Journalistic freedom: Tiraspol Times staff weighing options after Moldovan gag law

Inthe aftermath of a sweeping ban of "pro-separatist" media, journalistsat The Tiraspol Times are weighing their options and seeking legaladvice. On 5 June 2008, Moldova outlawed newspapers whose articles can be interpreted as positive coverage of Transdniestria. Moldova's legal authority over Transdniestria is in doubt but the country can enforce its laws internationally.

TIRASPOL (Tiraspol Times) - In response to the just-passed Moldovanlaw banning newspapers with favorable coverage of Transdniestria, staffat The Tiraspol Times & Weekly Review has suspendedpublication while seeking legal advice and evaluating the possiblerisks of prosecution of individual journalists.

On 5 June 2008, Moldova's Parliament passed a law banning allpublications whose content could be construed as a call to "territorialseparatism."

Under its new powers, Moldova's regime can now forcibly close downpublications and can also individually prosecute journalists who do notcomply. As a member of Interpol, Moldova can also use its powers toissue international arrest warrants for journalists who fail to appearin court in Chisinau, the Moldovan capital, when summoned.

Journalists working with The Tiraspol Times & Weekly Review aretaking a "wait and see" position on the new media restrictions, inorder to determine if and when Moldova will enforce the sweepingcrackdowns.

" - At first only the senior journalists may be targeted andarrested if and when these laws are enforced," says Des Grant, afounder and co-publisher of The Tiraspol Times & Weekly Review.Grant, a long-time journalist who has previously written for some ofBritain's largest newspapers, is now a newspaper publisher in Irelandbut has also worked at the European Union in Brussels during part ofhis career in journalism.

" - It seems that Moldova lost the military war to take overTransnistria. Then it lost the diplomatic war. Then it lost theeconomic war. And now that it is facing defeat in what it terms the'information war,' it responds with its last weapon: 'jail thejournalists.' So sweeping is the law that if any Moldovan journalistwrites a line that supports Transnistria's position then he or she canbe prosecuted," says Des Grant.

" - It is a dark and scary day for all journalists in Moldova and Transnistria," the Irish newspaper publisher adds.

London's advice: "If in doubt, get out"

The London-based Institute for War & Peace Reporting (IWPR) isone of the organizations covering press freedom in conflict areas andthe author of "Reporting for Change: A Handbook for Local Journalists in Crisis Areas" which is referenced by The Tiraspol Times. The book, which appears on the newspaper's 'New writers'-page,is a practical, hands-on manual to help local journalists contribute topositive change in societies undergoing major crises due to internal orexternal pressures. Among other things, it covers journalism safety andthe IWPR advice is to "never put the story above personal safety,"adding that "the golden rule is: If in doubt, get out."

This, today, is what the newspaper's core staff is contemplating.Jason Cooper, who has been with The Tiraspol Times since 2006, saysthat it is no longer possible to keep reporting the point of view ofthe authorities in Tiraspol fairly and accurately without breaking thenew media gag law in Moldova.

Jason Cooper

JasonCooper: "Either we are forced to break the law and we can beprosecuted, or else we must automatically enforce censorship thatresults in one-sided, unbalanced news coverage. I don't know very manyjournalists who can morally and ethically do their job undercircumstances like these."

" - Either we are forced to break the law and we can be prosecuted,or else we must automatically enforce censorship that results inone-sided, unbalanced news coverage. I don't know very many journalistswho can morally and ethically do their job under under circumstanceslike these," says Jason Cooper.

" - Moldova can easily accuse anyone of us of breaking the lawsimply for writing any sort of article that is even mildly positive ofwhat the separate and independent government in Transdniestria isdoing. To say that someone is writing is support of 'territorialseparatism' is basically a nebulous thought-crime — and as soon as evena single article of mine could be construed as such by the drafters ofthe Moldovan gag law, then accordingly it can also be acted upon byMoldovan prosecutors issuing an arrest warrant," says Cooper. "So muchfor the open exchange of different political views..."

"Sandwich"-strategy hides media ban

Des Grant of The Tiraspol Times calls it "very clever and conceited" how the Moldovans "put the key issue into the legislation."

The law passed by Moldova's Parliament on 5 June 2008 specifically prohibits any publication:

"which contains libel against the State and the people,calls to war or aggression, to ethnic, racial or religious hatred,instigates to discrimination, to territorial separatism, to publicviolence, as well as other encroachments on the constitutional order."

Des Grant

DesGrant: "Now Moldova responds with its last weapon: 'jail thejournalists.' So sweeping is the law that if any Moldovan journalistwrites a line that supports Transnistria's position then he or she canbe prosecuted. It is a dark and scary day for all journalists inMoldova and Transnistria."

Grant says that this "is called 'sandwiching'.....putting the meatin the middle and hiding the real substance between legitimateconcerns."

" - It would be a bit like the white South African government issuing a law stating that: 'Acts of gross violence, rape, murder, racial protest, and terrorist sabotage will result in incarceration without trial.'The 'racial protests' (for instance, against apartheid) being mingledwith the serious crimes. This way, it stops all street protest becauseto a fair-minded person, at a glance, the legislation looks justifiedand reasonable," he says.

" - However, any student of journalism can pick the 'sandwiched'issue here in Moldova's case. It is 'territorial separatism.' In otherwords, any legitimate journalist who reports on the political situationof Transnistria can expect the same treatment as those sick internetbloggers that write promoting racism or religious hatred."

Legal uncertainties over land, jurisdiction

Moldova's legal position is that Transdniestria (Pridnestrovie) ispart of Moldova. However, Transdniestria declared independence in 1990,one year before the Republic of Moldova was founded, and has never atany time in history been part of any independent Moldovan state. It wasformerly part of Russia, Ukraine and the Soviet Union, and was mergedby Stalin with Moldova in 1940 in an act which Moldova itself laterdecried as being illegal.

The Republic of Moldova has no influence or government authoritywithin the borders of Transdniestria, which is ruled by its ownseparate constitution, presidency and parliament. Nevertheless,Moldova's territorial claim and the pretensions of authority over thearea has led Moldova to issue Interpol arrest warrants against a numberof Transdniestrians. It also arrested and jailed Moldova's bête noireIgor Smirnov, democratically elected as Transdniestria's President, for"promoting separatism." Later it had to free him after several weeks ofstrong protests by Transdniestrian women.

Igor Smirnov

IgorSmirnov has already been arrested by Moldova for "anti constitutional"activities in the past and was locked away in a Chisinau jail celluntil protests from female residents got him freed. His crime was toask for a vote to be held and let the inhabitants decide their ownfuture in a democratic referendum.

What Moldova considers an encroachment of its "territorialintegrity" (albeit over land that it has never had any control of) isseen in Transdniestria as irredentism, or Moldovan expansion againstthe democratic will of the majority of the area's residents.Transdniestria's 550,000 inhabitants have voted in referendums tosupport independence and the establishment of a separate, sovereignstate.

No international court of law has yet ruled on the issue, so at thecurrent time it is Moldova's words against Transdniestria's. Thiscreates legal uncertainties over the area and establishes an uncertainlegal situation where foreign courts may be inclined to allow Moldovanlaws to have effect over journalists working in Transdniestria.

The Tiraspol Times covers the news from Tiraspol's point of view,but has also repeatedly given space to coverage and interviews ofleading Moldovan politicians as well as the situation in Moldova. Now,it is no longer possible to report both sides of the issue withoutbreaking Moldovan law.

" - Today, unless you support Moldova's territorial expansion or what it terms 're-integration'of Transnistria into Moldova, you can be taken before the courts. This'sandwiching' law is a gross violation of press freedom," believes DesGrant.



Publish Date: 

Thursday, 23 October 2008