Two weeks ago, Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian dictator and Russian ally, stood with a pointer in front of a map at a meeting with his security council that was broadcast on state TV. Arrows on the map appeared to show troop movements into Ukraine, though one pointed toward Moldova, a tiny post-Soviet country that borders Ukraine to the southwest and is home to Transnistria, a separatist enclave that slithers along the Moldovan-Ukrainian border and has been occupied by Russian forces since fighting there in the early nineties.
The Belarusian ambassador to Moldova described the televised map as a “misunderstanding,” but it nonetheless caused concern in a country where nerves were already on edge after Vladimir Putin invaded its neighbor, even though Moldovan officials have downplayed the likelihood of an imminent threat. Since the war began, several major Western news organizations have chronicled fears on the ground that should Putin get his way in Ukraine, Moldova might be next. Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, visited, too, and held a joint press conference with Maia Sandu, Moldova’s pro-European president. A foreign reporter asked Sandu how she thought the invasion next door might affect Moldova’s security. “In this region,” she replied, “there is no possibility for us now to feel really safe or secure.”
ICYMI: The biases in coverage of the war in Ukraine
Moldova is already having to contend with a refugee crisis. Since the war began, well over three hundred thousand people have crossed the border from Ukraine and more than a hundred thousand have stayed put, mostly in Moldovans’ homes and communities—a huge undertaking for a country that is among Europe’s poorest and has a population less than that of New York City, LA, or Chicago. Corina Cepoi—who leads Moldovan operations for Internews, an international media nonprofit, and is herself hosting Ukrainians—told me yesterday that this has so far been a major focus for Moldova’s independent news outlets, which have worked to debunk online disinformation casting refugees as “not worthy” of Moldovans’ support. “I think for now the coverage is more focused on what’s happening in Ukraine, on the economic impact, and less on a potential war” in Moldova itself, Cepoi says. “Some talk shows do cover that, of course, inviting experts in the field. But I don’t see huge media coverage of a potential war. For now, this type of coverage, I would call it more balanced, and not providing a reason for panic.”
As Ann Cooper, who covered the waning days of the Soviet Union for NPR, told me last year and has since described in more detail for Nieman Reports, Moldova belongs to a “midway media” group of post-Soviet countries (that also includes Ukraine), boasting a determined cadre of independent journalists and a media ecosystem that is neither as free as that across the Baltic states nor as repressed as those in Russia and Belarus. Instead, it has fluctuated against a backdrop of endemic corruption and power-swapping between pro-Western and pro-Russian factions. Independent news organizations have typically relied on foreign funding, including from the US government, in the absence of a thriving independent advertising market or subscription models, though according to Cooper, some outlets have recently attempted to diversify their revenue.
The independent-media sector in Moldova is also small—according to surveys cited by IREX, a DC-based development nonprofit, it represents only around 15 percent of Moldovan outlets and is exclusively consumed by a similar proportion of the population. The rest of Moldova’s media is controlled by, or aligned with, political interests, many of them pro-Russian. This is especially true of TV, which remains the leading source of news in the country, as Anastasia Nani, of Moldova’s Independent Journalism Center, told me in an email. In the run-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, numerous pro-Russian channels spun the Kremlin’s line, Nani says, casting Ukraine and the West as aggressors and decrying US hysteria. “All the prewar propaganda prepared some Moldovans to have a certain attitude towards the events that followed.”
Since the invasion, that type of content has receded; here, too, the refugee story has come to the fore. “There is very little talk about how Moldovans or central authorities mobilized to help refugees from Ukraine,” Nani told me. “At the same time, these stations hardly talk about the war in Ukraine; they do not show images of the neighboring country with bombings.” Also since the invasion, Moldova’s pro-Western authorities have taken steps to try to limit the dissemination of pro-Russian propaganda in the country after declaring a two-month state of emergency that gives it extra powers over media activity—blocking access to several pro-Russian sites for using “false news” to incite war and hatred, and levying fines against pro-Kremlin TV channels. The broadcasting of news produced in Russia and Belarus has been suspended entirely. Moldovans can access Russian outlets using VPNs and other methods, Cepoi says, “but you don’t see them in our cable packages.”
Moldova’s political battle over Russian media and disinformation long predates the past few weeks. In 2018, lawmakers passed a bill curbing broadcasts from Russia, but it was repealed in 2020, and the same year’s election season was also marred by a barrage of propaganda and claims of pro-Russian “fake news”; in 2021, a report compiled by the east Center, an Eastern European think tank, found that Moldova has “quite limited” resilience against disinformation. Since the war began, Kremlin-style talking points have again swelled online, seeping past official efforts to curb them; according to Stop Fals, an organization dedicated to debunking disinformation, these have included false reports that Moldova is mobilizing army reservists and preparing to intervene militarily in Ukraine. “Even if it is busy with Ukraine,” Mădălin Necșuțu wrote yesterday for Veridica, a disinformation-focused site based in Moldova’s neighbor Romania, “Moscow still keeps an eye on the Republic of Moldova and still has enough leverage through which, if it wishes, it can destabilize it at an extremely vulnerable time.”
Despite its small size, Moldova is a rich tapestry of different ethnic communities and has two autonomous regions. One is Gagauzia, in the country’s south, where the population has historically been more pro-Russian; the authorities there exert a tighter grip on information, and according to Cepoi, Russian channels are still allowed there. The other is Transnistria, where press freedom is very limited and newspapers and TV channels have scarcely mentioned the conflict across the border. Residents, the Washington Post’s Chico Harlan found recently, “have gotten the signal that the topic is off-limits.” Andrei Platonov, an artist in Transnistria, did tell the Post that he opposes Putin’s war and refuses to watch Transnistrian TV. His biggest fear, he said, is that freedom of speech will disappear completely and that going to protests will soon get you thrown in jail—as has happened recently in Russia itself.
In my conversation with Cepoi yesterday, I noted that despite the recent flurry of articles about Moldova in international outlets, the country often seems to get overlooked in the high-level media conversation about what Putin might do next, especially since he started hitting targets close to the Polish border. “We’re used to that, it’s okay,” Cepoi said. “We are always marginal in terms of international coverage, so we’re not surprised. Regretfully, that’s what happens to a small country that doesn’t even have a history of independence or identity like Ukrainians have.”
Below, more on the war:
- More tragic news from Ukraine: Yesterday, Fox News and authorities in Ukraine confirmed that Pierre Zakrzewski, a cameraman for the network, and Oleksandra Kuvshynova, a Ukrainian colleague, were killed on Monday when a vehicle they were traveling in came under fire near Kyiv. Zakrzewski, a French-Irish national, was fifty-five; Kuvshynova was twenty-four. Benjamin Hall, a Fox correspondent who was also traveling with Zakrzewski and Kuvshynova, was injured in the same attack and subsequently hospitalized. His condition remains unclear.
- “Minute-to-minute triage”: Tiffany Hsu and Michael M. Grynbaum, of the New York Times, spoke with bosses at international news organizations about their coverage decisions as conditions inside both Ukraine and Russia become increasingly unsafe for their staff, with war raging in the former and journalism criminalized in the latter. “When it comes to a potential threat to somebody, that far and away outweighs everything else in the consideration,” Michael Bass, an executive at CNN, which suspended broadcasting out of Russia, told Hsu and Grynbaum.
- Exhaustion: The Washington Post’s Jeremy Barr spoke with Matthew Chance, who has covered the war from Kyiv for CNN, about leaving the country recently. “I’m a bit concerned that I’ve left before the real push on the city has happened. But, at the same time, I’m so tired that I can barely hold my thoughts together. It’s been exhausting,” Chance said. “You start making mistakes when you get tired. So, we have a responsibility as a company to try to rotate people out.… You can’t just constantly keep doing that forever. The problem is that your judgment could fail.”
- Testimony: Yesterday, Anne Applebaum, a staff writer at The Atlantic, testified at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the US fight against authoritarianism around the world. “We need to provide real, long-lasting competition for the Russian state-run cable and satellite television,” Applebaum said. “Hundreds of talented Russian journalists and media professionals have just fled Moscow: Why not start a Russian television channel, perhaps jointly funded by Europe and America, to employ them and give them a way to work?”
Other notable stories:
- For The New Republic, the author Jacob Bacharach reviewed The Morning, the Times’ daily newsletter, anchored by David Leonhardt, which has been criticized recently for overly bullish coverage of the pandemic. Bacharach cannot decide if Leonhardt is “Dr. Pangloss or if he is Candide—the relentless crackpot optimist or the disappointed student who finally throws up his hands and concludes that we must, each of us, tend our gardens alone.” Ultimately, The Morning “uses an attitude of measurement and calm analysis to convince its audience that quietism is a political virtue and that politics and policy simply happen because the world is as it is and it cannot be otherwise.”
- In December, as BuzzFeed debuted on the stock market, current and former staffers complained that unforeseen bureaucratic hurdles were preventing them from cashing out their shares, the value of which then swiftly declined. Now, Katie Robertson reports for the Times, seventy-seven of the past and present employees are taking the company to arbitration, claiming that it illegally shortchanged them by failing to properly communicate with them about their options. BuzzFeed described these claims as meritless and said it would “vigorously” rebut them. (Relatedly, BuzzFeed News is retiring its dedicated app.)
- A federal judge in Alabama threw out a libel suit that two law enforcement officers in Tuscaloosa brought against Katie J.M. Baker, a BuzzFeed reporter. The suit claimed that her characterization of their treatment of a student at the University of Alabama who reported being raped, and later died by suicide, was defamatory. The officers claimed that Baker had “an agenda”; the judge agreed, but ruled that Baker sought not to speak ill of them but “to influence systematic change in how sexual assault allegations are treated nationwide.”
- Ben Smith and Justin Smith (no relation) continue to staff up their forthcoming global media company, poaching Gina Chua, the executive editor of Reuters, to fill the same role for them, reporting to Ben Smith, who will be editor in chief. Chua previously led the South China Morning Post and the Asia edition of the Wall Street Journal.
- For CJR, Tegan Wendland, who has worked on a number of journalistic collaborations with local and national outlets, complains that “the hardest part of each collaboration has been giving stories away”—even when the author wants to do so and the recipient wants to publish them. “The process can—and frequently does—take an outsize amount of staff time to organize and orchestrate,” she writes, since even file-sharing can be tricky.
- Recently, I wrote about reporting by Calcalist, an Israeli newspaper, claiming that the country’s police illegally used spyware to surveil various public figures. Following a probe, the justice ministry cast serious doubt on that claim, but Calcalist is now standing firmly behind it—revealing for the first time that its sources worked in a police intelligence unit, and contending that the probe allowed officers to grade their own homework.
- Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian staffer for the Thomson Reuters Foundation who was arrested in Tehran in 2016, is reportedly on her way back to the UK. Media reports suggested that the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson—who, as foreign minister, set back Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case when he wrongly said that she was teaching journalism in Iran—has agreed to a debt repayment and prisoner swap.
- And in January, Nicholas Carlson, the editor in chief of Insider, promoted a project that pledged to “demystify people’s salaries,” then declined to disclose his own when pushed on Twitter. Since then, Gawker’s Tarpley Hitt obtained a spreadsheet of Insider staffers’ salaries that the company inadvertently shared on its internal Google Drive. Carlson, Hitt reports, earns six hundred thousand dollars a year, with a bonus of the same amount.
Related: Brent Renaud, Yevhenii Sakun, and the grave dangers on the ground in UkraineJon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.