influencing the electorate.
Info-Prim Neo, 11 August 2009, 9:51

The situation of the press in Moldova, especially the electronic one, has constantly aroused concern among international officials and national experts, fact that was emphasized in practically every monitoring report prepared by observers from the Council of Europe or EU institutions. But the situation remained unchanged, as the former co-president of the EU-Moldova Cooperation Committee Marianne Mikko admitted shortly after the April 5 elections (on July 14 the post was taken over by Monica Macovei). At a news conference, Marianne Mikko said that despite efforts, Teleradio-Moldova Company (TRM), which is funded from the taxpayers' money, was not transformed into a really public institution. During the recent electoral campaign, the CE Secretary General Terry Davis also expressed concern about the behavior of the public broadcaster. In response, he received an impertinent message from the company's administration.

Unequal fight

The monitoring carried out before the campaign for the April 5 elections showed that the ruling Communists Party had control over most of the television channels with national or cvasinational coverage, such as Moldova 1, NIT, N4 and partially EU TV. The last three received a significant number of frequencies from the Broadcasting Coordination Council and could considerably extend the broadcast area. The same situation was witnessed at the radio stations Antena C and Radio Moldova, which also have the largest coverage in Moldova.

At the same time, the Opposition was attacked by these media outlets, which used practically every occasion to criticize especially the parliamentary parties and the parties that were likely to succeed in elections.

The period after the April 5 elections and the events that followed was marked by groundless accusations made even by journalists from the mentioned stations against the ‘Liberal Opposition' that, according to them, "set the Parliament and the Presidential Office on fire and attempted a coup". The given stations defied thus not only the deontological journalistic norms, but also the legal norms. The PCRM and the government monopolized massively the news bulletins, while the broadcast schedule was full of no comment-like films with the burning Parliament and the Presidential Office and the leaders of the Opposition in the foreground, including even a full-length film titled "Attack on Moldova", which was aired for numerous times on the TV channels. The same film was then used by the Communists in the campaign for the July 29 elections to make electoral propaganda.

Being under attack, the Opposition did not benefit from the right to reply. As a result, the public (electorate) was informed unilaterally from the very beginning, while the political parties had to fight from unequal positions in the electoral campaign.

Old situation, new techniques

During the campaign for the July 29 legislative elections, the outgoing president Vladimir Voronin, who is also the leader of the PCRM, called on TRM not to cover his work and the work of other officials involved in the election race (following probably the example of the former president of Russia Vladimir Putin). Apparently, TRM took the president's request into account. The other stations considered loyal to the PCRM adopted a similar behavior. Though the president and the ministers practically disappeared from the TV set, the newscasts centered on reports about the repair of kindergartens and he alth centers, gasification "with the support of the government" and other news stories favoring evidently the government and the ruling party, which already became traditional.

Another new manipulation technique was used in the elections part of the news bulletins. The mentioned media outlets reported largely on issues concerning the electoral campaign. Reporting on the conferences held by the Opposition, most of the times they did not inform about the topic of the conference, but tried to discredit the parties through unrelated, often tendentious thematic reports. At the same time, the events staged by the ruling party or the Christian Democratic People's Party (PPCD) were broadly reported on, often one-sidedly. It was clear that everything was done by order with a certain aim.

Another technique used in the campaign was the "two and more sources" principle. The statements made by representatives of the Opposition at news con ferences were broadcast for 20-30 seconds and then there followed the reply, usually of the PCRM or civil servants. At first sight, it did not seem wrong. But the reply was disproportional, two-three times longer than the information itself, which was often truncated. Besides, the given stations did not provide the right to reply when the Communists accused the Opposition of incorrect behavior or violations. Such a situation repeated for several times a day at 4-5 TV and radio stations during over a month. It created the impression that it was an element of a strategy.

In addition, the news items about the PCRM were broadcast at the end of the electoral program so that they left the last impression. The given stations reported on the field activities and meetings with voters only of the PCRM and the PPCD. The other parties were ignored or presented only in a bad light.

Thus, the electoral campaign was covered disproportionally by most of the radio stations and TV channels, both from quantitative and qualitative viewpoints. The Government benefited from more airtime than any of the parties and was clearly favored by the mentioned media outlets.

It should be noted that the debates were held without serious violations. These programs were freer than the debates from the previous campaign. Yet, grave infringements were committed as regards the electoral ads. Two newspapers with the PCRM's campaign message had been ‘the focus of attention' in the N4's program "Press Journal" practically during the whole electoral campaign. This is a serious and repeated violation. Also, electoral ads were broadcast during news programs, in breach of the legislation.

Where and how far?

The two electoral campaigns showed that the broadcasting legislation and the Election Code failed the test the second time during a year.

The Broadcasting Coordination Council issued only a statement, urging the broadcasters to be impartial, and held only a meeting issuing warnings, without analyzing the extent to which every broadcaster violated the legislation, which is unproductive. The Council did not fulfill its obligation to permanently monitor, inform and make the broadcasters work in compliance with the law. We cannot follow a campaign that lasts for 45 or 60 days without adopting a clear and objective position. It is violation of the Broadcasting Code, the Election Code and the regulations of the Central Election Commission and the Broadcasting Coordination Council, which turned out to inefficient.

Among the reasons for such a situation is first of all the regime that exerts great pressure on the mass media. The power monopolized the media outlets and adopted legislation favoring its control. Even if the society has fought for many years, the public broadcaster was not transformed into a really public institution. A part of the blame is bor e by the journalists, who accept to play the role of partisans of a certain political organization.

Where and how far will we go if the second electoral campaign in one year witnessed the same mistakes and violations? The previous experience is forgotten in time. But the fact that the recent lessons are not taken account of is worrisome.