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Public television: to be or not to be?

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Alex Florea / March 14, 2004
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The issue of public television has been in the public gaze quite regularly. And there are enough grounds for this, to mention just frequent changes to the laws on public television, establishment of a strike committee and the strike that followed, Observer Council and election of the company Chair, censorship, statements of the Anticensorship Committee, persecution of journalists that took part in the protest rallies, etc.

Therefore the key question here is whether we’ll have a public television after all or not? The answer to this simple question depends on too many factors. So, let’s consider some of them.

Historically, since its establishment in 1958 National Television enjoyed a relative freedom only once, namely between 1989–1993, when the old regime was falling apart, whereas new power did not took over the control yet. Censorship existed at that time as well, however journalists were doing their job trying to be unbiased and impartial. An illustration to this effect was a popular show at that times “Unda Tineretului” featuring representatives of parties of every ideological stripe: Peoples’ Front, “Edinstvo”, “Vozrojdenie” and “Gagauz Halki”. People greatly enjoyed that freedom and when it came to 1991 “putsch” they stood up and defended the Television and Radio.

However, that short period was not enough for the free speech to grow roots in Moldova. The importance of free media was not fully acknowledged. That it was indeed so, became quite clear in 1994 when Council of Europe recommended New Independent States to turn local television and radio into public institutions. The new political elite in the Republic of Moldova claiming to be a democratic one complied with those recommendations only partially. Parliament passed the Law on Audiovisuals only in 1995. The positive thing about the law was that for the first time ever Television was granted the status of public institution. It was to be run by an Audio-visual Council. Back then, de jure television and radio were no longer under the state control and supposedly reflected the interests of the entire society, however de facto nothing did change. In 1997 Parliament amended the law so as to be solely entitled to appoint or oust Television and Radio leadership (later one this provision was abrogated).

Henceforth, no progress whatsoever has been made. Under the new Law on National Audio-Visual Public Institution “Teleradio-Moldova”, its Chair is to be elected by the Observer Council. The latter was formed in such a manner as to keep it under the control of the ruling party. I have already pointed that Television has practically never been free. Since 1990 ten Chairs have succeeded each other and this mainly for political reasons. For instance, each time a fresh legislature came to power or whenever a Chair sought more independence, the leadership was changed again. An illustration to this effect is Sergiu Prodan who had the chance to run the company for only three months.

All of the aforesaid has brought Moldovan audio-visual in the attention of European institutions. Recent developments in public television and radio were on the agenda of Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly lately. Referring to Moldova, raporteur Pascal Mooney stated that the amendment of the Law twice that year did not bring any positive changes. Once again Council of Europe voiced its fears to the effect that the liquidation of the state company so as to establish a public television might be surreptitiously employed to get rid of less loyal journalists.

The aforesaid concerns stem from the fact that there are no clear-cut criteria for hiring back former employees of the liquidated company. Many of the former and current employees indicated, at least in private, that great many of the employees are very much of a burden for Television and Radio. They cite a “burden” of around 50–70% of the total 1,500 employees. To put it differently by preserving all 1,500 employees the company is not able to remunerate accordingly the most talented and efficient journalists. On the other hand, we are running the risk that when hiring, the company leadership would recruit precisely from the “burden” pool, so as to minimise the number of those who would dare to challenge the company policy.

That is why two positions dominate the discussions on the future of the company: the first one severely criticises the company as such and its outputs, whereas the second under the pretext of protecting employees’ interests opposes any kind of change.

So far, the lack of transparency and clear-cut criteria of recruitment has given rise to numerous speculations and fears. One thing is for sure, there is quite a number of professional journalists at the Moldovan TV that other TV channels would gladly invite. Therefore, age should definitely not be among the selection criteria, as it was gossiped.

One of the reasons for criticising the so-called public institution is that its news programs feature quite a number of “bureaucrat” reports, which existed even before 2001. The 1995 Law on Audiovisuals provided that public audio-visual institutions were to broadcast free of charge press releases of public interest issued by Parliament, Presidency and Government. Although this provision ran counter to European standards, opposition that at that time was in power did nothing to change it.

The aforesaid examples once again confirm that audio-visual problems are deep-rooted. Once the Communist Party came to power it took full advantage of the practices that had been in use for years. They introduced a more subtle, i.e. “unofficial” censorship, hard-line when it came to editorial policy favourable to the incumbent ruling.

Amid those growing signs, the issue of audio-visual public institution has taken the centre stage again. Ruling Communist Party was forced to adopt a law on public audio-visual institution (by the PACE resolution), thereby establishing an Observer Council that was to elect the Chair of the Public Institution. Albeit Communists formally complied with the recommendations, at a closer look one may find that once again nothing has really changed. After being adopted in 2002 the law was amended several times. One of the most important amendments excluded the notion of “non-profit” from the law. The move came after a new Chair, Artur Efremov was elected and set on transforming the public institution into a profitable business, thereby “getting television and radio out of poverty”. That was an inaccurate interpretation, for several reasons:

  1. All the audio-visual public institutions throughout the world are non-profit. This is one of the core elements that allow them to be autonomous from interest groups and money interests.
  2. In mass media, as well as in any kind of business, one has to invest first and earn a profit afterwards. Therefore, state funding (around 8 million Lei) should not be abolished. The money could be used, let’s say, for updating the equipment that is quite obsolete.
  3. In a country with dire economic straits, not a single TV or radio station stands the chance of being profitable. Even in Russia or Romania law prices on advertising could not cover huge costs of running a TV or radio station. That is yet another reason why there is no independent press in Moldova, whereas the number of domestic TV channels is close to zero.

It was probably these factors that led to the recent dismissal of the Chair, surprisingly unanimously voted by the entire Observer Council. This unanimous vote has raised some eyebrows, probably disclosing some conflicts of interests. But this is yet another story.

One thing is for sure audio-visual public institution may not be privatised. It belongs to the society and is to be funded from public funds, thereby avoiding any excessive control from the Government. Of course this is an ideal story. In reality though, none of the parties that have been in power since independence was keen to free the state TV and radio, rather they viewed them as useful tools for influencing public opinion during election campaigns and afterwards. This seems to be the reason why the outgoing Chair of “Teleradio-Moldova” strove to turn the public institution into a profitable business, thereby formally it would be a public institution, while de facto it would be run by business moguls shaping its editorial policy. Noteworthy, in Moldova some business is very close to power. An illustration to this effect is a recent report on the national TV news bulletin featuring a businessman making a donation to an orphanage, a rather innocent event if it were not for a Communist mogul who showed up at the event. So it wasn’t quite clear what was that official doing there in the first place and what the two had in common.

Breaching those principles or lack thereof generates rumours and speculations, thereby making the situation even worse. Allegedly, Public Company has closed its bank accounts in the Social Bank and opened new ones in a private bank close to the ruling party. Moreover, sources say the new draft of the bylaws of “Teleradio-Moldova” provides that revenues from commercial activities are to be used for charity (see the example above) and not primarily for broadcasts. Data on the revenues as well as on how it is spent are to be classified. Any disclosure of such data is to be prosecuted. The draft also provides that the Chair of the Company is solely entitled to decide on how the revenues are to be spent. Those prerogatives have nothing to do with the status a public audio-visual institution should enjoy.

The draft of the bylaws developed by the outgoing Company leadership referred also to the editorial policy. Both public radio and TV are to have social, education and entertainment broadcasts for all the ages and interest groups. This is quite a challenging task. Under the draft, each department is to develop a business plan that would outline the sources of funding for the aforesaid broadcasts.

The thing is that the Law on Sponsorship does not provide any incentives to the sponsors. Moreover, the lack of charity tradition in the country would not exactly help raising funds for social broadcasts. Businessmen would rather give money for such shows as “Miss Moldova” or bodybuilding contests. None of them has given a penny in the last 5–10 yeas for broadcast covering such issues as elderly or orphanages. Furthermore, knowing full well the clampdowns in place to control small-to-middling business, it is very unlikely that the latter would rush in sponsoring broadcasts on corruption either.

Although, the incumbent ruling party has learned many of the past lessons, it does not seem to realise yet that they will not stay in power forever and that by tailoring laws to suit their own interests, they’ll have to live by them when in opposition. If they were jolted into realising that there is another side to the ledger, then they would probably produce laws in the society interests, rather than in their own.

Once again we have to acknowledge that since its inception as a public TV institution a decade ago, nothing seems to have changed. That is why, sad as it may seem, subjectiveness and bias would be part of media coverage of social, economic, and political processes for many years ahead, despite the fact that National TV enjoys a public institution status.

On the other hand, the fact that journalists are uniting their efforts in fighting censorship at the television and are promoting professionalism is quite encouraging. Firing employees or cancelling TV shows cannot remain secret any longer. International organisations, such as Council of Europe, European Union and OSCE express lingering concerns and disapprove of the attempts to limit in any way the freedom of speech or wield heavy pressure on journalists. Therefore, authorities are put in a position to take adequate measures.

Under those circumstance it is up to the civil society whether Republic of Moldova would ever have a true public television that would exist for the society and be supported by the society at large.

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