Presentation of the topic
Several media outlets wrote about the arrests of owners of the Caravita Company in the context of the fraud at Banca de Economii (BEM). Anticorruption prosecutors presented evidence to the press gathered as the result of searching the company’s offices and owners’ homes. According to the prosecutors, both Caravita and Business Estate Investment companies took loans from BEM that they then transferred into banks in Latvia. They presented the scheme of how BEM offered loans that became nonperforming. At first glance it seemed to be quite comprehensive news showing exactly and in detail who was guilty of the fraud at BEM, but the facts ended there.
The media outlets analyzed in this case study covered this topic differently: Some of them relied exclusively on the statements of the investigation bodies while others found a connection between this case and the negotiations that were happening at the time to form a governing coalition.
In an article titled “The CASE of fraud at BEM.DISCLOSURES following recent searches,” Publika.md presented the statement of Bogdan Zumbreanu, head of the Criminal Investigation Department of the National Anticorruption Center (NAC), who offered details based on the results of the searches and on material evidence. It was followed by the statement of prosecutor Adriana Betisor who said that, “Caravita and Business Estate Investment took loans of millions of lei from Banca de Economii and transferred them to the accounts of some companies in Latvian banks,” and presented schemes that illustrated how BEM disbursed loans that became nonperforming.
Other headlines in this series mentioned support by foreign investigators (“Detentions in the case of fraud at BEM! Prosecutors’ operations supported by foreign investigators”), and the fact that these companies were examined by Romanian investigators (“NAC Declarations: The companies searched are scrutinized by Romanian investigators (VIDEO)”).
Ziarul de Garda newspaper mentioned in the article titled “Vlad Filat’s godfather and nephew detained by the NAC for 72 hours” that at that time, “Negotiations were happening between the PD, PLDM and PL [Democratic Party, Liberal Democratic Party and Liberal Party] in order to form a governing coalition.” Timpul newspaper also wrote in the article “Vlad Filat’s godfather and nephew detained by the NAC for 72 hours. The FBI participated in the operation” that “…negotiations have been going on for several days in order to form a (pro-European) government, and the media mentioned Vlad Filat’s name as a future prime minister.”
Jurnal.md mentioned in the article titled “Filat’s godfather and nephew ARRESTED for 30 days” that “… according to prosecutors, the fraud scheme at Banca de Economii involved dozens of companies, including Caravita which specializes in land acquisition.” The publication also contained Vlad Filat’s reaction: He said that he “… understands the context,” and “I don’t believe in consequences.”
In the article titled “Former bosses of Banca de Economii, Ilan Shor and Viorel Barca, QUESTIONED repeatedly in the BEM case – VIDEO”, Protv.md said that, “The former bosses of Banca de Economii, Ilan Shor and Viorel Barca, were repeatedly interrogated by NAC prosecutors and officers in the case of Banca de Economii. The two are accused of breaking the rules of lending and of abuse of office and are under judicial control.” It also mentioned that “… by now, dozens of searches have been made, and 10 persons are accused in these cases. … former prime ministers Iurie Leanca and Chiril Gaburici, the vice-governor of the National Bank of Moldova, and Minister of Finance Anatol Arapu were heard as witnesses in this case.”
Problems of professional conduct
Competition, exclusiveness and promptness are some of the excuses invoked by the media industry in order to justify its professional deficiencies that can cause major changes of opinion in society with effects on politics, the economy or society. In the context of competition and promptness—elements specific to the media environment—media outlets sometimes speculate on topics of public interest, and as a result news becomes one-sided and unverified.
Now, returning to the topic:
The above-mentioned media outlets focused on marketing and wrote headlines that could increase audience size. The content of the material also focused on the political aspect of the problem, i.e. the fact that arrests were made during negotiations for creating a governing alliance, suggesting pressure on the PLDM, especially on its leader Vlad Filat.
Publika TV introduced some discordance by focusing on the criminal component—nonperforming loans—and offered details suggesting the guilt of those involved. The only news station in the country made no effort to learn more and became a mouthpiece for prosecutors. Publika TV presented the schemes through which loans were granted to the company in question and schemes for the international circulation of money. There was a surprising detail, however: The schemes presented by prosecutors indicated that the money borrowed was returned to Banca de Economii in a very short period.
One journalistic principle is to treat any information with caution, especially in dubious situations, and this situation, considering the latter detail, is one of them. Journalists did not emphasize the fact that money was returned but continued to focus on the context of nonperforming loans offered by BEM. Moreover, both Publika TV and Timpul newspaper offered a new detail, stating that investigation was supported by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), providing the public and the journalistic community with an example of manipulation of public opinion generated by a public authority. These outlets did not see fit to request the opinion of the American organization. Just a few hours later, the US Embassy in Chisinau denied it, demonstrating that both prosecutors and journalists acted incorrectly and presented misleading information.
No media outlet presented details about the loan agreement or the definition of nonperforming loans, i.e. the procedure for declaring a loan nonperforming. The public does not know the terms of the contract, when the money was borrowed, under what conditions, what the maturity term was, and most importantly how many times that company exceeded the loan payment deadlines. There is no alternative source that could provide details on this case. We do not know the bank’s reaction regarding these loans. The public was informed only from the prosecutors’ point of view.
Manipulation of public opinion begins when the context suggests that this company is the only one to blame for the disappearance of 1 billion euros from the Moldovan banking system. Media outlets did not offer the public the contrast between the 2.5 million euros attributed to Caravita and the remaining 997.5 million euros with unknown borrowers or destinations. At the same time, the media did not offer records showing the amounts withdrawn by other companies and what other important persons in Moldovan politics were involved in robbing BEM.
Pro TV offered a vague detail in this regard stating that, “Former bosses of Banca de Economii, Ilan Shor and Viorel Barca, were interrogated repeatedly by prosecutors and NAC officers in the case of Banca de Economii. The two are accused of breaking the rules of lending and of abuse of office and are under judicial control.” However, Pro TV stopped there presenting short and irrelevant records and maintaining the same superficial and sensational approach.
The preamble of the Moldovan Journalist’s Code of Ethics stipulates that a journalist does this job in order to serve the public interest, and according to the Law on Freedom of Expression, public interest is the interest of society (and not merely the curiosity of individuals) in the events related to the exercise of public power or in other issues that arouse the interest of society or of a part of it.
One of the unwritten principles of journalism is that the insistence by a public authority to excessively present an official point of view entails the risk of manipulation of public opinion. As a rule, it happens through press conferences or in smaller formats like briefings where journalists are invited in order to disseminate a certain kind of information. Without good professional experience, journalists are the first to be manipulated and then expose society to the same risk. In terms of ensuring the accuracy of information, the Code of Ethics addresses with maximum precision the manner in which a journalist should act in such a situation:
1. A journalist shall present information in an honest, balanced manner and only after having taken steps to verify it.
2. A journalist shall seek the views of all parties relevant to the topic.
3. A journalist shall verify, as a rule, information from two sources independent of one another.
4. A journalist shall publish information found to be true after verification.
In conclusion, we find that media outlets in Moldova presented the arrest of Caravita owners exclusively through the perspective of prosecutors without seeking alternative opinions or providing details that would convince the public that the decision of the investigative bodies was correct and justified. The media either focused on the political aspect of the problem or satisfied the interests of the institutions and persons interested in spreading this information.
The case study has been produced within the project "Freedom of expression and media development in Eastern and South-Eastern Europe and South Caucasus", implemented by IJC with support by Deutsche Welle Akademie and financed by German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development. The opinions expressed in this material belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the financer’s opinion.