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Anonymous Websites: What Is Their Goal and Who Stands Behind Them? Scheme.md Case

08 October 2019
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Attempt to wash people’s brains, information dumping or more blogging than journalism – this is how the journalists and the experts approached by Media-azi.md spoke about anonymous media websites. Once another website of this kind appeared in the local information space, i.e. Scheme.md, we tried to find out from the representatives of the Press Council and of other media organisations what they think about this phenomenon, why websites that pretend to be media websites prefer to act anonymously and to what extent they can be considered media outlets in the fullest sense of the word.

So far, Scheme.md managed to publish a number of exclusive materials about former officials: the former Prime Minister, Iurie Leanca, the former Mayor of Balti and Chair of ‘Partidul Nostru’ Party, Renato Usatii, the Head of the Legal Resources Center of Moldova, Vlad Gribincea, and other people known by the general public in Moldova.

Recently, Usatii stated during a press conference that the presidential forces, led by the unofficial leader of the Party of Socialists – Igor Dodon, would allegedly stand behind this portal through the journalist Gabriel Calin. Leanca suggested, via a post on social media, that as far as he was concerned, the information would come from the leader of the ‘Dignity and Truth’ Party, Andrei Nastase. Media-azi.md tried to find out, from official sources, who are the representatives of Scheme.md and on whose name it was registered.

How did Scheme.md appeared?

‘Printre show și pâine apar scheme’ [Among bread and circuses, schemes appear] – is the title given by the authors to the descriptive section of Scheme.md. ‘SCHEME.MD Project aims to become a quality journalistic product developed by a team with experience, which will stay, for now, in the shadow of its own materials. The need to publish investigations and analyzes in the format chosen by SCHEME.MD arises because of the excessive politicization of the topics of public interest’, mention the authors.

Also, the anonymous authors claim that the team of Scheme.md is part of an international investigation consortium and will inform the public in a correct way.

The website was created on 30 July 2019 and is hosted in Amsterdam.

Usatii claims that Dodon is part of the ‘scheme’

The latest publications on Scheme.md target various people affiliated to ‘Partidul Nostru’. The videos show party members, journalists, political scientists, who would have been paid by ‘Partidul Nostru’ (PN), and an audio recording shows how the former accountant of the party, Alexandru Atamanenco, allegedly tells how the money was divided within the political party. Also, it describes the scheme according to which the money from abroad are introduced in the country in order to cover the expenses of this political party.

According to PN Chair, Renato Usatii, the president Igor Dodon would stay behind these investigations and would act through the journalist Gabriel Calin. Usatii believes that the information was published in order to compromise him as a candidate in the October elections. Asked by newsmaker.md, the Press Service of the Presidency refused to comment on these statements. Gabriel Calin also did not say if the website Scheme.md was his. 


Photo: scheme.md

Leanca Case

Earlier, Sheme.md published data on the exits from and entries in the country of the former Prime Minister, Iurie Leanca, and about his intentions to get out of the country certain amounts of money. The website also published the registration numbers of the cars (partially rubbed) that he used to cross the border.

Iurie Leanca stated on a social network that the dissemination of this information abusively violated the protection of his personal data. Also, he stated that he would take all legal steps for those who illegally processed the data to be identified and held accountable and that he would sue the media that published false information.  

In fact, timpul.md portal also published an analysis after the publication of the first three materials, about Scheme.md website. The authors of the material stated that the article published by Scheme.md about Leanca contained a set of information that could be accessed by a restricted group of people from the Border Police, MIA, GP, NAC and SIS.

How did we search the ‘owner’ at MoldData

Media-azi.md contacted MoldData and requested the name of the person the domain Scheme.md was registered on. Our request was refused on the ground of the Law on Personal Data Protection. After we clarified once again that we needed this data for a journalistic investigation, we were told that ‘according to ccTLD.md Registry, the domain name of Scheme.md was registered online and the registrant was the individual Gabriel Calin’.

However, MoldData, in its answer, mentioned that the registration of the domain name was done online and that the data were introduced by the registrant of the domain name on its own accountability. This is why the information may not be real or accurate.

Whereas, according to MoldData, anyone could register this site on his/her own accountability, in the name of Gabriel Calin. We contacted the journalist Gabriel Calin, who had previously registered other news sites – livenews.md, today.md, and we asked him if he had anything to do with Scheme.md.


Site livenews.md. Photo: anticoruptie.md

The journalist did not confirm the information. On the contrary, he was outraged:
 
 

‘The use of personal data is illegal. If those from MoldData offered you this information that proves that I am the owner of this website, you can make reference to their information. I didn’t confirm it. I’m just missing for a trial’, told us Calin.

 

Note that previously, the names of domain owners were published on nic.md under the WHOIS heading, managed by MoldData, but once the General Regulation on Personal Data Protection entered into force, the access to them was restricted. However, MoldData announced that in the future, complete information would be published about legal entities who own domain names that are managed by the state-owned enterprise MoldData.

The public wants to know who stands behind the website

The expert in the field of personal data protection, Sergiu Bozianu, believes that the anonymous character of a media website cannot be justified by invoking the Law on Personal Data Protection. ‘In my opinion, the public wants to know who stands behind the website because any portal that calls itself a journalistic product, is an opinion maker’, claims Bozianu. He added that the anonymity of the person who owns a portal has nothing to do with the Press Law, according to which journalists have the right to get pseudonyms and not to reveal their real identity.

Another argument regarding the need to know who are the website owners is based on case law and on the right of citizens to defend themselves in the court. ‘Let’s assume that this portal violates my right to private life or damages my honour and my dignity. How can I sue them if they act anonymously? I cannot file a lawsuit against a person that does not exist or against a news portal whose address I don’t know. I need to know who is the individual or the legal entity that stands behind this website’, highlighted Bozianu.

‘It smells like conspiracy’

We also wanted to find out the opinion of the Chair of the Press Council about the ‘ghost’ websites, as well as about the portal Scheme.md.  Viorica Zaharia told us that, from what she could see, the website in question does not seem to be created by journalists, at least, not by professional journalists.

‘Such a “product” is created in order to publish information that is considered compromising, which normally, cannot be published by quality media outlets. Or, a well-respected media outlet will not publish approximate information, obviously biased and, practically, in all cases, without the reply of those targeted’, Viorica Zaharia believes.

As for Scheme.md, Viorica Zaharia added: ‘Why is this website anonymous? Because, it publishes defamatory information about certain persons and no one will assume the responsibility in case of a litigation. At the same time, this smells like conspiracy, which, some believe, attracts readers’, replied Zaharia.
 
According to the journalists, the media representatives should work with exclusively transparent methods, because ‘people need to know which are sources of the information they read, who and how they obtained and processed it, who assumes the responsibility for its accuracy. For this, each editorial should indicate the team members, the funding sources, etc. Otherwise, there is no credibility’, stressed the Chair of the Press Council.
 

‘This is not journalism, this is some kind of blogging’
 
In general, the media should be transparent, and if it is not, then it can no longer be identified as such, believes the investigation journalist from Rise Moldova, Dumitru Stoianov.

According to him, such websites can be rather considered blogs. ‘Well, the journalists are anonymous, but how do they work? Do they have an editor or just a person who writes? If there is only one journalist and no editor, it means that they have no checking system and this cannot be called journalism anymore, it is some kind of blogging’, pointed our Stoianov for Media-azi.md.

The journalist believes that sometimes, after a careful analysis of the content of these websites, one can figure out who funds them.

 
‘Anonymous websites? – They are trying to wash people’s brains’
 
The Executive Director of the Association of Independent Press (API), Petru Macovei, believes that anonymous websites are created to defame or discredit certain politicians, either from the Governance or from the opposition. Therefore, Macovei claims, such websites should be approached with great suspicion and the readers should not even consider them as a source of reliable information. ‘I noticed that this scheme was taken over in Moldova over a year ago, when all sorts of suspicious websites appeared and published fake news. Subsequently, media outlets that seemed serious started to take over these materials’, commented Petru Macovei.
 
API Executive Director suggests that such websites should not be considered as reliable media sources. ‘Definitely, anonymous websites, which do not provide a minimum of information about their authors, owners and editorial policy – cannot be considered as reliable sources of information. They are a reminiscence of the political control over communication sources and platforms. These are not media sources, some of them can be even called leaks, because it is about leaking information controlled by certain structures or persons in order to transmit certain messages, most often distorted, about someone or something’, said Macovei. According to him, if a website does not ensure the transparency of its owner and editorial team, it means that it is nothing more than an attempt to wash people’s brains’.

 
How do we regulate the field
 
How do we regulate such situations in the online media? Viorica Zaharia, the PC Chair, claims that we should apply traditional methods as regards the denunciation of manipulative information published by such websites. ‘Regulating the content on the Internet is always very risky. This is why so far, no one has found a formula that would work against anonymous websites with fake or manipulative information and would not hit those who work in good faith. For now, the most handy solution is to identify them depending on content quality and to denounce them publicly for being manipulative’, said Zaharia.
 
In his turn, Sergiu Bozianu, reminded that the Parliament examined a draft law, which provided for the need to register in a special register at the Public Services Agency all the media outlets, including the data about the person in whose name the online media outlet is registered. Bozianu added that he is currently working on a draft law, which would regulate the registration of media portals and the publication of information about their founders and team.