Opinion: “New Restrictions on Free Speech Are Around the Corner”

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Even the West finds it difficult to ignore the total censorship and illegal blocking of the media in Moldova. But this does not bother the authorities, especially as they are preparing for a new offensive against freedom of speech in the country with the support of foreign partners
Semyon ALBU, RTA: Just recently, Moldova’s top diplomat Mihai Popsoi cracked a remarkable joke saying that the freedom of the press in the country is visible to every Moldovan and that all TV channels are free to express their opinions. I would say that in fact only the PAS press enjoys freedom, and all TV channels are free to express nothing but their praise for the policies of the ruling regime. This is more in line with reality. Characteristically, it is not only me who disagrees with the honorable minister, but even the holy West. Just the other day, the well-known human rights organization Amnesty International noted in its annual report that the right to freedom of expression was violated in Moldova, recalling the closure of two dozen Internet resources and six television channels. Although they added in a politically correct manner that this happened in an attempt to “counter Russian influence”. Or does this give indulgence from any breach of democratic rights and freedoms? Be that as it may, criticism has been voiced, and not only by this organization. The situation with the national media market is so flagrant that it is becoming increasingly difficult to turn a blind eye to it. That is why the OSCE and the Council of Europe have also criticized this decision. However, with reliable protection at the top of the European bureaucracy and the leadership of major Western powers, our authoritarian regime continues to tighten the screws without much reflection. In just a year and a half, which AI was too shy to mention in their report, the list of blocked websites in Moldova has exceeded 50 positions, and the number of closed TV channels has already reached a baker’s dozen. That’s quite a result for such a short time. We can state that they have drastically filtered the information space in our country, keeping in play only those who are ready to constantly praise Sandu and co. and remain blind to any, even the most obvious, iniquities of the “yellows”. In fact, this situation was predictable. Even before the conflict in Ukraine, in the first months of PAS rule, we sounded the alarm about how unceremonious the government was in taking over the public broadcaster, putting it at its service, and the Audiovisual Council, with the loyal Liliana Vitu as its head. We also described the potential ramifications of these steps, which not everyone viewed as significant at the time. Less than three years have passed, and our gloomy predictions proved to be amazingly accurate. The Audiovisual Council (AVC) has turned into a punitive tool, imposing sanctions on all those undesirable. Its “good” work was marked by a significant increase in budget allocations. And the chief of this openly censorious authority now proudly claims that disinformation and fake news have almost disappeared from television channels and radio stations, all due to large fines from the agency she is in charge of. However, Ms. Vitu complains, “the troublesome content has moved to the Internet”, while the online space has no state regulation and there is no equivalent to the AVC that would fight “manipulative news”. Yet, as she noted, efforts in this respect are in full swing at the level of the European Union, and Moldova is actively involved. Surely, no doubts there. The official’s statements can be considered a spoiler for the future of the media sphere in our country. It is obvious that the traditional sources of information for the population - television, newspapers, and news agencies - have been clamped down and are forced to play by the regime’s stupid rules, when even the absence of any information can be construed as an offence and a reason for blocking it. However, “for some reason” the population is not happy about the mere praise of the authorities in the official media and the presence of only “filtered” media in the broadcasting network. And they are shifting to online en masse, primarily to social networks and messengers not yet affected by censorship. As we can see, PAS is deeply unhappy with this state of affairs as they believe that people should consume only selected content that was approved by the “yellows”. Clearly, no one is going to tolerate this. Moldova alone cannot solve the task of bringing the online space under control, but Western partners will surely come to the rescue. We see how the government is constantly solicited by various European and American delegations on the topic of fighting Russian disinformation, or the opening of the EU mission, including to address this task. The infamous Patriot Centre, aka the Ministry of Truth, was developed under their influence and support. And recently we could see how “bad information” on the Internet will be removed. As usual, best practices are being tested in neighboring Ukraine, where the urgency of such issues is, of course, much higher. As you know, after the conflict started, Ukrainians launched the United News telethon, which united the largest state and private TV channels: they shared air slots among themselves and began broadcasting one news content. It enjoyed huge popularity at first, but over time it waned. Now the telethon is accused of outright lies and propaganda, even by influential Western media like the New York Times, and more than half of Ukrainian journalists call it a kind of censorship. Meanwhile, viewers are increasingly ignoring United News and turning to other sources, primarily Telegram and other messengers, in search of more correct information. It is not surprising that Ukrainian officials have long had a grudge against Telegram, either proposing to ban it completely or to restrict the functioning of Telegram channels. As Russia's experience has shown, technically it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to shut down this messenger. But you can always be creative and find workarounds. And so, the other day Pavel Durov, the founder and owner of Telegram, announced that Apple demanded to block certain channels for users with Ukrainian SIM cards. And that he had no other choice but to abide by this ultimatum so that the app would not be removed from the App Store. The Security Service of Ukraine and the Ministry of Digital Transformation are in charge of making the list of unreliable resources, which is later used by the messenger administration to “disconnect” Ukrainians from certain channels. Thus, depriving of an alternative to the unified telethon and its “online fellows”. It is rather obvious that our authorities, for whom the same Telegram channels are a thorn in the side, are surely watching the unfolding situation, expecting to apply the same measures to our local anonymous Internet communities. There is already a structure that will identify, list and direct them to the right place – the Patriot Centre, headed by faithful Revenco. I think that our Western partners will not have much difficulty in “asking” Apple and Google to address the administration of Telegram and other networks/messengers with corresponding wishes, so that the Moldovan groups and channels opposing the regime will be isolated from the local audience. It is no coincidence that for two years now the narrative about the huge information warfare of the Russian Federation against Moldova has been constantly promoted, both by our politicians and by Western officials. So, all still independent authors and journalists should get ready – the grabby mitts of censorship are threatening to infiltrate new territories, after which the information dictatorship of PAS will finally take shape. What can be done to counter this is no longer an idle question.