Moldovan media angry at Covid-19 restrictions

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Journalists warn Moldovan authorities are restricting access to information amid the coronavirus crisis, further increasing concerns about government transparency.

Since the state of emergency was declared in Moldova more than six weeks ago, authorities have communicated with the media mainly through online briefings, with few opportunities for journalists to ask questions.

Dragoș Vicol, the president of the Audiovisual Council – a state institution that regulates television and radio stations – initially announced on March 24 that the media would be required to cite only official sources or information that has received prior confirmation. government officials.

He also banned talk show hosts from expressing their own views on the crisis or interviewing anyone other than those responsible for managing the country during the state of emergency.

Vicol reversed his decision after just one day, following an intervention by Moldovan President Igor Dodon. But Anastasia Nani, deputy director of the Center for Independent Journalism, said the move was concerning, bordering on outright censorship.

“For journalists, these provisions could have meant the impossibility of ensuring diversity of opinions, violating their right of access to information, and for citizens – limited access to information and to credible sources that could relate a different point of view than the official one. she said.

Hostility towards the independent media continued. Officials choose their own outlets for interviews and almost exclusively favor media identified with ruling parties. Unaffiliated journalists have found themselves targeted by public figures.

On April 23, Socialist Vice-President Vlad Batrâncea delivered a speech in parliament in which he denounced the independent media.

“Do you know why the money initially comes from our dear Western partners? he asked. “The first money, millions of euros, comes for the media institutions, for more light on the issue of Covid. The NGOs that teach us have much higher salaries than the deputies here. Do not give to journalists. millions of euros, says Batrâncea.

Journalists covering the crisis pointed out that Moldova has the highest rate of healthcare workers infected with Covid-19 in the world. Of the more than 3,500 people infected, according to official data, 900 are employees in the health sector.

After independent media reported that medical staff complained about the lack of protective equipment, several doctors said they were threatened to stop talking to the press. Some have even been told that criminal proceedings could be opened against them.

One of the first decisions of the Commission for Exceptional Situations, the structure coordinating the response to the state of emergency, was to triple the time taken to resolve access to information requests from 15 to 45 working days.

This meant that a journalist who submitted an access to information request in mid-March would not receive a response until the end of May.

Human rights lawyer and IWPR consultant Tatiana Puiu said this was unacceptable.

“The tripling of the time to resolve the information request mainly affects journalists,” she said. “The restriction imposed is not proportionate and exceptional to protect public health. The best solution for the Moldovan authorities not to admit abuses and restrictions on freedom of expression is to act with maximum transparency and to provide truthful and up-to-date information.

Several media – including the Center for Independent Journalism – have set up a crisis body to pressure the authorities to be more transparent. A number of journalists and civic activists also hosted an online Facebook Flash-mob Answer the Questions event on April 28.

“We have asked officials to treat journalists equally, regardless of the media institution they represent,” Nani said. “So far our letters – signed by dozens of media outlets and media NGOs – and discussions with officials have not worked out.”

The Prime Minister’s communications adviser Vitalie Dragancea said journalists’ fears were unfounded.

“All the energy and time of public servants must be devoted to fighting the epidemic,” he said. “However, the authorities have ensured a continuous flow of information, which reflects the measures taken to prevent the spread and control the epidemic, and the government press service has responded to all requests for information to the extent possible. . “

Dragancea denied that the authorities were blocking access to information.

“We have dozens of calls a day and we answer pretty much anything,” he continued. “The online briefings organized by the authorities took into account the questions asked by the press. Government officials, to the extent possible, have participated in various television broadcasts. Online conferencing is a form of communication, but not [our only form]. “

The government raised new concerns about its transparency measures when it approved a US $ 215 million loan from Russia. The text of the deal was only posted on Dodon’s personal Facebook before being passed by parliament on April 23.

No member of the government agreed to answer questions from the press or the opposition about who had been responsible for negotiating the deal, or when and how the terms were agreed.

The Constitutional Court suspended the loan agreement until May 7, when it will decide whether the agreement is legal or not.

This publication has been prepared under the “Giving voice, leading change – from the Borderland project to the Steppes” implemented with financial support from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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