The battle for the war narrative in Moldova

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.”

Sign up for CJR's daily email

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 activityblocking 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:


Other notable stories:

Related: Brent Renaud, Yevhenii Sakun, and the grave dangers on the ground in Ukraine

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Jon 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.

TOP IMAGE: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, and Moldova's President Maia Sandu greet each other as they arrive to attend a joint news conference following their talks in Chisinau, Moldova, Sunday, March 6, 2022. Blinken is in Moldova pledging America’s support to the small Western-leaning former Soviet republic that is coping with an influx of refugees from Ukraine and warily watching Russia’s intensifying war with its neighbor. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)