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EU Ambassador Peter Michalko: “If the BC does not live up to expectations, it becomes a completely untrustworthy institution”

18 February 2021
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Moldova should strengthen its capacity to counter disinformation and fake news, and any legislative changes should be made only through public consultations and compliance with standards on freedom of expression, says Peter Michalko, head of the European Union Delegation in Chisinau. In an interview with Media Azi, the EU ambassador also spoke about faults in the work of the Broadcasting Council and the unfulfilled commitments of the Chicu Government regarding the evaluation of this authority, the lack of support for print media from the authorities, and the “only half-confirmed” cartel on the advertising market.
 
Media Azi: You have been in Chisinau for more than three years as Ambassador of the European Union. What problems of the media have you noticed?

Peter Michalko: In fact, I have been in contact with Moldova, including the media, for a quarter of a century, and throughout this period, I turned for information to local journalistic sources and I have observed developments in the field. In Moldova, there is a part of professional, independent media, which strives to respect the rules and principles of fair journalism, dedicated to people, which informs the public objectively and at the same time keeps an eye on politicians in terms of policy implementation and use of public money.

On the other hand, there are also media that present things strictly from a political and unilateral point of view, journalists attached to concrete political exponents, sources in which influence from particular interests is obvious. In this case, the question arises whether this is journalism or propaganda, that Agitroprop [from the  combination of Russian words for agitation and propaganda – unofficial name of the Agitation and Propaganda Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union – editor’s note], which existed in Soviet times and has now become an even more powerful tool for some, promoting certain interests. This segment of the media landscape is a source of disinformation and a worrying factor.

However, citizens show very clearly that they want information from independent and objective sources, and independent media have an audience here. However, this audience can only exist when you give people the access they need. I am saying this as I remember situations when some distributors stopped broadcasting certain channels or when TV channels were not included in the program schedule or were not broadcast in regions.

Media Azi: You have repeatedly expressed regret at the disappearance or decrease of the number of newspapers. At the Media Forum last autumn, you also said that both the state and the Post of Moldova had a role in liquidating print media. What did you mean? Do you think that the Moldovan public still needs print media?

Peter Michalko: I think that with the modernization of the media, there is also room for print media. If you go to a European country, you will find newspapers at newsstands. Every day – that’s why they are called daily newspapers. It was a reality for Moldova, too, ten years ago, and now it is no more. Many print media outlets have disappeared. On the one hand, it is probably due to the development of the market. On the other hand, many voices openly say that the state did not create the necessary conditions for the media to survive and be independent. Media representatives talk about cases when newspaper distribution was stopped or prices for this service were exorbitant, so it became economically impossible for newspapers to survive. The state has not created economic conditions for print media to survive – I mean, for example, lower VAT on paper and the like. However, the population is accustomed to print media, especially in rural areas, and the lack of it for many people means lack of information.

Media Azi: Regarding the state’s involvement in the media field and in the context of the infodemia related to Covid-19, in March 2020, the Information and Security Service announced that it was blocking access to a number of websites that allegedly spread false information about the coronavirus. In your opinion, how proportionate are such measures?

Peter Michalko: The fight against fake news and disinformation is very important because these phenomena pose risks to state security, especially in crisis situations – if you mean the pandemic – when it comes to the health of citizens, the functioning state structures that have to deal with pandemic management. In this sense, it is certainly important that those who spread disinformation are caught, and there are competent institutions that can do it.

At the same time, the existence of objective and independent journalism is crucial – a guarantee that information will be presented to citizens correctly, that it will be verified, because this is a requirement of ethics. Good journalists follow these rules and check information before spreading it. But let’s not forget that they must be given access to information. The pandemic has shown once again that only through transparency in everything related to the health crisis, its management, and the actions of state institutions, society can see, understand, and support how things are managed. There was also a very clear message from the European Union – the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs said the pandemic is not and should not be an opportunity for anyone to try to limit journalists’ rights and press freedom.

Media Azi: Do you think that the “fight” against fake news should be regulated?

Peter Michalko: If it is found that the legislation needs to be detailed as part of the fight against disinformation, of course it is a possible measure, but any change must respect and maintain the standards of press freedom.

Media Azi: Some media experts warn that there could be risks of excessive state control…

Peter Michalko: With independent justice, society can be sure that there will be no abuse. Here we are talking about the functioning of the checks and balances1 principle, when citizens can be sure that laws will be applied properly. Unfortunately, we see in the economy and other fields that if the system of law and justice is not independent, any law can be used as a blow against society – be it journalists, companies, and so on.

Media Azi: Following the approval of amendments to the Code of Audiovisual Media Services regarding the return of programs from Russia and other countries, the EU delegation in Moldova reacted by saying that any changes related to the media should be based on extensive consultations and that such changes would leave the country without protection against disinformation and propaganda. On the other hand, even when the approval of the so-called anti-propaganda law was discussed, there were critical opinions both in Chisinau and abroad regarding the restriction of some programs. Should we return to the provisions that have been repealed?

Peter Michalko: It is certain that some disinformation comes from external sources, targeting Moldova and its citizens. It must be stopped, and there must be all the necessary tools to do it, including legislation. Moldova must not remain without protection against external disinformation, a mechanism is needed to combat it. In different countries, including the European Union, in Europe, these mechanisms take different forms. A few years ago, when the Code of Audiovisual Media Services was adopted in a new wording, we talked about both citizens’ access to information and the importance of having a mechanism to combat disinformation. After the recent changes, our reaction, including mine, was very clear: any change in the Code of Audiovisual Media Services should be made only through public consultations and democratic processes. This applies not only to this provision of the Code, but also to any other.

ABOUT THE BROADCASTING COUNCIL AND UNREALIZED COMMITMENTS

Media Azi: You have repeatedly criticized the actions of the Broadcasting Council. In February 2020, you said on TVR Moldova that the desired progress has not been registered here and that the Broadcasting Council does not work as it should. In the meantime, we had presidential elections and the BC again drew a lot of criticism, including from foreign observers, about how it reacted to violations by media providers during the campaign. What do you currently think is wrong with this institution?

Peter Michalko: I saw several reports on the activity of the BC during the elections: it either failed to penalize providers or applied delayed and disproportionate penalties; performed limited and selective monitoring; had unclear initiatives and requirements during the state of emergency. Previously, there were problems related to the monitoring of compliance with the local content quota by the television stations, as well as the monitoring of transparency of the media service providers’ funding and of the declaration of the final beneficiary. Precisely for this reason, we were glad when Moldova agreed to conduct an independent evaluation of the management and activity of the Broadcasting Council, before disbursing the second tranche of the macro-financial assistance program for Moldova – a commitment for the first half of 2020. However, we did not see a finality in this regard. We also discussed possible technical support for the broadcasting authority, but we did not see anyone taking responsibility for this task.

Media Azi: Do you mean the leadership of the Council?

Peter Michalko: Not only that, I also mean the Government. Perhaps no one knows that the Chisinau authorities and former Prime Minister Ion Chicu have committed to ensure independent evaluation of the work of this institution. This commitment must be realized. It was assumed not because we want it, but so that the citizens of Moldova have institutions that work as they should, as similar institutions work in other European countries.

Media Azi: What should happen for there to be real progress in the BC’s work? Civil society is constantly reporting problems, carrying out its own monitoring, which reveals deviations, and requests reactions through petitions. However, the results are not as expected...

Peter Michalko: Citizens and the media must keep demanding and insisting, because otherwise it is clear that the will of the people is not respected. For our part, we were willing and offered the necessary support, we asked for that evaluation to be made and we talked about technical support. We will keep insisting. It must be clear that if the BC does not live up to expectations, it becomes a completely untrustworthy institution and this will have an impact on those who put the BC in this situation.

Media Azi: Do you think that an external evaluation of the institution, as requested by some MPs, would change things? Some members of the BC said that such an audit would be contrary to European principles and would violate certain limits of independence. How do you comment on this point?

Peter Michalko: Certainly not true. It is precisely because of such statements that the Council is not trustworthy. How can you not want to relate to European standards? Independence does not mean lack of transparency and lack of accountability. Even the latest report of the BC was rejected by the Parliament. So, there is clear evidence that no one is satisfied with the performance of this institution.

Media Azi: The BC has recently got a new president. Could that mean change? In fact, the contest through which she became a member of the BC, along with a few other colleagues, was not without criticism...

Peter Michalko: I don’t want to talk about personal issues. Every person decides for him/herself how to act: to be independent, as required by the status of member or leader of an institution that must be independent, or to be suspected of having political or other influences on their activity.

Media Azi: Are you planning a meeting with Ala Ursu-Antoci and the members of the BC in the near future?

Peter Michalko: As far as I am concerned, I do not have concrete plans, but we have a continuous communication with Moldovan institutions, including the BC, at various levels. My colleagues keep in touch with their representatives on relevant topics. In the past I met with the president of the Broadcasting Council, we both attended several official events. However, this does not mean that there has been any progress in the functioning of the BC, and we must talk about this as a priority – to make improvements.

Media Azi: Last year, in a television broadcast, you mentioned the cartel that was allegedly present on the advertising market. In recent years, there have been talks about monopoly in this field, about it being divided between two major players. Do you have signals that the situation is still valid today?

Peter Michalko: There are influences. We are following this case. We have all seen that the existence of this cartel has been half confirmed, with reference to only one of those entities, but no appropriate action has been taken. A cartel presupposes the existence of at least two cooperating subjects, so only when both will be dealt with, the advertising market will be freed, conditions for the media will improve, access to advertising will be equal, as it should be. Unfortunately, other issues come into play here, including the questions that arise in relation to audience measurements in Moldova – an important tool in the advertising sector.

Media Azi: What solutions could there be?

Peter Michalko: Measures against all those involved, market opening and inadmissibility of limitations of any kind, truthful and credible measurements of the TV audience. The latter means fair competitions for the selection of the audience measurement and making sure that in this segment there are no influences aimed at manipulation of the public opinion or the decisions of the advertising providers. Fortunately, independent measurements have also begun to appear, alternatives that show that the situation is different from the one presented in the past.

Media Azi: How do you assess the degree of fulfillment of the commitments that Moldova has assumed in the field of media in the context of the Association Agreement?

Peter Michalko: The media play a key role in a democratic society, which is why the European Union pays particular attention to freedom of the press, media pluralism, and the protection of journalists’ rights. We see results, but of course there is still a lot to do, and with the help of the EU much more will be done. Issues concerning the media and freedom of the press will always be a priority on our agenda and we discuss them with all partners, including those of a legislative nature.

I appreciate the effort of independent journalists, who strive to do their job well, and I am glad that new professionals in the field appear, who want to do their work in the same spirit. This is the guarantee that we will be able to have a healthy society in the future, citizens who will make decisions, correct choices not only during the elections, but also in everyday life, who will form their opinion about what is happening in the country, but also locally. Let’s not forget that local and regional media outlets are an important link in the media space, informing people about what is happening in their communities.

We will continue supporting the media through projects. For example, in the Strategic Communication and Media Support project, we encouraged journalists at all levels to take investigative journalism and mobile journalism courses. More than 50 journalists have already benefited from this opportunity. We also support media outlets to become more viable, and for this we have provided support to managers and editors through courses on improving business models for the media and implementing editorial standards. Almost 20 administrators and editors enrolled in these courses. We will continue organizing study visits abroad, so that journalists can see how their colleagues from other countries work, but also find out in Brussels about the institutions and realities of the European Union. Last year we had planned such programs for Brussels and Bratislava. Even though these visits were not possible due to the pandemic, we organized virtual communication between journalists and other partners from Slovakia and Brussels with participants from Chisinau. We are also trying to create a favorable environment for audiovisual content creators on both banks of the Dniester River, in order to increase trust between the two banks. We also want to contribute to the settlement of the Transnistrian conflict. In addition, the local media are supported by various projects, such as the Open Media Hub, but also other initiatives.
  
1Checks and balances – A term used in English to refer to the principles of democracy, according to which state powers must have approximately the same weight, i.e. be balanced, in order to be able to limit each other, thus preventing state power from being misused.