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Moldova: Broadcast Privatization -- Reform Or Censorship?


By Ryan Kennedy http://gdb.rferl.org/607D60E2-3CF3-47B4-8669-D92F5F279256_w203.gif --> http://gdb.rferl.org/607D60E2-3CF3-47B4-8669-D92F5F279256_mw800_mh600.gif (RFE/RL) February 21, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- For the past two months, a controversy has raged in Moldova over the closure of two popular public broadcasters in the capital Chisinau -- the Antena C radio station and the Euro TV channel. Is this a case of reforms needed to ensure the independence of the media, as the government has argued, or is it a blatant attempt to silence critical voices ahead of the May local elections?


The case filed by the staffs of Antena C and Euro TV was due to be heard in court on February 20. But the hearing was postponed for a week after the judge said he had fallen ill.


It's the fourth adjournment in a month for the case, which is coming under increasing scrutiny from the international community. Both the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the U.S. Embassy have released statements criticizing the handling of the closures of the two stations, as well as a second radio broadcaster, BlueStar at 103.5 FM, in the city of Balti.


Among the concerns was fear of the deterioration of the free press in Moldova ahead of local elections in May.


Ambassador Louis O'Neill, head of the OSCE mission to Moldova, said in a January 19 press release that "the broadcasting code adopted by the Moldovan parliament in 2006 provided the country with an excellent opportunity for real progress in creating a free and vibrant broadcasting landscape. It is disappointing to see that this chance may be lost due to missteps in the way the new legislation is being implemented."


And in an interview with RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service and the BBC conducted in Chisinau on February 16, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Colleen Graffy said the closures represent a serious challenge to media freedom.


"We believe that the development of free independent and pluralistic broadcasting media is vital for the establishment of a functioning democracy in the Republic of Moldova, and for its declared goal of European integration," Graffy said. "And therefore, examples such as Antena C and 103.5 FM give us grave concern."


Summary Dismissals


The fight over the broadcasters began on December 14, 2006, when the stations' directors, Antena C's Vasile State and Euro TV's Arcadie Gherasim, were dismissed and new directors were announced.


In response, the staff of the two stations interrupted an extraordinary session of the Chisinau Municipal Council (CMC) and threatened other acts of civil disobedience.


On December 16, Antena C -- which frequently aired reports critical of the government -- went off the air in the middle of a talk show debate about its reorganization, reportedly because of technical issues.


The CMC then opened bidding for Antena C on January 2. After some difficulty in acquiring bids, Dunitru Liuticov was announced as the winning bidder on January 17, offering 1.05 million Moldovan lei (about $80,000) for the station. On January 22 the sale was approved by the CMC, and the station was put back on the air on the 23rd.


Further controversy was sparked when, on February 5, the new director announced the liquidation of all departments and programs, adding that the station would broadcast news and music programs without DJs.


Under the new plan, the focus of the station will be on publicity, employing 40 public relations agents. According to a statement signed on February 7 by 10 media nongovernmental organizations in Moldova, this process would involve firing 25 of its 27 journalists.


U.S. State Department official Graffy said the changes at Antena C would deprive Moldovan audiences of access to a variety of news and information.


"We believe that this presents a serious challenge to freedom of the press in Moldova and to the diversity of opinion and ideas available to the Moldovan public," Graffy said. "The [U.S.] Embassy, together with members of the international community, really deplore this arbitrary manner in which the radio was reorganized and its staff fired."


Compliance with the Law...


The closure of Antena C and the other broadcasters had its roots in Moldova's adoption of a new Audiovisual Code, which came into force on August 18.


The code was a response to recommendations from the Council of Europe that the government construct measures to ensure the freedom of the media and unify media laws. These reforms were to include privatization of most public media outlets and further guarantees of independence for outlets which remained public.


The first draft code generally fit within these goals, but notably absent was any mention of local public media outlets. The Council of Europe noted this absence in their reports on the draft versions of the law, saying that the absence of regulation might result in the liquidation or privatization of local public stations.


This was especially troubling for the authors of the report in areas where there was not a sufficient market to support private stations. They recommended, as one option, "incorporating one or all of these public radio stations into TRM" -- the state-owned national radio-TV broadcaster, TeleRadio Moldova.


In responding to these recommendations, the final version of the Audiovisual Code left the CMC with the option of affiliating Antena C and Euro TV with TRM -- which has also been criticized by the OSCE for not being independent. Alternately, they could pass them into private property, using a public tender. The CMC decided they should be privatized.


Supporters of the decision argue that, in addition to complying with the Audiovisual Code, privatization would resolve what some suggested was a bias in Antena C's coverage of news and information. In particular, they accuse the station of being overly influenced by the former mayor of Chisinau, Serafim Urechean, who is now the head of the Moldova Noastra (Our Moldova) alliance in parliament.


As Antena C's new director, Veaceslav Satnic, stated, "[T]he product that was broadcast was not an objective, equidistant one, and pluralism of opinion was not respected."


In the case of BlueStar, the radio station saw its license revoked by the Council for Audiovisual Coordination (CCA), officially for failing to uphold the new guidelines.


CCA President Cornel Mihalache said the decision to give the frequency to a competitor station, City FM, was based in part on their adherence to a new mandate to produce a large part of their program in the state language.


"Their project represents what BlueStar couldn't provide for 10 years: a real local radio, with a lot of social and economic information. City FM is also ready to respect the language criteria."


BlueStar staff argues that its recent programming did respect the new language guidelines, and has accused the CCA of basing its decision on earlier programming logs, when the station provided a portion of its broadcast in Russian.


Ecaterina Cojocar, the director of BlueStar, says the CCA broke Moldovan law by failing to follow the proper procedure of notifying the station of perceived violations before revoking its license.


"Around 26 people are now without work," she said. "We want to see the projects presented by the competition, to judge if the CCA was correct in its decision. According to the law, we should have been warned first if we were failing to respect the rules. But in the last 10 years, we haven't received a single criticism."


...Or Manipulating Local Elections?


A number of other groups disagreed with the CMC decision. In a commentary, the news agency Info-Prim Neo called the reorganization "the most far-reaching attack on the press and journalists who are inconvenient to the ruling party since 2004" -- the year TRM was liquidated by the Moldovan parliament in a move critics said was an attempt to eliminate government critics.


The commentary accuses the ruling Communist and Christian Democratic coalition of trying to manipulate the outcome of the May 2007 local elections by eliminating some of the few media outlets that were critical of their policies.


In protest to what they labeled "antidemocratic proceedings" against Antena C and Euro TV, two members of the CMC left the Christian Democratic Popular Party.


On February 10, 11 media and human rights NGOs working on the Soros-funded project, "Monitoring of the Audiovisual Code Implementation," came out with their criticism of the implementation of the new Audiovisual Code.


Among their complaints was that the application of the new law to the Chisinau public stations Antena C and Euro TV had deprived the public of the right to information, ignored the community's opinion, and infringed on staff members rights.


It remains to be seen whether the lawsuit brought by Antena C and Euro TV staffers will reverse the fate of the broadcasters.


The plaintiffs hope the lawsuit, brought against the CMC and Chisinau's former interim mayor, Vasile Ursu, will overturn the decision to sell the media institutions and appoint new management.


They have also asked that proper working conditions be restored and that 100,000 Moldovan lei be paid to each claimant to repair moral damages and to develop the stations.


(Ryan Kennedy is a Ph.D candidate and a Fulbright researcher from Ohio State University who recently returned to the United States after living in Moldova.)

The Transdniester Conflict

Stela Jantuan, head of the Information, Analysis, and Prognosis Service of the Moldovan parliament (RFE/RL)

FROZEN CONFLICT: On January 11, 2006, RFE/RL's Washington office hosted a panel discussion on prospects for settling the Transdniester conflict. The roundtable featured STEFAN GLIGOR and STELA JANTUAN of the Information, Analysis, and Prognosis Service of the Moldovan parliament and ALEXANDRU FLENCHA, head of the information and analysis division of Moldova's Ministry of Reintegration.


LISTEN

Listen to the complete panel discussion (about 90 minutes):
Real Audio Windows Media

TALKS CONTINUE. The conflict between the Republic of Moldova and the unrecognized, separatist Transdniester Republic has festered for more than 15 years. A decade of talks supervised by the OSCE, Russia, and Ukraine have stagnated, while allegations mount concerning the involvement of Transdniester separatists in money-laundering and trafficking in arms, drugs, and human beings. What are the current prospects for settling this frozen conflict? (more)


ARCHIVE

An archive of RFE/RL's coverage of Transdniester.

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