Information warfare in Moldova: agents and modus operandi
● The channels of the immoderate Telegram platform have become fake news labs for traditional media stations in Moldova controlled by pro-Kremlin forces
● The new composition of the Audiovisual Council does not have a coherent policy to counteract the unlicensed activity of Sputnik Moldova on the territory of three states - Moldova, Ukraine, and Romania
Moldova is one of the most vulnerable states in the ex-Soviet space to Russian propaganda, a fact frequently reported in the international reports of Freedom House and other analysis centres that follow this phenomenon.
Propaganda is massive in traditional media – television, newspapers and websites – and, more recently, on social networks, especially Telegram, an unmoderated micro-blogging platform owned by Russian citizen Pavel Durov.
In the context of the international energy crisis that began in the autumn of 2021, the means of spreading false news have completed their range of narratives. Like the mass disconnection of household consumers from electricity and natural gas networks, cessation of electricity supply by the Moldovan Thermal Power Plant in Transnistria, etc.
Until the energy crisis, the central narratives of Russian propaganda were related to conspiracy theories about the pandemic, attacks on the West, considered degraded and immoral, and the promotion of Russia's image as the only remaining defender of Christian values.
Although it presents itself as an uncensored platform and is registered in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Telegram is lately the preferred social network of media institutions owned by state-owned companies in Russia and editorially controlled by the Kremlin.
On October 1, 2021, the EUvsDisinfo project of the European External Action Service signaled the massive presence of Russian state media institutions – Sputnik and Russia Today – on Pavel Durov's platform.
Pro-Kremlin media took the opportunity to strengthen their influence on Telegram because of the conditions established by Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube and Twitter against propaganda.
The co-operation of the Telegram in the showcase of Russian media institutions responsible for propaganda began in Moldova much earlier, on the eve of the local elections in Chisinau on November 20, 2019.
This activation of Russian propaganda on social media, according to WatchDog expert Valeriu Pasha, occurred during this period to compensate for the loss of space in mainstream media.
"Today, the Russian Media in Moldova is much less influential than it was five or ten years ago. So Russians are trying to move this information war in online," he observed.
Until the fall of 2019, the account of the largest Russian-language newspaper in Moldova Komsomolskaya Pravda v Moldove (KP), @KpMoldova, had a sporadic activity without distributing the media content published on other social networks.
On October 7, 2019, Komsomolka, without declaring special attention for Telegram, recorded the number of 100 (!) subscribers and expressed his gratitude for the collaboration of "Moldovan Telegram veterans" – @pmrmd, @pridnestrovec, @pandorapmr, @ResPublica, @Smirnov_Eyebrows, @frozenconflictmd, @auto_help_pmr. @romania_ru, @bananatomato, @moldovaelections.
As their names suggest, most of these channels cover events in the breakaway region of Transnistria.
The editor-in-chief of Komsomolskaya Pravda v Moldova, Sergei Churikov, a figure appearing on the Myrotvorets, a website which identifies anti-Ukranian propagandists, told reporters that the publication he runs has nothing to do with the Telegram channel @KpMoldova.
"They asked for the franchise and we offered it to them. There is no one to deal with this, to be honest," he explained the "unofficial" character of @KpMoldova.
The entry of politicians
During the same period, the head of state Igor Dodon, the Socialists Party ideologue Bogdan Tirdea, the Kremlin-affiliated political scientist Vladimir Bukarski – members of the Izborsk club, a Russian anti-liberal think tank – opened their Telegram channels.
Other Russian media institutions quickly followed the KP model in Moldova – Sputnik Moldova, Noi.md, Argumenty and Fakty, etc. –, which made and intensely promoted their Telegram accounts.
This trend is explained by Sergei Ciurikov as a reaction to Facebook's policy towards the Russian state media and the opportunity offered by Telegram - "lack of censorship".
At the end of 2019, in a balance sheet post, @KpMoldova enthusiastically informed its readers that the Telegram Platform "simply exploded with the abundance of author channels and, as a result, traditional media institutions rushed upon this whirlwind of information".
With these words, Komsomolka practically acknowledged that the traditional Russian media institutions had become a springboard for the false news launched by obscure sites and Telegram's author channels.
For example, in October 2021, the Moldovan Intelligence and Security Service found that KP became an amplifier for a fake news story launched in the context of the gas crisis by an obscure site, censor.net.
Churikov claims that, immediately after the publication of the SIS press release, the news taken from censor.net was deleted.
The fake news melting pot: how does it work?
Watchdog expert Valeriu Pasha noted that traditional Russian media institutions and Telegram author channels function as a laboratory in which fake news is invented.
"This is straightforward. A fake is launched on an anonymous Telegram channel. Then, it is taken over by other channels and is promoted through synchronized distribution, including those of traditional media institutions," the expert Valeriu Pasha told IWPR.
The expert mentioned "that the false information thus reaches the news both on the sites affiliated with the Socialists and in the mainstream."
Sergei Ciurikov admitted that the reporters of the publication he leads use the author's channels of Telegram as a first-hand source for writing news, only that this is due to the tendency to publish "information" first and because of the rush for the audience.
"Yes, I agree. There have been cases where we have made references to Telegram channels and the information has not been confirmed. In such cases, we have deleted the news from the site," he stated, emphasizing that this is because the editorial office does not have the time or capacity for fact-checking.
Disinformation has skyrocketed, including on the Telegram, near the 2020 presidential election.
Throughout the year and until the two rounds of the presidential election on November 1 and 15, Russian propaganda has worked hard for the pro-Russian Socialist Party leader, Igor Dodon, who ran against the pro-European candidate, Maia Sandu.
The most intensely promoted narrative was that Maia Sandu is just a "puppet of the West", a single woman without children who does not care about Moldova and can leave here at any time "only with a backpack".
Furthermore, European forces have been described as bringing war and destabilization to the country by pushing the country into NATO structures.
The propaganda also pedaled on false news about the closure of schools, hospitals, and churches by Maia Sandu and many priests from the Metropolitan Church of Chisinau and All Moldova, an administrative institution of the Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, also became pro-Dodon election agents.
"According to the Education Ministry's data, in 2012–2015, 119 schools were closed. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, the total number of institutions in 2009 was 1,667 units. In 2015, when Mrs Sandu left office, it was 1,446. That is, in just three years, we have obtained minus 221 schools, high schools, colleges and universities ", said the socialist deputy Bogdan Tirdea on his Telegram channel, quoted by the "First in Moldova" TV channel, owned by Russians citizens.
In reality, the number of schools in Moldova has indeed decreased, but this process has lasted for over 15 years. The school closing happened in the context where the number of students has halved in the last two decades amid a demographic crisis and a massive exodus from the country.
The Kremlin is ready to sponsor Russian propaganda in Moldova massively
The source of funding for this propaganda machine was revealed in the summer of 2021 by the German publication Bild.
The newspaper published a document of the Moldovan Intelligence and Security Service, SIS, about the Russian influence campaign for the presidential elections in Moldova.
The Intelligence and Security Service did not confirm for IWPR reporters the authenticity of the document published by the German daily BILD.
According to the SIS document, quoted by Bild, the Kremlin has invested a total of 11.4 million euros in the election campaign to make Igor Dodon again the president of Moldova for a second term.
In addition to the four million euros for "friendly candidates", 393,000 euros for foreign election observers, 500,000 euros for "correcting the results in polling stations", Moscow has set 528,750 euros for the production and broadcasting of media production and the operation of channels Telegram.
For each Telegram channel, the estimate of expenses provides for a "director" – paid with 1,000 euros per month – and two "journalists" – each with 400 euros per month.
Precisely targeted victims of misinformation
In addition to the media and social networks mentioned above, Moscow's most vocal cannon mouths in Chisinau include the radio station and website Sputnik Moldova, "First in Moldova", which broadcasts Pervii Kanal from Russia, NTV and RTR Moldova.
Sputnik Moldova covers the entire territory of Moldova, including the Gagauz region, inhabited by a predominantly pro-Russian population, the Transnistrian secessionist region, also controlled by the Kremlin, and eastern Romania and southern Ukraine's Odessa region.
According to Petru Macovei, Executive Director of the Independent Press Association, the channels and target audience of Sputnik Moldova are chosen based on a well-developed strategy.
"If we look at the polls about people's perceptions of the role of Russia and Putin, we notice that in Romania and Moldova, there are many people who, being victims of Russian propaganda, think in the spirit that the Kremlin wants," Macovei specified.
Although it broadcasts on the territory of three states, Sputnik Moldova does not have a license for its activity granted by the Chisinau authorities.
The regulator of the audio-video market in Moldova, the Audiovisual Council (CA), informed IWPR reporters that the International Press Agency and Sputnik Radio did not hold and do not hold any license that would legitimize a media activity in Moldova.
However, the Moldovan authorities have not imposed sanctions on Radio Sputnik because it "is not covered by the Code of Audiovisual Media Services".
Instead, Radio Sputnik's media products are broadcast by "Hit FM" and "Radio Alla".
The "Hit FM" license is held by "Radio Hit" SRL, while the "Radio Alla" license is held by "Radio Top" SRL. Both companies are run by Dan Lozovan and Tatiana Gumeni.
A report by Stratcom nominates Dan Lozovan, NATO's Center of Excellence for Strategic Communications, as a media owner close to the political class in the country.
The situation in which Sputnik Moldova operates is known to the Audiovisual Council since August 13, 2019.
The former member of the Council, Olga Gugutui, pointed out that Sputnik Moldova can be received on a frequency that belongs to "Hit FM" within a radius of about 70 kilometres in Romania.
On the other hand, Tatiana Gumeni told IWPR reporters that Radio Alla and Hit FM broadcast Sputnik Moldova news "perfectly legally".
"Radio Alla procures some of Radio Sputnik's broadcasts – news bulletins and entertainment programs.
These are broadcast daily between 8:00 and 12:00 and 17:00 and 20:00 if I'm not mistaken", she mentioned, noting that in the case of Hit FM "there is the same collaboration with Sputnik Moldova, only that partial".
However, the Independent Press Association executive director Petru Macovei disagrees with this practice. "Sputnik Moldova makes a local product of poor quality and 100% propaganda. Moreover, he also pays the radio stations to broadcast such a thing. These stations are pleased to take over the Russian propaganda," Macovei told IWPR reporters.
The representative of Hit FM referred to a Council decision of February 2018 approving the General Concept of the program service of the radio station Hit FM. This decision provides for the takeover of programs made by Russia Today, the founder of the Sputnik news agency.
Elected in a new composition at the end of 2021, the Audiovisual Council specified to the IWPR reporters that it plans, at the beginning of 2022, to monitor the observance of the legal provisions by the media service providers.
According to Petru Macovei, Sputnik Moldova broadcasts without a license is a big problem for Moldova. "The fact that the non-existent radio station, Sputnik Moldova, broadcasts on small stations such as Hit FM or others proves how weak the Moldovan state is to protect its information space," said Macovei.
He expressed hope that the Audiovisual Council's current composition would solve the problem. Sputnik Moldova administration has not answered the questions of the IWPR reporters.
Media vehicles for pro-Kremlin content
One of the primary vehicles of Russian propaganda in Moldova is the company PP Exclusiv Media SRL, which owns several pro-Russian media institutions and TV channels.
These include the online and print newspapers Argumenty i Fakty and Komsomolskaya Pravda and the NTV Moldova television station, which mainly broadcasts content taken from Moscow TV channels.
All this works in the interests of the pro-Russian forces, led by the Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova, PSRM. The owner of PP Exclusiv Media SRL is the deputy of the Socialists Party, Corneliu Furculita, the childhood friend of the former pro-Russian president, Igor Dodon, and his right hand in the area of politics and business.
Furculita and a group of other socialists were the protagonists of the biggest presidential scandal of 2016. The "Bahamas affair", as the press called it, revealed a 1.5 million euro sponsorship that Exclusiv Media received from an offshore company in the Bahamas controlled by Kremlin businessmen.
The money came in the form of a loan from Exclusiv Media to several persons in Dodon's first circle, after which these people generously financed the socialist leader's election campaign.
Exclusive Media was registered in 2011 and successively had several owners, including Irina Tsvic, the current director of TV6, controlled by Ilan Shor, a politician convicted of stealing a billion dollars from the Moldovan banking system between 2012–2014.
Irina Tsvic's mother, Margarita Tsvic, was married to former Sputnik Moldova manager Vladimir Novosadiuc. Both are listed in the Kroll report, an investigation that brought to light the actors involved in the "billion theft" case.
On November 27, 2015, Exclusiv Media was taken over by Corneliu Furculita, who owns it even now. Also, from July 2019, Exclusiv Media took over the company Komsomolskaya Pravda – Basarabia SRL, which operates the eponymous publication.
Both takeovers – PP Exclusiv Media SRL and Komsomolskaya Pravda – Basarabia SRL – took place a year ago on the eve of the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections in which pro-Russian leader Igor Dodon participated.
An important television from the PSRM props is the First in Moldova station, which broadcasts the media content of the Russian station Pervii Kanal. This television was launched one month before the presidential elections in November 2020, when the Audiovisual Council approved Telesistem TV SRL's request to change the name of the station Accent TV to Primul în Moldova.
In turn, Telesistem TV SRL has been owned since 2015 by businessman Vadim Chubara, another figure in the entourage of former President Dodon, through the Russian company Media Invest Service.
On December 27, 2019, the son of the former Attorney General of Russia, Igor Chaika, became the owner of 51 per cent of Media Invest Service, the other 49 percent of shares remaining in possession of Vadim Chubara.
This shareholding structure functioned until June 24, 2021, two weeks before the early parliamentary elections of July 11, when Igor Chaika became the majority owner with 99.9 percent, while Vadim Chubara retained 0.1 percent of the shareholding.
On July 7, 2021, three days before the election, Igor Chaika sold the majority stake – 99.98 percent – to Obedinennye Resursy.
Successively, Vadim Chubara ceded his share to the new majority owner on August 11, keeping the position of general manager until September 20, 2021. Thus, Media Invest Service is 100 percent owned by Obedinennye Resursy and has Natalia Ermilova as general manager.
Samvel Grigoryan and Nataliya Ermilova own Obedinennye Resursy.
According to Russian company records consulted by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, OCCRP, Samvel Grigoryan is also the director of Anna Nova LLC, a small Russian building materials company owned by Nova Holding Group, owned by the businessman Oleg Marinov.
The business newspaper Delovoy Petersburg estimated his fortune at over 4.5 billion Russian rubles (about 52 million euros). Samvel Grigoryan is also the manager of the Peterburgstroi company owned by the same Oleg Barinov.
Starting in October 2021, SIS publishes a list of sites that broadcast fake news that "affects the national security of the Republic of Moldova." Therefore, media service providers must block access to media outlets that broadcast fake news immediately.
However, the law does not apply to Kremlin-controlled media. Although they recognize the fake news and Russian propaganda as a threat to state security, the Moldovan authorities do not have a well-defined plan to combat misinformation.
"I think there should be a self-regulatory component in the press. The role of the Audiovisual Council must ensure compliance with the law," said Ruslan Michalevschi, a newly elected member of the Audiovisual Council.
Regarding the channels on Telegram, he said that "it is complicated to combat the phenomenon of misinformation because [...] the Internet domain is challenging to regulate and control".
Valeriu Pasha stated that all the propaganda activity done by the Russian media is based on some budgets "allocated to the black".
"In other words, It is an illegal activity that includes at least massive tax evasion. So checking the sources of funding would be a first step that would increase the integrity of the information space," he said.
Pasha also added that the media should sanction and present more cases of "fake news" that appeared and spread in the "mainstream". Media expert Victor Gotishan stated that, in the short term, there should be more restrictions.
"For example, recently, Germany was not afraid to ban the broadcasting of RT (Russia Today) in the country. I would also return to the anti-propaganda law. It is not exactly fair to have such a law, but when it comes to the protection of the information space, then in the short term, I do not see other solutions ", said Gotishan.
He concluded that regulators need to do their tasks in the media field concerning Audiovisual Council and SIS.
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