On July 24, 2015, a group of people led by Grigore Petrenco, the chairman of Our Home Moldova Party, protested on Bulgara Street in Chisinau next to an apartment building that is home to Vlad Plahotniuc, the deputy chairman of the Democratic Party (MP at the moment). Protesters were asking for an annulment of the decision to increase the tariff for electricity by 37% because they considered that this increase was for the benefit of intermediary companies allegedly controlled by Mr. Plahotniuc.
The majority of television stations produced news stories about the demonstration in which they announced that a group of protesters decided to camp overnight in tents next to Vlad Plahotniuc’s home. News stories on this topic appeared in the following days also because the protesters camped for a week.
Prime TV and Publika TV (in which Vlad Plahotniuc is a shareholder) produced news stories about the scene on Bulgara Street the day after tents were set up. The way in which they did that, however, did not meet the criteria for a news story that actually informs. On the contrary, there were some elements characteristic of disinformation and manipulation.
“Grigore Petrenco, chairman of Our Home Moldova Party and leader of the extremist group Antifa together with some other activists from that group threw smoke grenades and provoked clashes during an unauthorized protest last night,” stated the first part of a news story presented on Publika. It appears to be true because it is accompanied by a video showing smoke, people running and the politician Grigore Petrenco himself.
Deliberate disregard of the requirements for writing a news item
The story does not include information that could answer some of the mandatory questions on which a news item is supposed to be based: What happened? Where did it happen? Who did it? What were the consequences?
Part of the information was omitted, which is one of the techniques of manipulation. Viewers find out only that Mr. Petrenco, who is presented both as a party chairman and as an extremist—“leader of the extremist movement Antifa,” an organization about which other details are not provided—did something bad, i.e., threw smoke grenades. Why he did it and under what conditions the journalist does not say (it could have been a reaction to police actions). Ideally, Mr. Petrenco should have been asked about it on the spot or on the following day when the news story appeared. Why the unauthorized protest was organized the journalists did not mention either. Where the protest was organized is also unclear because the site “on a street in the center of the capital” is vague. The street could have been one where the Parliament, the Government, the Presidency or some ministry is located. The protesters did not, however, gather at a public building; they gathered next to the home of a politician—a fact that presents journalistic interest and a piece of information that is a must for a correct news story.
Manipulation through images and text
As a consequence, viewers did not receive some of the most important information: why people came out into the street; what displeased them. We found the answer in the newscasts on other television stations, i.e., that they were asking for an annulment of the increase in tariffs for electricity and gas. Thus, facts were obscured by offering other details aimed at distracting attention.
Images were also chosen so as not to show the protesters’ placards with various anti-Plahotniuc messages and pejorative drawings of Vlad Plahotniuc (Annexes 1 and 2).
“Several people, including journalists, suffered in clashes. Petrenco’s protesters entered into conflict with law enforcement officers and the guards of a security company (…),” stated the news Publika.md, but it did not include any quotes from persons who suffered injuries or any soundbites. In the news items ”Avocata Ana Ursachi și două echipe de jurnaliști, agresate în faţa casei lui Plahotniuc” published by Unimedia.md1 we found out that these “clashes” happened between protesters and the guards of a security company, Argus, which allegedly belongs to Vlad Plahotniuc.
Reference to anonymous analysts and substitution of the problem
Furthermore, the news on Publika TV attempted to distort the message and to discredit a person, another manipulation technique mentioned in Vladimir Volkoff’s book. It is entwined with a disinformation technique: spreading an idea or a rumor aimed at distracting attention from the essence of the problem, discrediting a person or a group and creating panic instead. Thus, attention is channeled in a different direction and, as a consequence, viewers/readers can form a negative attitude towards a certain person or group.
“Some political commentators have said that former Communist Party ideologue Marc Tkaciuk is behind these actions. Protests are beneficent, Andrei Andrievschi said, but they might be wrongly used by those who manage them from the shadows: ‘Marc Tkaciuk’s return from Russia did not accidentally coincide with the intention of former colleagues from the radical wing of the Communist Party to organize protests.’” This quote which appeared on Publika TV has no place in a professionally produced news story unless it is accompanied at the very least by the opinions of those involved. Moreover, viewers deserve to know who the quoted expert is and what his authority is (nothing is said about him in the story) and who other “analysts” are that “do not exclude the possibility that the violence of April 7, 2009 (when the Parliament and Presidency buildings were vandalized) may be repeated.”
The headline of the story is also manipulative and incomplete: “In the race for jail, Grigore Petrenco threw smoke grenades.” Without any reference in the text to police statements about how Petrenco’s actions can be qualified, the journalist nearly issues a verdict: Petrenco will go to jail.
Thus, this news story which should have announced that a group of people dissatisfied with an increase in tariffs protested next to the home of the politician they believed to be responsible for it “informed” viewers about something else: that an extremist politician, guided from the shadows by another one, conducted actions to destabilize the situation in the center of Chisinau and might generate a repeat of the “moment of April 7, 2009.” Starting with a public event, journalists deliberately distorted the message obscuring reality and the essence of the problem and spreading a preset, manipulative message.
Exploitation of the scandal to the detriment of the essence of the problem
Some media outlets (Agora and Unimedia, for example) treated this topic (on the first day) like any other news about a scandal and did not go for the “essence of the problem.” Thus, their postings did not include the answer to this question: Beyond scandal and incidents, why did that group of people protest? And why in that place, next to the home of a politician, instead of in a public square?2
The fact that the two portals were interested more in the element of scandal is also confirmed by their disregard of the rules for writing news: They describe the actions (which may be questionable) of some people, but the journalists failed to discuss them with those people. Agora, for example, made its posting by using bits of the material produced by TV stations Jurnal and Publika which did not contain the opinions of the persons mentioned in a negative context (though they should have according to journalistic rules). Furthermore, the journalists who posted the news on Agora and Unimedia did not attempt to contact the people they were writing about in order to verify facts or to ask for their reactions. It would have brought clarity to the topic and explained why certain things happened.
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.