“Very often there are preconceptions that being an investigative journalist means traveling and getting to know people. We are, in fact, miners: We dig through documents,”investigative journalists report. Is this about Moldova? Or about Bosnia and Herzegovina? It’s about any journalist doing investigations in any state battling corruption.
The press in Moldova as well as in Bosnia and Herzegovina can be characterized as partially free, affected by difficult access to information of public interest and increasingly visible politicizing. These two countries that ostensibly are totally different do in fact have a lot of similarities as we have shown in the previous report, “Bosnia and Herzegovina versus the Republic of Moldova: corruption, injustice and impunity.”
Although Bosnia and Herzegovina is much more ethnically and politically divided and the administrative structure is much more bureaucratic than that of the Republic of Moldova, Bosnia and Herzegovina ranks much better in international ratings in terms of press freedom.
For example, the Press Freedom Index for 2019 carried out by the media organization Reporters Without Borders places Bosnia and Herzegovina 63rd out of 180 countries and the Republic of Moldova 28 steps lower at 91st between Serbia and Gambia.
“Unfortunately, the politicians own media outlets. We have a large number of private media outlets whose owners have direct or indirect political connections. Advertising is also connected to politics; this is an efficient way to control the work of journalists,”is how Leila Bičakčić, Director of the Center for Journalistic Investigations in Bosnia and Herzegovina, described the state of the press in her country.
Leila Bičakčić, director of the Center for Journalistic Investigations in Bosnia and Herzegovina
The Center for Journalistic Investigations is one of the few independent press institutions in Bosnia and Herzegovina thatover the last 15 years has revealed high-level corruption schemes and illegal undertakings in which public officials are involved.
“We aren’t pressured by those from the private sector. Other editors who take over our articles are pressured. The result is that journalistsand representatives of society are not free to do their jobs according to professional standards,” Ms Bičakčić explained.
The hardest task for journalists working for independent news outlets in Bosnia and Herzegovina is access to information of public interest.
Renata Radić-Dragić, investigative journalist
For 15 years at the Center for Journalistic Investigations, Renata Radić-Dragić has been fighting for the right to information of public interest. Her work consists of investigating topics, collecting data, and checking information. Her office is full of charts of where she has collected answers to requests for information addressed to public institutions.
Because the administrative structure of the state is decentralized and deeply bureaucratic, information must be requested piecemeal from the cantons—the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Republic of Srpska, and the district of Brčko—or at the central level. Thus, data collection becomes a rather cumbersome process, even though there are laws that provide for access to information.
In addition, even though some of the institutions’ reports are placed on official web pages, the information they contain is superficial, inadequate, and sometimes difficult to understand. There are also cases when files containing public budgets show large amounts of money in columns entitled“Rest” or in other vaguely titled columns.
Folders with information of public interest, collected by investigative journalists from the Center for Journalistic Investigations
“We are, in fact, miners: we dig through documents,” is how Renata Radić-Dragić describes the work of investigative journalists.
Most of the time, this huge task can lead to an indictment to send corrupt dignitaries to court, or it can be a reasonable suspicion for opening case files and initiating criminal investigations. Although there is an impact from investigations that are published, it doesn’t meet expectations.Director Bičakčić explained:
“Our voice has an impact, but it isn’t enough or it isn’t at the level we consider satisfactory, and unfortunately, efforts aimed at changing politics are inefficient and have the smallest impact. Talking about procedures, when we show that somewhere something can be changed procedurally within an institution at the administrative level, changes start happening. Political decision making is, however, missing though the two should be balanced. In fact, when a problem is identified, it must also be solved at the political level.”
In one of the investigations, the center revealed that the iron factory in RepublikaSrpska, a state entity, had more employees than it needed. Moreover, the excess personnel appearedonly on the payrollroster taking salaries from the state budget without actually working there.
“What we have shown is that the role of state-owned enterprises is only to extract money from the budget and that they hire only people loyal to the dominant party,” Ms.Bičakčić added.
After the story was published, the plant managers were changed, and the financial police started an investigation that is still ongoing.”In general, our work has had an effect,”Director Bičakčić admitted.
Newspaper seller in Sarajevo
Two years ago, journalists from the same media institution wrote about ex-officio lawyers who were assigned to cases without any regulationsor control mechanisms. After some instances were brought to light, several lawsuits were initiated and today in Bosnia and Herzegovina there is an automated mechanism that randomly distributes ex-officio lawyers and should eliminate that source of corruption in the field.
“So, there are changes as a result of our work, but we want even more changes because then we would have confirmation that the state really has a desire to tackle the problems that we report,” Leila Bičakčić pointed out.
The legal situation of mass media in Bosnia and Herzegovina reflects both the ethnic diversity and the administrative structure of the country, as well as the influence of international organizations in building the state. Although the state guarantees freedom of expression, the implementation of laws regulating mass media liberties is still limited, and journalists have remained vulnerable to intimidation and threats due to the uncertain political and economic situation.
The organization Reporters Without Borders found that the polarized political atmosphere marked by constant verbal attacks and nationalist rhetoric has created a hostile environment for press liberties and that increasing numbers of editorial policies reflect ethnic divisions and feature hate speech. In addition, journalists are being attacked for their ethnic origins and for what they write.
Another problem is the concentration of media ownership, especially since it is not transparent.In a previous report, Reporters Without Bordersalso stated that, “The country has the most liberal laws for mass media freedom in the world, but their implementation is managedby a saturated judicial system.”
Bosnia and Herzegovina has a lot of problems. The freedom of the media is threatened, and there is a large number of biased media outlets in the state.
Nevertheless, a few independent and investigative institutions continue to be the cornerstone of democracy in the country.
“Press Solidarity March”, where journalists requested access to information and transparency from Parliament, Government and Presidency. May 3, 2018. Chisinau
According to the same data from Reporters without Borders, Moldova is one of the countries that has regressed the most in terms of press freedom in recent years.
Since 2013, the situation has steadily deteriorated to the point that it has fallen from 55th place to 91st place. As a state in transition to democracy, it has consistently maintainedaninternational ranking of “partially free” in terms of press freedom and freedom of expression. According to the experts, one of the causes is the inadequate and inefficient legal framework for media operations; however, the politicization and the concentration of media ownership are also important factors.
The editorial subjects of many media outlets closely correlate with the political and business interests of their owners, a problem that was particularly visible in the campaign for parliamentary elections in 2019. The independence and the quality of journalism and the concentration of media ownership are major challenges. In fact, today in the Republic of Moldova, two political forces have even built real-time holding companies through which they promote their images and realize their interests. Those are the mass media outlets affiliated with the Democratic Party of Moldova that led the government for four years until June 2019 and those affiliated with the Socialist Party, the current party holding power in the state from the shadows led by Moldova’s President Igor Dodon.
Since 1991, Moldovan media has faced the same problems media expertVictor Gotișan explained. Year after year, international organizations (e.g., Reporters without Borders, Freedom House) and national ones (e.g., Center for Independent Journalism, Independent Press Association) have mentioned, among others,the following issuesin their reportsonthe excessive politicization that divides journalists:
- politically controlled institutions (the Audiovisual Council);
- excessive ownership concentration of mass media;
- the lack of transparency in mass media ownership in the case of final beneficiaries;
- a high degree of manipulation and misinformation;
- a defective legal framework;
- the lack of access to information;
- attacks on and intimidation of journalists.
Mr. Gotișan added the following: “But all these challenges are common not only to the Republic of Moldova, but also to the entire region and to all post-Soviet space. Virtually all former USSR countries face the same problems due to the facts that there is not yet a culture for massmedia and that these countries do not have a tradition in terms of democracy as such. At the beginning of 2020 we see, in fact, the same situation as a year ago when another party was in power; the trends are the same. The Socialist Party, which is now in power, has the same tendencies to concentrate or monopolize media institutions, especially when we talk about broadcasters and TV stations.”
“In recent months, we have had new licenses granted to new television stations that broadcast mostly foreign content from Russia. This is alarming because both civil society and media organizations have tried to mitigate this phenomenon. Now we find that in fact, nothing has changed,” explained Nadine Gogu, Director of the Center for Independent Journalism in the Republic of Moldova.
Since most of the media outlets are concentrated in the hands of politicians or people close to the political class, their interference with editorial content is also noted.
“Unfortunately, things have not changed for the better,” Director Gogu noted and went on to point out that the same trend is obviously true in the advertising market which is characterized by monopoly and cartel agreements.“This, in turn, influences media independence because if a media institution does not have enough publicity to work, it depends financially on certain politicians.”
Over the years, access to information has consistently been cited by investigative journalists in Moldova as a barrier and a financial burden for independent media. Even if electronic databases have been created providing information on companies, real estate, and land, the fees for accessing those services have increased, and obtaining data from the companies’ archives has become an expensive and difficult procedure.
At the same time, there is an ongoing fight to hold the authorities accountable and to charge them if they violate journalists’ rights to access to information of public interest. This fight is about taking legal actions against state institutions to oblige themto comply with the law to provide information.
Director Gogu: “When it comes to information that is necessary for investigative topics, including corruption, officials do their best not to provide it, or they delay the process of accessing the information. They also can provide only very general information that often requires journalists to pay for certain databases. The costs are very high. It’s a problem we’ve been discussing for years. In recent years, amendments to the legislation have also been drafted to rectify the situation and make journalists’ work easier, but nothing has happened because there are still many bills that need improvement.”
Currently, several non-government media organizations and lawyers are preparing a draft law proposing a new approach to access to information. More specifically, it is about changing the law so that requests for access to personal data of public interest are examined based on the Law on Access to Information and not on the basis of the Law on the Protection of Personal Data, as is the case now.
“Press Solidarity March”. May 3, 2018.
“We have come up with a proposal to give journalists free access to all the information systems in which they can find personal information of public interest. We propose that the deadline for examining these applications should be no more than ten days from the moment of submission,” Sergiu Bozianu, President of the Association for the Protection of Private Life, a non-government organization, declared in a recent public debate.
Despite these problems, the media continues to uncover corruption and illegality. The work has an impact, but as in Bosnia and Herzegovina, it’s not as much as expected and not at the political level.
Rise Moldova journalist Olga Ceaglei noted the following (Rise Moldova, is a community of investigative journalists that is part of the “Global Investigative Journalism Network”): “I believe in the power of a journalistic investigation and in the impact it can have on society. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t do investigative journalism. Obviously there are enough situations when we have the feeling that we are fighting windmills. This is even more true in the case of white collar investigationsasquite often those officials are protected from public exposure of the illegalities they commit, even in cases when we publish incontestable evidence. Most recently I felt this when the state wascaptured by the Plahotniuc clan, although now things are no better.”
Ms Ceagleialso mentioned that in her experience as an investigative journalist, there were cases when the articles had an impact and changes in the legislation were made and institutions were reformed or abolished.
“There are also quite a few cases when following a well-documented article, law enforcement agencies have initiated criminal investigations that have led to convictions or to finding ‘forgotten’ files,” she added.
In June 2019, Rise Moldova published an investigation entitled “The Ministry of Wiretapping”. The investigation showed that in recent years the authorities had carried out a campaign to monitor the phone calls of opponents of the Democratic Party government. The then prosecutor general announced an investigation into every case, and the Parliamentary Commission for National Security, Defense and Public Order organized a hearing for specificbranches of the investigative unit. The head of the department within the general prosecutor’s office who was in charge when the wiretapping took place resigned two weeks after the investigation was published.
The latest investigations by Ziarul de Gardă, the only investigative newspaper in Moldova, show how with the political ascent of Igor Dodon and the Socialist Party of Moldova, people close to the president have secured businesses and assets worth millions. These include his brother, sister-in-law, his wedding godparents, and university colleagues of his and his wife’s. In another edition, Ziarul de Gardă published a series of photos of the president’s luxurious vacations. The journalists showed that during the last decade, politician Igor Dodon, who worked only as a public servant, spent his vacations in exotic areas such as the Maldives, the Seychelles,and Dubai. When he was going on these vacations, he made several purchases and took a loan of 1.5 million lei. The president claimed that all his vacations were paid for by relatives or with legal and declared income.
In 2010, when Dodon, then a Communist Party deputy, was on vacation in the Maldives, he officially reported revenue of 7,700 euros.
In 2011, when Dodon was spending his vacation in the Seychelles, the Dodon family declared an annual revenue of 6,900 euros.
Political analyst Victor Ciobanu believes that state institutions aren’t functioning because no entity with investigative abilities has initiated any verification of these investigations, and there has been no reactionadding that the lack of reaction is a symptom of a dysfunctional state.
“We don’t see a proper reaction. Of course, we do not expect reactions at the speed of light because we understand that any investigation must bethoroughly documented. A journalist’s investigation and a prosecutor’s investigation are, however, in different categories. Still, we saw that nothing happened in previous years when the prosecuting bodies and others with investigative powers were under the protection of the Democratic Party, and we see that this is still the case even now when the Socialist Party is in government. History repeats itself. So far we see no reaction from these institutions. I have said before, this will be the test for the new prosecutor general, if he has the courage and authority to not only open cases against the current government but also to carry them out. This will be the most conclusive test that the prosecutor is independent.”
Victor Ciobanu, political analyst. Source: noi.md
Mr Ciobanu mentioned that in cases concerning the president’s vacations and wealth, citizenscan penalize him when they vote. He further emphasized that often independent press investigations reach a limited number of people because in Moldova there are a large number of politically subordinate publications and TV stations that do not publicize them.
“The work of investigative journalism is important, but it is insufficiently disseminated in society because we have few independent media outlets. There are only a small number of independent TV stations; the rest are part of holding companies. One holding company remainsfrom the previous Democratic Party government while the other, already in progress, represents the current government. I think in size it will exceedthe holding of the Democratic Party. When the entire information space is covered by propaganda and misinformation, we cannot expect citizens to react to journalistic investigations.”
According toestimates and to the Corruption Perception Index for 2019 prepared by Transparency International, Moldova and Bosnia and Herzegovina were among the “champions” of least transparency, both recording rapid declines in that regard.
Expert Gotișan believes that solving these problems is both simple and difficult at the same time.
“Can you imagine what would happen if we had a quality and professional public media, or an independent, apolitical Audiovisual Council? Civil society and media organizations must continue to fight to build a healthy media sector, for qualitative laws according to time and needs, and for the non-involvement of politics in the sector. Citizens think critically, support independent media, and consume facts, not opinions. Let them make their own opinions based on facts.International donors have to continue supporting and funding independent media projects because only then can they survive in a country where the advertising market is monopolized by two large companies that have connections with the ruling political parties (Democratic Party and Socialist Party). Furthermore, governments should understand once and for all that without a free and independent press you cannot build a democratic society.”