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INTERVIEW // Dragos Vicol about the work of the BC: We are not a secret laboratory where all kinds of schemes are set up, as some believe

30 September 2020
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The day before the start of the electoral campaign, the president of the Broadcasting Council insists that the authority will be able to report and sanction violations that may be committed by television and radio stations, although it is most likely to monitor only the main daily newscasts and it has limited human and technical resources. In an interview for Media Azi, Dragos Vicol spoke about the solutions he has for problems in the broadcasting field, about the investigation regarding the unused software of almost half a million lei, shared his opinion regarding the liberalization of the TV audience measurement market, and said how he would react if he were asked to resign again.  
 
Media Azi: Mr. Vicol, how prepared is the Council for the electoral campaign that starts on October 2?

Dragoș Vicol: Beyond previously reported reservations in terms of limited resources – both human and technical potential – we have sufficient capacity. It is not our first experience of this kind, especially since before and during the electoral period, we received a number of petitions, notifications, which toughened us and helped us gradually get into the swing of things. I believe that we are ready to face this challenge and we will do well in terms of meeting society’s expectations, especially in monitoring [radio and TV stations]. Our performance will live up to expectations.

Media Azi: How many stations are to be monitored and which content?

Dragoș Vicol: So far, we have started consultations within the BC. The proposals that came have been collected and structured and, on October 1, right around the start of the electoral campaign, we will make a decision, with the vote of the majority of BC members, taking into account our capacities and the fact that the flow of information will be very high. I, at least, with a large part of my colleagues, support the idea of monitoring the main newscasts of the radio and television stations that have national status. There are 15 of them – the stations that are part of Multiplex A, plus Radio Moldova and Radio Moldova Tineret.


Television monitoring at CA. Photo source: Media Azi video capture

 

Media Azi: Is it enough to monitor only newscasts?

Dragoș Vicol: I think that the rest of the content – talk shows, electoral debates – can easily be the object of self-notification of BC members, in case of violations, but also of the civic activism that the entire society must show. I am referring to non-governmental organizations, to citizens. You will see that there will be notifications, we have never been “spared” by society, and it is good that this is happening. The ways to access the BC platform or inform about violations are very diverse. There will be an avalanche of petitions, and we are obliged to react promptly during the electoral campaign – we have three days to give a verdict.

In terms of representativeness, the main newscasts will show a complete picture. Everything that is discussed in talk shows, debates, and other electoral materials, and not only, is reflected in a proportion of 99.99% in newscasts. Topics are resumed. From this point of view, we will waste a lot of useful time if we monitor absolutely all prime-time content to the detriment of the quality of examination of these materials. Moreover, the recommendation to monitor only the main newscasts is in line with the recommendations of international experts, who told us that newscasts should be monitored so that there is a tangible picture of what is happening in the elections. It is not the BC’s know-how, but a practice taken from the recommendations of the Council of Europe experts.

Beyond monitoring, it is necessary to strengthen the BC’s capacities to promote the messages of active participation in voting and of not admitting various forms of corruption, such as the eventual buying of voters, electoral gifts, and others. Social spots, from this point of view, are very important.

During the entire electoral campaign, on Mondays, all television and radio stations are required to provide us with detailed information on what they aired the previous week. I mean social spots, electoral advertising, debates, talk shows, and so on. We will process the information and place it on the BC’s website to ensure decision-making transparency.


Dragoş Vicol, president of the Audiovisual Council. Photo source: Media Azi

 

Media Azi: The new law on non-profit organizations prohibits the media owned by NGOs from providing services or supporting electoral competitors, materially or free of charge. This provision affects at least TV8, a provider with national status, which will not be able to sell electoral advertising during this campaign. On the other hand, the Constitutional Court was notified on this issue, but the judges have not made a decision yet. What is your opinion in this case?

Dragoș Vicol: Our opinion is in line with the legislation in force. There are two acts that regulate this situation, the Electoral Code and the Code of Audiovisual Media Services, as well as this law on NGOs. When TV8 submitted the statement on the coverage of the campaign, they addressed both the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) and the BC. We had an exchange of views with the electoral authority and, in the end, the Council’s legal expertise concluded that, in this case, the newer legal provisions will be applied, and the law on NGOs is new. I understand that there is a complaint from the MP Sergiu Litvinenco who asks the Constitutional Court if certain provisions of this law can be considered unconstitutional, but until the Court pronounces a decision, we must respect the existing legal framework.

Media Azi: Do you think it is fair? It leads to financial losses…

Dragoș Vicol: I don’t have the right to analyze from the perspective of my own view. If we assume that the High Court will declare certain provisions unconstitutional, we will comply and TV8 will exercise this right. Until then, there is a legal rule that has been voted on and entered into force, and the mission of the BC is to apply it, not to interpret it. Otherwise, what Vicol thinks, what other members of the BC think, is irrelevant, because whatever I say will be interpreted as a statement that is at least semi-political, if not political, and the BC does not have the right to make political statements during the exercise of its mandate.

Media Azi: Let’s admit that the Constitutional Court maintains that provision in force. Can the BC subsequently address the relevant parliamentary commission in order to make changes to the law?

Dragoș Vicol: I think that it depends not only on the BC’s effort – I should seek the opinion of all members -– but also on the opinion of television stations. It is not just about the “TV8 phenomenon” – all televisions must show solidarity, bring these problems to public attention and, as far as possible, have at least [advertising] allowed, if the provision cannot be repealed altogether.

On the other hand, there are some who believe that as long as certain television stations receive funding from certain development partners, having the status of NGO, they should be deprived of the right to contract any kind of advertising, especially electoral advertising. Allegedly, it shows lack of fair play. However, I believe that all radio and television stations must understand that, during the electoral campaign, funds can be accumulated in line with the legal framework. There is, in this context, a provision prohibiting the placement of free advertising – the most serious problem in my opinion – advertising that does not involve distribution and spending of funds. It seems to me that it requires clarification, through a very good expert analysis, including by our development partners.


 Photo source:  TV8

 
Media Azi: Previously, the Broadcasting Council developed a concept on the coverage of elections by providers. Now, there is only the Regulation on the coverage of electoral campaign, produced by the CEC. Why do you think the current procedure is not appropriate?

Dragoș Vicol: I believe that this concept was very beneficial, taking into account the fact that it was elaborated from A to Z by experts in the field. Within the CEC, the information presented by us is divided in different forms. Often, certain particularities are not taken into account, not out of bad will, but because there are, in the opinion of the CEC, much more important issues, such as the conduct of the electoral process as a whole. It was a new specific niche, through which we could present our vision in a professional way. Of course, in these conditions it is our mission to be as vocal as possible, to convince the CEC, but the “raw material” was provided by the BC, and I think we need to possibly return to amending the Code of Audiovisual Media Services, so that we could present the concept, and the CEC could approve the regulation or, in general, the BC could have the right to make this concept mandatory without the approval of the CEC. Or, it could be done with the help of both entities.


The PAS leader, Maia Sandu, submits the documents for the registration of her initiative group. Photo source: CEC

 
Media Azi: Some candidates have repeatedly stated that they will not participate in electoral debates. Is it correct from the perspective of guaranteeing pluralistic information to citizens during the electoral campaign?  

Dragoș Vicol: First, we have to see if what politicians say materializes. Second, participation or non-participation is a factor that will help voters decide on their options when they go to vote. From the point of view of pluralism of opinion, of the configuration of a certain attitude on the part of the electorate, I believe that presence at electoral debates is important, but not crucial, because it has more to do with electoral technologies, positioning. This is if we talk about the first round, because, in case there is a second round, the two electoral candidates in the top positions will definitely participate in electoral debates. As a person who, together with my colleagues, is trying to manage this rather sensitive area, I believe that electoral debates should not be missing from the political agenda of candidates, but it depends on the choice of each political party or independent candidate. From our point of view, it is important to see if what they say and do in talk shows, their statements, does not violate the Code of Audiovisual Media Services or the Electoral Code, and to find and penalize in due time the violations that will certainly occur during the electoral campaign.

Media Azi: The head of state has recently said that it would be opportune to organize electoral debates only on the public television station. His opinion coincides with the proposal that previously came from the BC. Is it a coincidence?

Dragoș Vicol: The Council’s suggestion was reversed on all sides, interpreted. We suggested that there be a possibility for certain television stations, in the event that they do not want, do not have the possibility or consider it appropriate, to take over the debates from the public television station. I do not know for what reasons, overnight, there came the conclusion that the broadcasting authority forbade the other television stations to organize electoral debates and forced them to take debates from the public television station. When two people, even the head of state and the broadcasting authority, support certain ideas or come up with certain proposals, it does not necessarily mean that there is a correlation between what the two, in this case the head of state and the BC, say. He said it for electoral reasons, and we – for reasons related to the experience of other countries.

I really don’t see a problem: there are a lot of provisions, the role of the moderator is strictly limited to asking certain questions, not favoring, giving equal time to each candidate. We must also talk about possible co-productions between Moldova 1 and other stations. Stations could have joint debates, some providing the moderator, others – the premises. There are clear provisions for giving equal time to all candidates. No one can be favored in an electoral debate, given that each of those present has enough time. I don’t think that one will be given tea, another one coffee, one will be polished, another one, to put it euphemistically, will get kicked in the ass. We will monitor these aspects, too.


Igor Dodon and the initiative group on the registration of the candidate in the election, at the CEC. Photo source: Igor Dodon / Facebook

 
Media Azi: But you said you were not planning to monitor the debates...
Dragoș Vicol: If we don’t monitor, it doesn’t mean that we will not watch television. In the event that violations are seen, we have sufficient capacity to officially take note of the fact. I will say that the number of debates is growing on websites, which do not fall within the competence of the BC. That is where most violations happen and, unfortunately, remain unregulated, and this is a very big problem. Radio and television stations continue to be a source of information, but to an increasingly lesser extent.

Media Azi: Would you choose the online sphere to be regulated by BC?

Dragoș Vicol: Such prerogatives are related to the approval of a legal framework, but our capacities need to be strengthened from the technical point of view, of tools and training of specialists. We should have at least 30 more employees to perform online monitoring, and they should be specialized – certain portals, podcasts, social networks, etc. We discussed about securing the information space with colleagues from the Information and Security Service (ISS), the General Prosecutor’s Office, the Ministry of Justice, and there are many unknowns in the middle. However, accessing certain social network profiles is also part of the private sector, private correspondence, certain spaces. It is very complicated, but in the next three to four years, the best formula will have to be identified. In vain do we find violations and penalize radio and TV stations if we know that all the virulence, all the “acid” is spilled on these websites, social networks.

Media Azi: It has become a tradition for the public television station, before the start of an electoral campaign, to address the CEC and the BC, requesting permission to collect revenue from electoral advertising. How fair is this, given that the public broadcaster receives money from the budget?

Dragoș Vicol: Indeed, the CEC has reconfirmed its option to allow in this campaign, as an exception, the placement of electoral advertising on the public television station. In my opinion, as a citizen, the legal provision that the public television station should not place advertising except in some situations – when it comes to events of major importance – is very good, it is in line with international practices, but with one condition, which was not taken into account – that the public television station should be offered enough funds to be functional. Unfortunately, given the financial resources and assets it manages, the public station is unable to operate on the money it is given. This framework, public-private partnerships, and other ways of strengthening institutional capacities need to be examined as a whole, in tandem with what the state offers to the public TV station.

Media Azi: Mr. Vicol, political advertising or reports on the edge of political advertising, broadcast in newscasts, are not regulated by the current Code of Audiovisual Media Services – an issue often discussed at the BC meetings lately. You have previously invoked the lack of legal provisions as a reason not to sanction the media outlets that broadcast such materials. On the other hand, media experts say that solutions exist. Are you planning to do something concrete in this regard?   

Dragoș Vicol: We came with our own expertise, taking into account the opinion of civil society, and we mentioned the steps we should take, including the draft of the new law on advertising, voted in the first reading. We will also come up with some amendments. We will have to combine efforts – the specialized parliamentary committee, civil society, and the BC. I am afraid that we will not be able to do anything until the end of the current electoral campaign. But it is important, in the event of early parliamentary elections in the spring of next year, the law on advertising to be already adopted, including provisions that make impossible the presence of such reports that certainly carry a political mark.

Media Azi: But until then, you suggested at one of the last meetings of the Council the elaboration of an internal regulation based on which you could apply sanctions.

Dragoș Vicol: We hoped that we could on our own, based on a regulation, penalize such acts, but our legal department says that our regulations, unfortunately, will be nullified in the context in which there is no law regulating these issues. The BC cannot on its own, by internal regulations, stop this phenomenon. We need a law with a status clearly superior to our internal regulations and we will send proposals to the Parliament in this regard.  

Media Azi: Based on the complaints from consumers on T(V)E Privește! platform, the IJC sent to the BC petitions reporting non-compliant content on retransmitted TV stations, such as scenes of mental and physical violence without marks of the age limit. The Council did not impose fines, invoking the lack of legal provisions. Is it enough to acknowledge the legislative gap or the BC should do something?

Dragoș Vicol: Speaking about providers, the BC regulates radio and television stations that are under the jurisdiction of the Republic of Moldova. On the other hand, distributors of audiovisual media services cannot intervene and remove certain films or blur certain scenes from the retransmitted audiovisual material. Their only mission and their only technical possibility is to retransmit it. Their mission does not include editorial intervention, and we cannot punish the cable operator.

Perhaps certain television stations should be eliminated – the ones that make use of these scenes of violence, scenes with a strong erotic character, not to mention those that are categorically forbidden and that are broadcast even during the day and not after 23:00, without bearing warnings that they are not allowed to be viewed by children, adolescents, or without parental consent. But sanctions cannot be applied, as much as I would have liked, and a regulation that is inconsistent with the provisions of the Code of Audiovisual Media Services cannot be applied.


Photo source: T(V)E Privește!

 
Media Azi: Given that distributors operate on the basis of an authorization issued by the BC following the presentation of a set of documents, including contracts signed with foreign providers, could the BC encourage cable operators to review their lists of customers? You do see those contracts...

Dragoș Vicol: We see the contracts, but we don’t see the schedules for each day and the films that will be broadcast in a year, for example. Distributors sign contracts with TV stations for two or three years...

Media Azi: In this case, suppose we reported irregularities at a particular TV station. Currently, the BC states that it can do nothing, but the next time you are about to issue the authorization, you could...

Dragoș Vicol: You just have to keep in mind that we issue authorizations to cable operators for a term of five years. I think that mechanisms should be introduced into the Code of Audiovisual Media Services, so that we can intervene not so late, not in five years, but sooner.

Media Azi: Would the notification of the specialized parliamentary commission and the amendment of the law be a solution in this case as well?

Dragoș Vicol: The solution you mentioned earlier seems to me the most viable: in the event that a television station permanently broadcasts certain scenes of horror, violence, the BC would suggest, despite all these regulations, for the distributor to refrain from including this station in the list of those to be retransmitted. We will try to do this, although there are large distributors of media services that retransmit 250-300 TV stations. We are trying to make at least a brief analysis of all these stations, but it is impossible to be aware of absolutely the entire flow. It is very complicated, but if there are flagrant elements, we will take note and try, even through various notifications, to have the contract in question terminated.

We have made attempts to notify about the broadcast of scenes in which wine is consumed and we were surprised to find that we could do nothing because wine is considered a food product. We have a very permissive framework and, unfortunately, this framework is being abused. And it’s not just about operating within certain legal limits, it’s also about editorial policy: it is not necessary to mention that the inhalation of toxic substances, cigarettes, etc. should not be promoted – it is common sense for the TV station not to allow this.

Media Azi: In 2018, the Competition Council found that the selection of one TV audience measurement company “establishes barriers that limit the right of companies to provide audience measurement services for a period of 5 years.” At the time, the CC was proposing to open up this market to competition. What is your opinion on this subject?

Dragoș Vicol: You should take into account that two members of the BC were part of the committee that selected the audience measurement company for a term of five years, and both our colleagues were deprived of the right to vote. There were also accusations at the time that the period of the competition was unfavorable, given that it took place during the holidays.
In the end, the decision was made by the main television stations, advertising companies, advertising houses, and other actors that participated, based on the specifications. The rules and specifications allowed the selection of the winning company from a single source. Therefore, those who voted must assume responsibility. It was a democratic vote, given mainly for that audience measurement company. Two years have passed since then, and in another three years, if the Code is not amended and the current provision remains valid, the BC will start the procedures under the same conditions.

Media Azi: Can the rules for selection of the audience measurement company be changed?

Dragoș Vicol: Yes, but all those who approved them must be convened. They were approved by the BC based on proposals from television stations and advertising companies. The document can be modified – there must be a desire clearly expressed by all those who participated in its approval. 

Media Azi:  How is the digitization process going? In the context of transition to digital signal, has the analog signal already stopped?

Dragoș Vicol: Towards the end of last year, in December, we issued two licenses for analog broadcasting to the stations TVR Moldova and Primul în Moldova, with the clear specification that these licenses are valid until March 1, 2020, since that was the date when the analog signal on the territory of the Republic of Moldova was to be stopped. From our point of view, there is no possibility to broadcast in this format now.

The further discussion on digitization should focus more on the capabilities of Multiplex A and eventually Multiplex B. At the next meeting, we will introduce a new element – to have an opinion from the BC for those broadcasting in digital format and for those who broadcast through, for example, service distributors. Two licenses to be issued – the television stations broadcast through service distributors have a broadcasting license for nine years, and for the multiplex, we will probably propose this period to be limited to five years. We will also continue to insist that the activity in the multiplex should start within three months of obtaining the broadcasting right, given that we have cases when some TV stations have won the contest, but, unfortunately, do not broadcast and thus do not allow others to get into the multiplex.

Media Azi: Regarding the prices that televisions should pay for the use of services in digital multiplexes, there have been countless talks about the high costs incurred by broadcasters. What solutions does the BC have to support the audiovisual sector?

Dragoș Vicol: We must understand that everyone who broadcasts in the multiplex pays for it. So, the more complete the multiplex (which has a capacity of 15-17 places), the smaller the payment (which is divided by the number of channels). In many countries – and I agree with some television stations – much of this burden is taken over by the state. Multiplex A has national coverage and the state should, in my opinion, find ways to subsidize these expenditures, at least in part.

For example, niche channels, such as sports or children’s channels, should be subsidized by up to 50%, and for the rest by 20-30%. All kinds of amounts were talked about, from 8,000 euros to 11,000 euros per month, which from my point of view is an exorbitant price. On the other hand, Radiocomunicații [the state-owned broadcasting operator] tells us that this price barely covers the real expenses that the company incurs from a technical point of view.

In discussions with television stations, their representatives said that being in a cable network is a solution that should not be neglected. Especially since one of the largest operators, Moldtelecom, has a very high coverage. We have had cases when certain television stations gave up the multiplex and opted for cable providers. We can’t refuse this approach, they just let us know about it.

Media Azi: At what stage is the internal investigation regarding the software purchased ten years ago by the Council for over 400,000 lei, which hasn’t been used at all?

Dragoș Vicol: On September 11, I sent to the General Prosecutor’s Office all the materials, the indictment, the folder with all the documents and results of the internal investigation. A few days later, the prosecutors informed us that the materials had been handed over to the Chisinau Prosecutor’s Office. For now, the evidence gathered is the secret of investigation, and we are at the disposal of prosecutors. 

Media Azi: Earlier, in the context of the announcement that the Russian businessman Igor Chaika became co-owner of some Moldovan televisions, you said that the BC will request amendment of legislation so that foreign citizens cannot hold the majority stake in the ownership of Moldovan radio and TV stations. Have you changed your mind?

Dragoș Vicol: No, I have not. This proposal will be included in the package with other provisions regarding political advertising and others. I believe that, indeed, the presence of third parties from foreign countries among the shareholders of some television stations is not beneficial for the current situation in the Republic of Moldova, given the current context. It is a subjective opinion, but quite weighed. At present, no matter where it comes from, the financial participation of any foreign citizen is counterproductive, taking into account the fact that the geopolitical, political risks of influencing the editorial policy of this television station are far too serious to allow it. We’ll see if there is enough political will. 

Media Azi: In the Declaration on the recognition of the captive nature of the Republic of Moldova, voted on June 8, 2019 by the Parliament, it was mentioned that the dismissal of the members of the Broadcasting Council was “of vital necessity.” This did not happen. How do you explain the fact that the BC members were not dismissed? Did only a few colleagues resign, who asked for your resignation as well? You still remain in office.

Dragoș Vicol: It is not about ambition or motivation to stay in office, but about respecting the legal framework. This declaration is clearly political. We are irremovable, by the status conferred by law, and I believe that this nature of irremovability gives the members of the BC independence in making decisions.

There are attempts to pass any decision we make through various political filters. Every television station, every electoral competitor during an electoral campaign, tries to obtain a decision as favorable as possible from the BC. But political formations should work with the political agenda and the political, economic, social processes in our country, and to a lesser degree, or even not at all, I dare say, regulate the activities of institutions that, by definition, should be autonomous.


Dragoș Vicol. Photo source: Media Azi

Moreover, before each election, we appeal to all diplomatic missions in the Republic of Moldova and international organizations to delegate, for the duration of the electoral campaign, experts to be physically present with us, to oversee the monitoring process from A to Z, to attend the presentation of reports in public meetings, and even to give opinions, to see the differences between the monitoring reports made by the civil society and our reports. We are not a closed institution, a barracks, a secret laboratory where all kinds of schemes are set up, as some believe.

Media Azi: If the power changes and discussions about the performance of the BC members and yours as its president, or requests for resignation, return to the public space, how will you react?

Dragoș Vicol: The change of a government team or the alternation in power should not have any influence. Precisely because of this, the term of office of the BC members is six years, so it does not coincide with an electoral cycle of four years. The term of six years offers a certain stability and I want to tell you that even the television professionals who obtained the quality of BC member notice that only after three or four years of activity you start to understand certain specific patterns and particularities of the field. As far as I am concerned, I qualify my activity only from the perspective of the fact that the broadcasting authority is a collegial body and decisions are made by a majority vote. I am temporarily at the head of the table and manage resources in strict accordance with legal provisions.