Case study: How a prosecutor's wife tried to silence journalists

Author: Cornelia Cozonac
20/10/2021 49327

A journalistic investigation into how a well-known and controversial prosecutor resorted to a fictitious divorce in order to hide the properties which could not be justified from the salary of the prosecutor's office, turned for the Center for Investigative Journalism, the author of the investigation and a civic activist, in a fight for several years with state institutions and the prosecutor's wife, to defend our rights. The prosecutor's wife, a lawyer by profession, literally harassed us right from the first documents. She wrote complaints to several state institutions, to the Press Council, to the Police and the Prosecutor's Office, she sued us. Some institutions managed the complaints of the prosecutor's wife at the stage when we were barely documenting the case. Others have started criminal proceedings and even criminal cases. We wrote dozens of explanations, we wasted time in meetings at the police and in the courts.

Work on the investigation „VIDEO // The fictitious divorce and the hidden property of prosecutor Igor Popa", published in July 2020, started late in 2018. The reporter of the Center for Investigative Journalism, Julieta Savițchi, and the activist Anatol Matasaru started the documentation for an investigation, assuming that the head of the Ciocana office of the Chisinau Prosecutor's Office, Igor Popa, did not declare real estate in a residential neighborhood in central Chisinau where he lived with his family, but also other properties registered on his wife’s name, lawyer Ala Popa.

The head of the Ciocana office of the Chisinau Prosecutor's Office, Igor Popa, former deputy general prosecutor during the PDM government and head of section during the communist government, came to the attention of the media after the events of April 7-8, 2009, when he called judges to judge in police stations young protesters, tortured by police. This is expressly mentioned in the report of the Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry to investigate the events of April 7, 2009. Prosecutor Popa was also targeted in other investigations which were carried out by the Center for Investigative Journalism.

Reporters found that the two divorced. A former prosecutor was surprised about the divorce and reacted on a social network saying that he knows Popa as a good family man and that he had just flown in a plane with the prosecutor's family to a destination and nothing suggested that they were in the process of divorce. All these fueled reporters' assumption that something was wrong with this divorce.

Thus, it started the documentation in the Cadaster of Real Estate, which the Center for Investigative Journalism has signed a contract with, for accessing information from this database and for which an amount of over 1,000 lei is paid monthly.

To document the topic, reporters used several methods, including personal observation. For a period of a few months, they went to the residential neighborhood on Bernardazzi Str. for several days to document and to see Prosecutor Popa. They had to pretend to be potential buyers looking for an apartment in that block of flats or to disguise themselves as garbage collectors to find out more details for the investigation, after which they went and filmed, and introduced themselves as journalists.


Ping-pong with the National Center for Personal Data Protection

Shortly after we made the first checks at the Cadastre regarding the properties of prosecutor Popa and his ex-wife, the lawyer Ana Popa sent a complaint to the Center for Investigative Journalism and requested explanation for the reason we checked the properties at the Cadastre. We explained to her that we are journalists and we do our job, we document it in journalistic investigations.

In December 2019, the National Center for the Personal Data Protection summoned the Center for Investigative Journalism, and we were asked to explain the purpose for which we verified the data on the properties owned by Ala Popa. We explained that we do our job, we document an information in which we check the assumptions that a person holding a public office would not have declared her properties.

We confirm the access to the Register of records of personal data, stored in automated information resources, as well as the Register of real estate, which contributed to the identification of the authorized user, the purpose and legal basis for processing personal data.

The explanation which we sent at the beginning of January 2020 that checking in various databases is part of the process of documenting a journalistic investigation and, in fact, is part of the work of the journalist, and that, under the law, journalists are not forced to explain the basis of accessing databases with public information, was not enough for the CNPDCP.

In the same month, on January 30, the CNPDCP sent a new summons, written on several pages, asking us to prove again that accessing the data from the Cadastre were used for journalistic purposes and to present the published journalistic material. Moreover, we are required, among other things, to present, on paper, "the duly authenticated copy of the entries in the Register of evidence of access to personal data stored in the Registry of Real Estate."

It is difficult to understand what the institution wants, but we repeatedly explain to the Center for Personal Data Protection what the journalistic work consists of and that the verification of some data does not imply the publication of a journalistic material immediately the next day. The process of documenting a journalistic investigation can take months and even years to complete with the publication of a text.

We also explain that the verification of some data does not necessarily imply the publication of a journalistic material. The assumptions from which we start a journalistic investigation may not come true and then we do not publish the journalistic material, but in order to confirm it, we have to document and to check the data from several sources.

We also tell them that we access cadastral data in electronic format from the Real Estate Register which is kept by the data operator - Public Services Agency (ASP), and the requirement to keep records of accesses on paper is illegal. However, no law / normative act in the Republic of Moldova provides for the obligation to a media institution and / or other individual or legal person to keep records of accesses from registers on paper.

We admit that the CNPDCP was confused by a media institution with the police or prosecutor's office, which are probably obliged by law to keep this record on paper. Or we admit that the representatives of CNPDCP, who managed our case, did not even make documentations at the Cadastre and they do not know that you can open the database and see who owns the properties, and for documentation, you can download the extract of the property. The accesses are accounted in the Registry of Real Estate at ASP. In order to present the necessary explanations, we had to read the laws and to come up with plausible arguments.


"Journalists violated the law"

On March 24, 2020, the Center for Personal Data Protection (CNPDCP) issues a decision and found that journalists from the Center for Investigative Journalism violated the Law on the Personal Data Protection and the Journalist Code of Ethics when they performed checks at Cadastre.

The decision is lined up on 18 pages (!). CNPDCP finds that the journalists did not prove that the data about the properties of Ala Popa were checked for journalistic purposes, because "neither investigation nor other journalistic material" was published. The institution also requests, in the same decision, the Press Council to take action, to investigate the case and to inform all the media about the problem. 

The full document is below:


The Center for Investigative Journalism described the decision of the Center for Personal Data Protection as a dangerous precedent for freedom of the media, and the actions of lawyer Ala Popa - an attempt to harass journalists and to silence them.

We remind you that at that time, the CIJM reporters had advanced in documenting the investigation. They had obtained several confirmations that prosecutor Popa lives with his family in the block of flats in the residential neighborhood on Bernardazzi Str.

They managed to document that he comes in the evening with the company car, which he keeps in the parking lot of the block. Likewise, they managed to document the income of the lawyer Ala Popa, which was quite modest, but nevertheless she bought two apartments in the residential district, where the prices are among the highest in Chisinau and several real estate, immediately after the divorce. So, it seems, the lawyer's interest was to intimidate us and to make us give up the investigation.


The lawyer's findings: Why the CNPDCP's decision is unfounded and against the law

The lawyer of the Center for Investigative Journalism, Sergiu Bozianu, described the CNPDCP's decision as contrary to the law. Here is how the lawyer explains:

“The National Center for Personal Data Protection represents a public authority whose tasks and responsibilities include ensuring the implementation of the provisions of Law no. 133/2011 on the personal data protection. Therefore, this public institution is a control body, which has coercive and sanctioning measures.

Lately, several public institutions, including the CNPDCP, erroneously assess the purpose of Law no. 133/2011 as to protect data, which for most of the institutions concerned would be equal not only to maintaining confidentiality, but especially to ensuring intangibility. Therefore, the hard fight is to ensure the prohibitions of access to and use of data, there is a concept promoted quite insistently, such as personal data should not be provided to anyone, should be kept carefully, and in case someone wants to access them, will have to bring an exorbitant number of legal explanations and references, but which will not effectively guarantee access to these data.

The erroneous approach of the legal requirements provided by Law no. 133/2011 worries both journalists, public authorities and institutions and private companies. Lately, more and more often, even this decision is an eloquent example, when excessive zeal and tectonic efforts are made, relying on the quantitative and not qualitative and logical aspect of the rules of law, although no excerpts have been listed from canonical customs, in order to claim that by accessing the data from the Real Estate Registry by some journalists, a right to privacy would have been violated.

To the ignorance of some, as provided by Law no. 133/2011, data protection does not imply the absolute intangibility of these data, but involves the collection and use of this information according to the rules of law, which are specific to each of the individuals: journalists, police, electoral bodies, healthcare and educational staff, etc.

If we are to accept the CNPDCP's reasoning set out in this decision, the restrictions and limitations generated as a result of the global COVID 19 pandemic in relation to fundamental human rights would seem naive.

Therefore, Law no. 133/2011 and art. 10 states very clearly that when data are collected for journalistic purposes (according to the ECHR the notion of journalist must be treated in a broad sense), and the data refer to the public person, public facts and / or are closely related to public activities, the data can be accessed and used, under the terms of the Law on Freedom of Expression.

The Law on Freedom of Expression very clearly establishes the procedure for defending the right to privacy, and the only competent public authority in this regard is the court.

Therefore, legal acrobatics with traditional national specifics were operated in this decision. Below I will list only some aspects that unequivocally prove the unfounded and illegal character of this decision: CNPDCP violated its own practice of examining and assessing cases in terms of freedom of expression; the CNPDCP has assumed the competence of an institution that would have the right to assess the existence or non-existence of the public interest; CNPDCP replaced the attributions of the Press Council by the erroneous assessment of the requirements of the Journalist Code of Ethics, considering that they were violated, and although the Press Council found the lack of violation; it was claimed that if the journalistic investigation was not published then the checks performed with access to personal data are ILLEGAL. The arguments presented in the decision are distorted and are contrary to the provisions of Law no. 133/2011 and the Law on freedom of expression but also the practice of the ECHR;

The formal and procedural requirements were not observed: initiating the control (legal term exceeded), carrying out the control ( legal term exceeded), performing the control (contrary to the own procedures approved by the CNPDCP Order), the administrative act (decision) was issued  contrary to the law; the administrative act contained the guilt in contravention order with the violation of the right to defense of the person; the provisions of an obsolete / expired act were applied - Government Decision no. 1123/2010.




   Press Council: Accessing personal data is part of the journalists ‘activity   

The Press Council complied with the CNPDCP's request and examined, on April 7, 2020, the case notified by this institution. The Press Council found that the actions of the reporters of the Center for Investigative Journalism, targeted in the CNPDCP decision, "did not violate the deontological norms or good journalistic practices". Also, the Press Council informed CNPDCP that accessing different types of personal data is part of the current activity of journalists who document materials and check information.

"The Press Council informs the state institutions that accessing personal data is part of the current activity of journalists who document materials and check the information. This tool is an intrinsic act of journalism and a proof of professionalism and good faith. Or, this action is an effort to find out the truth and, respectively, to avoid the publication of false or erroneous information”, reads the decision of the Press Council.

The full text can be read here.


New complaints after the publication of the investigation

On July 22, 2020, the Center for Investigative Journalism published the investigation „VIDEO // The fictitious divorce and the hidden property of prosecutor Igor Popa" after they had seen prosecutor Popa taking the garbage to the dumpsters in the morning, after which he left for work by car.

Again complaints. Ala Popa sent us a prior request with several questions to answer:

The Center for Investigative Journalism answers each question in detail for the lawyer Ala Popa:


The prosecutor's wife is not happy with the answer from the Center for Investigative Journalism and submits a notification to the Press Council. Her complaint, which we publish below, abounds in accusations, attacks on the person and bad words about the authors of the material.

The Press Council sends us a notification about the complaint of Ala Popa's lawyer and requests explanations both from the author Julieta Savițchi and from the Center for Investigative Journalism:

And again we write explanations. We also send to the Press Council answers signed by the author Julieta Savițchi and by the management of the Center for Investigative Journalism. And we explain again in detail what was the purpose of the investigation, how we documented, what methods we used, how we verified the information about the properties of the Popa family.

The Press Council meeting in August 2020 decided not to examine Ala Popa's complaint, as petitions were also filed in court.

CNPCDP does not reply to complaints any more


Ala Popa again filed a complaint with the Center for Personal Data Protection, to establish the legality of the journalistic investigation, published on July 22, 2020. This time, Ala Popa asks to be sanctioned the author of the investigation Julieta Savițchi, activist Anatol Matasaru , who filmed for investigation, and the president of the Center for Investigative Journalism Cornelia Cozonac, but also the organization - the Center for Investigative Journalism. CNPCDP employees have to examine our case again. The institution did not ask us for explanations.

On October 9, 2020, the Center for Personal Data Protection found "failure to violate the provisions of Law no. 133/2011 on the protection of personal data by the Center for Investigative Journalism, Cornelia Cozonac, Julieta Savitchi and Anatol Matasaru." In Decision no. 285, issued on October 9, 2020, CNPCDP also indicates that this complaint does not fall within its competence, but within the competence of law enforcement bodies”.

Criminal case against activist Anatol Matasaru       

Meanwhile, the lawyer Ala Popa also acts in the law enforcement bodies. She files criminal complaints against activist Anatol Matasaru, who filmed for Anticoruptie.md in the investigation about the undeclared properties of prosecutor Popa. She filed a request for the initiation of criminal proceedings against Matasaru at the Prosecutor's office and another at the Chisinau Court for violating the right to the protection of one’s image.

The Chisinau court rejected as unfounded the request of the lawyer Ala Popa. She requested from the activist Anatol Matasaru a damage of 15,000 lei for the alleged collection and publication of personal information.

"The lawsuit filed by Popa Ala against Matasaru Anatol regarding the finding of violation of the right to the protection of one’s image, criminal liability, collection of non-pecuniary damage, forcing the deletion of video sequences and collection of court costs as unfounded, is rejected," reads the ruling of the decision of the court of first instance.

Popa requested in court "the finding of the violation of the legal right to the protection of her own image, to the respect of privacy and to personal data protection". She invoked in her request that Anatol Matasaru would have followed her from December 20, 2018 until August 2019 and that he would have tried "using various tricks to pass the security service" to record her. Ala Popa also complained that the activist published on June 27, 2019 a video about the resignation of Nicolae Chitoroaga from the seat of head of the Prosecutor's Office for Combating Organized Crime and Special Cases in which she also appears in her car.

In addition to the civil court, the lawyer Popa also complained to the Police, invoking the same accusations against Matasaru. Based on Ala Popa's complaint, the police filed a criminal case against the activist based on article 177 of the Criminal Code, for violating the inviolability of personal life. The case is managed by the Chisinau Court.


Criminal trial against the Center for Investigative Journalism

In November 2020, Ala Popa  filed a criminal complaint against the Center for Investigative Journalism at the Centru Police Inspectorate, claiming the illegal collection and unauthorized dissemination by the Center for Investigative Journalism  of information about personal life (of Ala Popa), which is personal secret". The police started a criminal trial in which they heard Ala Popa as a victim, they also questioned some guards from the residential neighborhood where she lives and with whom the CIJM reporters contacted in the process of documentation. Also, the police officers who managed the case requested the decisions of the National Center for Personal Data Protection.

The criminal trial no. 20200101462 of November 4, 2020 lasted almost a year and was examined in the light of the provisions of art. 177 of the Criminal Code, according to which the legislator establishes criminal liability for "violation of the inviolability of personal life", ie "illegal collection or knowingly dissemination of information, protected by law, about personal life, which is personal or family secret of another person, without her consent. It should be noted that during the criminal trial the police did their job in the absence of any explanations from us.

On September 20, 2021, the prosecutor Sergiu Harea from the Centru Prosecutor's Office signed the ordinance not to start the criminal investigation against the Center for Investigative Journalism. He accepted the report with the proposal not to start the criminal investigation, presented by the criminal investigation officer of the Criminal Investigation Section of the Centru Police Inspectorate of the Chisinau Police Department, Mihaela Crulicovschi.

The reason for not starting the criminal investigation within the criminal process no. 20200101462 was that "the deed does not meet the elements of the crime". Thus, the criminal case against the Center for Investigative Journalism was closed. Below we publish the text of the Ordinance for closing the criminal case:


CIJM case against CNPDP, removed

The Center for Investigative Journalism challenged in court the decision no. 91 issued by the National Center for Personal Data Protection, qualifying it as abusive and illegal and aims at intimidating journalists. After a year in which the trial did not advance at all, either the judge recused himself because of a complaint filed against him by Ala Popa or it was still dragged because of the pandemic. In July 2021, the case was removed because of non-compliance with the pre-proceeding process. Under the law, we had to first submit a preliminary application to the CNPDCP with our claims and then go to court.

If you look closely at the CNPDCP decision of March 24, 2020, the institution directly shows that if we do not agree with the decision, we can challenge it within 30 days at the Riscani Court, so we did it.

In court we found that not only our case failed on the grounds that we did not follow the procedure. Analyzing the judicial practice in relation to the Center for the Protection of Personal Data, we found that most cases on CNPDCP decisions that reach the court have the same outcome. Therefore, that institution is particularly wrong to indicate that its decisions can be challenged in court, thus ensuring that it will delay the proceedings and that some institutions or individuals will drop the proceedings along the way.

This is not the case with the CIJM. Even though the CNPDCP has changed its position in the meantime and probably realized the investigative journalistic work (this whole epic also has a positive effect), the decision of March 24, 2020 was not canceled. We will insist that the CNPDCP admits the decision of March 24, 2020 as contrary to the law and cancels it. We will resume the process from the beginning, but they will persevere.

The investigation was completed under the project " Mobilizing Civil Society to Support Judicial Integrity in the Republic of Moldova", carried out by the Center for Investigative Journalism and Freedom House, with financial support of the US State Department.

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