The February 2019 election campaign had its fake news, too, but at lower levels than other election campaigns. What has not changed, though, was the favoring or disfavoring of certain political actors by certain media outlets. The penalties applied by the Audiovisual Coordination Council (ACC) were also insignificant and incommensurate with the radio broadcasters’ violations of the broadcasting legislation. These and other subjects were discussed at the roundtable The Media during Elections: Information, Disinformation, and Electioneering, held Wednesday, March 13. The event was organized by the Independent Journalism Center (CJI) and the Independent Press Association (API), which released a final monitoring report on the media during the campaign leading up to the February 24, 2019, election.

Ensuring political pluralism

According to the report, the media productions monitored during the reporting period focused mainly on representatives of political parties, followed by independent candidates in single-member constituencies. Many newscasts and programs transmitted by certain monitored broadcasters also featured president Igor Dodon, prime minister Pavel Filip and other government representatives.

The parties with the highest visibility in terms of the frequency and length of visual appearances and direct interventions in the news, programs, and debates were the Democratic Party, ACUM Electoral Bloc, the Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova, the Shor Political Party, and the Liberal Party.

Looking at the frequency and length of appearances (quotations/direct speaking) on the monitored web portals and newspapers, the most visible of the 15 parties and other political organizations registered in the national constituency was the Democratic Party, with a small lead over its closest contenders the Party of Socialists and ACUM Electoral Bloc followed by the Shor Party, the Party of Communists, and the Liberal Party.

The fake news phenomenon is decreasing, but still present

The roundtable participants were interested how frequent fake news reports had been during the monitored period. The API’s CEO Petru Macovei acknowledged that the online media had such news, and some media outlets had used elements of fake news in their materials. This time, however, the public and journalists had taken this type of news with a grain of salt, and it had not been as massive as during previous campaigns.  “People got more critical about the media, and, perhaps, this means greater attention to the information offered by media outlets,” Petru Macovei said.

The fake news phenomenon was also lower on the radio. The CJI’s CEO Nadine Gogu explains this by the fact that, unlike online portals, broadcasters have their regulatory body, which can penalize TV channels, thus making them pay more attention to such cases. “I’ve noticed it in many election campaigns, when a newscast on television is relatively ‘clean’ and balanced, while the web portal belonging to the same family posts the same story with more details and deviations from the journalistic rigor. This proves once again that the online environment, with its lack of regulations, harbors more, like, nasty things than the broadcast media,” noted Nadine Gogu.

ACC should extend its monitoring period

Present at the roundtable, the member of the Audiovisual Coordinating Council (ACC) Olga Gututui said that, in principle, the results of the monitoring carried out by the ACC were consistent with those performed by civil society. She noted, however, that the regulatory body should monitor TV channels not only during election campaigns, but also during pre-electoral periods, the way civil society does. This is because — as the civil society’s report showed once again — “certain media outlets get into backroom dealings and fail to offer good quality content way before the beginning of the election campaign,” stressed Olga Gututui.

Speaking about the insignificant penalties applied by the ACC — when certain broadcasters got away with only a MDL 5,000 fine for breaching the broadcasting legislation —, the ACC member stressed: “The Audiovisual Code states explicitly that every fine must be commensurate, including with the severity of the violation committed by the offending media outlet. If you admit such violations, you take on the responsibility and account for them.”

CEC supports the tightening of penalties

The Central Election Commission’s (CEC) press officer Corneliu Pasat acknowledged that penalties applied to the media outlets that breach the law are, essentially, mild. “This is quite a disproportion — especially if you consider the cost of one minute of advertisement on a TV channel, which can get as high as USD 5,000 — to have fines of MDL 5,000,” said Corneliu Pasat.

The roundtable participants agreed on the need for changes to the Regulations on covering election campaigns. For example, the Regulations do not offer a clear definition of the media outlets that must cover election campaigns.

Another issue pinpointed by the participants was the transmission of election debates at unsuitable hours on certain TV channels, for example, early in the morning. The law does not require broadcasters to transmit debates on prime-time. However, they should show them during the hours with peak audience to offer voters access to them.

Media outlets monitored by the Independent Journalism Center and the Independent Press Association were also invited to the roundtable. However, only those from the public channel Moldova 1 showed up at the event.