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Moldova: Demonstrators, Journalists Call On Government To Abolish State Media Bias

Thousands of Moldovans are continuing their protests against the country's pro-Russian Communist government, despite a recent decision by authorities to scrap a measure to introduce the mandatory study of the Russian language in schools. Demonstrators are also protesting against what they call state television's biased coverage of their actions, while some 150 TV journalists are threatening to declare a general strike unless the station's management renounces "Soviet-type censorship."

Prague, 27 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A seven-week mass protest is continuing against Moldova's pro-Russian Communist government, with demonstrators and journalists alike now voicing their dissatisfaction about what they perceive as biased coverage by the state-controlled media.

Several thousand people gathered in downtown Chisinau, the capital, and marched toward the state television headquarters for a second day today after accusing the station's pro-Communist management of biased coverage of their daily protests.

Demonstrators shouted anti-Communist slogans and urged the station's management to "stop lying to the people."

"Stop lying to the people on television! One-two, one-two, let's dump the Communists!"

Opposition-called demonstrations began on 9 January to protest the government's decision to make Russian-language studies compulsory in the country's schools and to give Russian "special status" alongside Moldovan. Protesters say these efforts are attempts to "re-Russify" Moldova and to bring it back into Moscow's sphere of influence.

Before World War II, Moldova was part of Romania, and some 65 percent of its 4.5 million people speak what officially is called Moldovan -- virtually the same language as Romanian. The vast majority of Moldova's remaining citizens speak Russian.

Communist President Vladimir Voronin's government came to power in 2001 pledging to bring Moldova closer to Russia and to restore living standards to pre-independence levels. Moldova is arguably Europe's poorest country, with an average monthly salary of some $30.

Pro-Russian Communists, who control more than two-thirds of the Moldovan parliament's 101 seats, in January temporarily suspended the organizer of the protests -- the pro-Romanian Popular Party Christian Democratic (PPCD), which holds only 11 seats in parliament.

But the government -- faced with daily mass protests -- on 11 February lifted the ban on the PPCD, and on 22 February decided to scrap both the measure to introduce Russian as a mandatory subject in schools and to make Russian the country's second official language. They also renounced their intention to eliminate Romanian history classes.

Moreover, on 25 February Education Minister Ilie Vancea, who was largely seen as the driving force behind the measure to make Russian obligatory, publicly apologized before protesters for his actions, saying he had been pressured into making the decision by hard-line Communists.

President Voronin swiftly punished Vancea yesterday, replacing him with pro-Communist independent legislator Gheorghe Sima.

However, after the measures were retracted, the protesters yesterday shifted their focus toward the Communist government itself and the state-controlled media, which they say is broadcasting biased coverage of their actions.

Demonstrators came up with a statement calling for state radio and television management to stop what they say is the manipulation of public opinion and to respect the people's right to receive accurate information.

PPCD leader Iurie Rosca, who read the statement in public, also demanded that authorities give opposition parties access to the media: "We strongly protest against public radio and television censorship and demand that the management end disinformation and manipulation of public opinion and respect the people's constitutional right to be correctly informed. We demand access to radio and television for our [opposition] representatives."

Subsequently, in a surprise gesture, some 150 television journalists announced they were joining the protesters, who had gathered outside the heavily guarded television building.

In a petition addressed to the management, the journalists accused the government of trying to bring back "Soviet-era censorship" and to turn state television into "a tool to brainwash the public."

Angela Arama, one of the country's most popular television news anchors, also accused the Communist government of trying to demolish the country's democratic system and bring it back under Moscow's influence.

"We express our solidarity with the popular manifestations against Russification and the deliberate demolition of Moldova's democratic system," Arama said. "We demand that Moldovan radio and television abolish censorship and observe the citizens' right to accurate and unbiased information."

The journalists came up with a list of demands, which they sent to the station's management, as well as to parliament, the president, and the government. Among the most urgent demands, the reporters say they want authorities to immediately abolish what they called political censorship and respect journalists' right to free speech, as well as to stop "the forced Russification" of national radio and television, where they say Russian-language programs now have more broadcast time than those in Moldovan. The list also includes a long-term plan to "democratize and de-monopolize" state radio and television.

The journalists warned that unless authorities solve their most urgent demands in two weeks, they will declare a general strike. The station's management today said it is refusing to negotiate with the protesters.

Meanwhile, Moldova's embattled Communist rulers are showing signs of increasing concern. President Voronin has announced he will attend an extraordinary meeting of the radio and television management today. Also today, Interior Minister Vasile Draganel unexpectedly announced his resignation during a government meeting.

Draganel insisted his resignation is not connected to the ongoing anti-government protests. However, local commentators quoted by Reuters say Draganel tendered his resignation because he refused to crack down on the protesters as advised by other parliamentarians and government ministers.

Draganel's resignation occurred after Moldovan Prime Minister Vasile Tarlev yesterday made an unexpected visit to Moscow. According to official reports, Tarlev met with Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, with whom he discussed economic issues such as Moldova's $600 million energy debt to Russia and Moscow's offer to act as a "mediator" in Moldova's negotiations with the International Monetary Fund.

But analysts say Tarlev's impromptu trip to Moscow is also a sign that daily anti-Communist protests in Chisinau have not gone unnoticed by Moscow, which remains the Moldovan Communist government's main backer.