Marius Dragomir

Russian Television in Moldova: Winning Hearts and Minds

With blistering attacks on the west and extolling coverage of Russia’s head honchos, Russian TV channels are making inroads in Moldova’s media market.
 
In a 2011 film, the Marvel Comics character Captain America has a mission to stop the mastermind villain Red Skull from using an artifact called the Tesseract as a source of energy to dominate the world. Red Skull is a character depicted as the archenemy of Captain America, the patriotic super-soldier in the eponymous movie serial. Captain America is armed with a shield that is almost unbreakable. He uses it to fight his foes; and he always wins.
 
Substitute Captain America with the Russian president Vladimir Putin and Red Skull with a western country and you get a sliver of the Russian television diet in Moldova, an eastern European nation with a population of 3.5 million, sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine.
 

The News of Eastern Europe: Brought to You by Russia

For ten years, the Russian government has built media across eastern Europe. They are becoming a fearsome player in the region’s media market.
 
Last March, far-right British activist Jim Dowson told the Guardian that the website Patriotic News Agency, which he had launched in July 2016 to spread pro-Trump propaganda, has bases in Hungary and Serbia. He said that other such platforms are also based there.
 

Why Good Journalism Lost to Noisy Populists

Open society media camp has lost the information war with the often inarticulate, yet vociferous, populist lot. To gain back the trust of the masses, they have to learn a more popular language.
 
“If a Republican acted like me and ran for office, it’d be a movement. Donald Trump has proven me right. People are tired of pussies.”
 
It was not the first time Mike Cernovich, the Southern California-based founder of the blog Danger & Play, was sharing such a contentious opinion online. The tweet, posted in the summer of 2015, was both a premonition (about Mr Trump’s rise to America’s presidency) and a telltale sign of the new generation of influencers in the country's political discourse.
 

Public Media Must Finally Change

Critics of taxpayer funding for public media are on the rise; and for good reason. It’s time for public media to take their audience seriously.
 
Sieglinde  Baumert, 46, from the small town of Geisa, in the German region of Thuringia, last year became the first person ever sent behind bars for failing to pay the license fee. This is a tax that all German households are obliged to pay to finance the country’s public service media, namely the TV channels ARD and ZDF, and the German radio.
 
Ms Baumert was sentenced to six months in prison. In April last year she was released from jail after two months, as the German public broadcaster dropped the case against her.
 
Increasingly, Germans are caterwauling about legal provisions forcing all households in Germany to pay €17.50 (US$21) a month to keep the country’s radio and TV in business. They say that they should be free to decide what media they want to fund. In 2015, the agency collecting the license fee in Germany issued over 25 million warnings to households who failed to pay this fee, an increase of about 20% compared to the previous year.
 
But Germany is not an isolated case. Controversies over the funding of public media are rife elsewhere.
 

Malaysiakini Under Fire

Malaysia’s embattled government has already offed most of the critical journalistic outlets in Malaysia. Now, it has a new target.
 
When a prime minister has US$ 700m in his private bank account, you have a story. But in Malaysia, only a few publications dared to cover it. Malaysiakini, one of the most dauntless media outlets in Malaysia, did so.
 
That came with grave consequences.
 
Steven Gan, the head editor and co-founder of the online portal Malaysiakini, was charged on 18 November 2016 for “offensive” content in two videos aired online by the portal’s sister company, KiniTV. Local observers said that the move was aimed at spooking critical voices before an antigovernment demonstration that took place the following day in the country’s capital city Kuala Lumpur. The protest was led by a local group of foursquare pro-democracy activists.
 
But the charges against Mr Gan are part of a much bigger game. The country’s government has been feverishly clamping down on a wad of critical media in the past two years. Those who couldn’t be brought into line have been rubbed out one by one. Malaysiakini is probably the last credible independent news site still breathing.
 
Now, Malaysia’s prime minister Najib Razak is hell-bent on weeding them out, too.
 

Know the Power, Know the Media

Media and journalism are changing fast and so should the media research agenda.
 
Analyzing the role of social media in the recent elections in America, Farhad Manjoo wrote in the New York Times on 16 November 2016 that widespread misinformation online was a “primary factor in the race’s outcome.”
 
I would add that some mainstream media have equally (if not more so) contributed to that outcome. Worse, some of them wholeheartedly embraced that role.
 
Audiences drawn by coverage of Donald Trump have just been good for the business of television. Mr Trump drove ratings up and with them ad sales. The head of CBS TV station, Les Moonves boasted last February that all that coverage of Mr Trump “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” On top of corporate dollars, CBS and other major TV channels pulled in hefty revenues from political advertising. The cost of the 2016 U.S. elections was expected to reach an unprecedented US$11.4bn in political advertising and media buying, a significant jump from the US$7bn in the 2012 elections, according to data from the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) released earlier this year.

Internet Is Censored in Two-Thirds of the World

Many believe the Internet equals freedom of information. Recently, that has been less and less the case.
 
Maung Saung Kha, a 23-year old poet from Myanmar, was relieved last May to hear that he would be released from prison. On 24 May 2016, Mr Saung Kha was sentenced to six months in jail for defaming Myanmar’s former president Thein Sein, but because he had already spent six months behind bars, he was freed the same day.
 
His crime: posting a poem on Facebook in which a newlywed was baffled to see a tattoo featuring Myanmar’s former president on her husband’s genitals. The husband in the poem was Mr Saung Kha. In other parts of the world, such a poem would trigger a smile. But in Myanmar, authorities took this seriously. Using provisions on defamation from the telecommunications law, they justified imprisonment of the young bard in the Insein jail near Yangon, Myanmar’s capital city.
 

Turkish Media: From Bad to Worse

After a decade of manipulations that ensure a cozy relationship between the press and the president, Erdogan is now overseeing a harsh crackdown that is closing media outlets and putting journalists in prison.
 
Last August, the Turkish government shut down Ozgur Gundem, a Kurdish daily newspaper. Police raided the newspaper’s headquarters and arrested more than 20 journalists. The closure was ordered by an Istanbul court, which found the newspaper was a “mouthpiece” of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is outlawed in the country.
 
The closure of Ozgur Gundem is only a small part of the Turkish government’s clampdown on media and journalism in the country, following the failed military coup in mid-July 2016.

Is Donor Funding Bad for Journalism?

Funding from donors in the media has grown significantly during the past decade or so. Journalists welcome the charity. But when these awards come with editorial “advice”, we have a problem.
 
Thisisafrica.me is an online media outlet that brands itself as a “leading forum for African opinion, arts and music.” They cover a jumble of topics ranging from politics to corruption to sex and reproductive policies. The site publishes op-eds, interviews and investigations. Its journalism has been widely praised across the continent.
 
But in spite of its apparent popularity, Thisisafrica.me is in business mainly thanks to donor funding: cash doled out by foundations and deep-pocketed philanthropists. Without cash from donors, Thisisafrica.me wouldn’t exist. That is hardly surprising, especially on a continent ravaged by poverty where markets can rarely support high-quality journalism.
 
But over the past decade or so, as the internet and dwindling economies have clobbered mainstream media companies, funding independent journalism has become a major problem everywhere. Ad spend is down or spread to many more outlets than before. Newspaper circulations have dived. Journalists and media companies take funding from almost all kinds of givers, donors included. Even established media are increasingly resorting to private donors.

EU Helps Romanian Intelligence Agency to Officially Become Big Brother

Thanks to a generous EU grant, Romania’s controversial intelligence agency is mingling stocks of databases from the country’s public institutions to monitor people. That could hurt many, but in particular those critical to the authorities and their friends.
 
Imagine this: you go online in your office and with a mere click you find out that some journalists that you don't like have not paid their tax on income they have generated as freelancers. Next minute you can informally alert the tax office; or, worse, blackmail these journalists and ask them to kill a story on a sensitive topic that can affect you and your friends up in the state administration or elsewhere.
 
That could happen in Romania in no more than a couple of years as the Romanian Information Service (SRI), the nation’s intelligence agency, is building a system that will allow them to hoard data from all key state authorities and public institutions in the country.
 
Ironically, all this is being funded with European Union (EU) money. The SRI is using a hefty €31.5m (US$ 35.2m) from the EU to run this project, called SII Analytics. By 2018, the system should be ready to fly.

Why Himal is Leaving Nepal

Himal has been in business for three decades. Now it is folding, and Nepal’s authorities have a problem.
 
The end of summer got very heated for Himal Southasian, an English in-depth journalism magazine covering the South Asia region from a newsroom in Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital city. The publication announced that it would suspend operations by November 2016 after nearly three decades in business.
 
The closure was prompted by the failure of local authorities to process papers that would allow Himal Southasian to operate legally. More precisely, the Nepalese government prevented the magazine from accessing grants that they received from foreign donors. Organizations in Nepal that are funded by foreign entities have to apply to the authorities for a permit to access these funds. Only then can foreign groups wire cash to them.
 

The Anti-Orban Revolution Won’t Be Televised

Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban has been quietly gaining control over a media empire, especially TV assets, with the help of oligarchs fighting to win government contracts; but ahead of general elections set for 2018, the ongoing war between him and former ally media mogul Lajos Simicska threatens to bring the fascist Jobbik party to power – and squash independent media.
 
Lajos Simicska, one of Hungary’s wealthiest media and construction moguls, is said to be in the cards to buy the online news server Index.hu. In the past several months, Mr Simicska has been frantically restructuring his media empire, shedding some outlets and shopping around for new ones.
 
The reason? Mr Simicska is hell-bent to skunk Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban in the national elections scheduled to take place in 2018. He knows that having an arsenal of strong news media can make it happen.
 

The BBC in the Dock Over Bias

Researchers point to clear and consistent bias on the main BBC bulletins in favor of critics of Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn following a wave of shadow cabinet resignations after the UK decided to leave the EU.
 
The BBC, the U.K.’s flagship broadcaster, has been for decades a model of inspiration for other public media supporters across the globe. The public broadcaster was lauded for its governing structure, which prevented political interference, and for its funding model, which ensures stable, long-term financing. But above all, the BBC garnered kudos for its unbiased, objective, fact-anchored reporting – a paragon of independent journalism.
 
In recent years, however, the BBC has come under increased critical scrutiny for its slanted coverage. A recent study by the Media Reform Coalition (MRC) and Birkbeck, University of London, browbeat the British broadcaster for its “consistent bias” against Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party.
 
The study’s findings are worrisome not so much because of the target of the bias, an opposition politician, but for how the BBC is performing its public service media role.

Trust in Journalists and News Media Sinks to New Lows

The news media industry has been faced with a profound crisis for more than a decade now, and peoples' dwindling trust in journalists has much to do with it.
 
May was a nightmarish month for the 500 staff of Mega, the oldest privately owned channel in Greece, as the station was faced with closure following mounting debts, mostly to banks. In the end, the three families that control the channel - Psiharis, Bobolas and Vardinogiannis - agreed to increase Mega’s capital to save the channel from bankruptcy.
 
But the Mega crisis is illustrative of a much bigger problem that Greek journalism has been facing for years: the collusion between media and politics. Most of the country’s mainstream media was established by businessmen merely as PR channels for their other companies. Politicians don’t touch them as they enjoy the positive coverage; and owners fund the media through profits made in other companies.
 
It doesn’t come as a surprise, then, to see Greece at the bottom of the heap when it comes to trust in news organizations and journalists. Only one in five trust the news in Greece and a paltry 11% trust journalists, according to a survey run in 26 countries worldwide by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ).
 
Greece is not alone. Journalism has a growing trust problem in many other places.
 

CNN Teams up With Crony-Backed Media in Myanmar

Myanmar is set to have its first modern all-news television channel. Its designers are CNN and a local crony.
 
Back in 2011, the United States Campaign for Burma (USCB), a lobby group from America, asked the U.S. government to impose sanctions against 42 people who allegedly supported the military junta regime in Myanmar. They argued that generals, their families and cronies reap massive profits from a bevy of industries and save them in offshore accounts.
 
The list included bigwigs from banks, mining companies, construction and trade businesses.

How Media Has Become Netanyahu & Co in Israel

Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is becoming hypersensitive to his critics. He's figured out how to solve the problem: bring all media into line.
 
On 18 September 2016, Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is going to a court in Tel Aviv to convince jurors to order Igal Sarna, a journalist for Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, to pay him nearly US$ 73,000 in a libel suit lodged by Mr Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, last March.
 
The dispute was triggered by a note posted by Mr Sarna on his Facebook page the same month, in which he alleged that Mrs Netanyahu, angry with her husband, kicked him out of the premier official car on a central highway. Mr Sarna didn’t cite any source for his allegations. He later responded laconically on his Facebook page that the lawsuit was being “taken care of.”
 

How to Neuter Critical Media in Eastern Europe: Buy Them an Ad

The integrity and independence of journalism is in dire straits in eastern Europe. The preferential distribution of state advertising has had to do with much of this.
 
Celebrating 175 years of existence last year, Turkey’s leading telecom provider, Turk Telekom, organized a glamorous reception in Ankara, the nation’s capital city, attended by many of the country’s bigwigs. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan came in person to congratulate the telco’s chairman Mohammed Hariri for the company’s “exceptional service” to Turkey.
 
But the party was only a sprinkling in the company’s anniversary budget. On top of it, and other things, Turk Telekom splurged in 2014 on a massive advertising campaign ballyhooing its then upcoming anniversary. However, this spending spree turned out to be a rather clever political maneuver instead of a usual corporate stint. Data from Nielsen Company AdEx, which monitors ad spending in Turkey, show that Turk Telekom doled out some US$ 63m to 16 pro-government media outlets. Opposition newspapers such as Zaman, BirGun or Cumhuriyet didn’t receive a dime.

Middle East: Online Conversation Moves out of Facebook and Twitter

Uncomfortable with the government’s aggressive snooping, internet users in the Middle East are increasingly beginning to move their discussions to more impervious chatrooms.
Last summer, the Saudi Arabian government stunned internet freedom activists, and others, when they announced new legal provisions that allow the naming and shaming of offenders of the kingdom’s anti-cyber crime law. The law enables authorities to throw people who produce, prepare, distribute and even store content that “impinges” on public order, religious values and “public morals” via the internet into jail.
 
As if that was not sufficient, the same law allows the naming and shaming of those found guilty of these offenses. In a region like the Middle East where individual reputation is a cornerstone of societal value, naming and shaming has the potential to be even more intimidating than rotting in a Saudi quod. Local observers saw these legal provisions as another step towards stifling criticism by the local authorities, through such a powerful social deterrent.
 

Reviving Greek Journalism With AthensLive

The pathetic state of Greek journalism is not a mystery to anyone anymore. The number of disgruntled readers looking for fresh journalism is growing and stories from Greece aimed at foreign audiences are poor or slanted. Now, AthensLive wants to change all of that.

Tassos Morfis, Angelos Christofilopoulos, Yannis Drakoulidis and Gerry Domenikos are a group of journalists and photographers living in Athens who have, in the past few years, grown increasingly frustrated with the state of Greek journalism, but also with the quality of news that comes out of Greece to the broader, international public.
 
“The year 2015 was a very turbulent year for Greece,” says Mr Morfis in a presentational video. “We had elections twice with a radical left government getting elected, we almost got kicked out of the eurozone, we had a referendum and now we are dealing with a huge refugee influx.”
 
But that is all already known.
 

The Middle East: Have You Been Watching?

As online video consumption skyrockets in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, power holders are desperately looking for smart blocking tools. But the audiences they fight against are hard to stop unless internet giants agree to play the censorship game.
 
Tzipi Hotovely, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, made headlines last December when she traveled to Silicon Valley to meet with executives from Google to negotiate ways to block videos posted by Palestinians on YouTube, the video sharing platform owned by Google. The visit followed complaints by the Israeli government that some of these videos incite Palestinians to carry out attacks on Israelis. 
 
Ms Hotovely claimed that she was victorious. After the meeting, she said that Google joined Israel in the fight “against incitement”, something that Google denied. But whatever the real agreement was, the Israel-Google meeting speaks volumes about the growing interest and anxiety politicians and governments in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region have been showing when it comes to online videos.
 
The reason? A massive increase in online video consumption in the region, particularly on YouTube.

How Indalo Group Used Taxpayers’ Money to Buy More Media

A journalistic investigation unearths a raft of favors the former Argentinian government made to the group Indalo. But it also highlights an unsettling pattern of tradeoffs and favors between mighty media moguls and state institutions.
 
In their past four years in power, the Kirchner regime in Argentina allowed the businessman Cristobal Lopez to get away with accruing some US$550m (something close to ARS 8bn in local currency) in debts. The money was owed to the Federal Public Revenue Administration (AFIP), Argentina’s fiscal administrator. That debt is unlikely to be paid in the near future, according to an investigation from the Argentinian newspaper La Nacion, which analyzed a bevy of balance sheets from Indalo, the group controlled by Mr Lopez and his business partner Fabian De Sousa.
 

 
The debt consists of taxes on gasoline that Oil Combustibles, one of Indalo’s companies, failed to pay to the state. For each ARS 14 per liter of gasoline sold, Oil Combustibles was supposed to transfer some ARS 4 to AFIP. 
 
It didn’t do so. 
 

Asian Telcos, the Poorest at Reporting on Anti-corruption

Telecom behemoths drive technology advancement and help to grow the digital economy. But many of them have serious problems with reining in corruption. Asia leads in that category. 

Chang Xiaobing, the chairman of the telco China Telecommunications Corp (China Telecom), came under investigation last December under suspicion of serious disciplinary violations, which in the local legal lingo usually means corruption-related crimes. Mr Chang is the highest-ranking official from the country’s telecom industry to date being investigated for corruption.

But that was not the first corruption investigation case in the Chinese telecom sector. In November 2014, two top executives from China United Network Communications Group (China Unicom), the second largest telco in China by number of subscribers, came under investigation for a slew of legal violations.
 

China Plans to Push out Foreign Owners From Its Internet

Chinese authorities have never liked dissenting voices. Now, they want to solve that problem by removing foreign players from their internet. This would be a major blow for international news producers.
 
The Chinese government traditionally doesn’t cope well with critical voices and has done all they can to fence opinionated people off of its internet. But as of next month Chinese authorities seem poised to purge their online space of all foreign players, according to a new set of rules adopted by the country’s industry and IT ministry, which are to take effect on 10 March 2016.
 
 
The move has triggered anxiety amongst some of the larger international media groups that operate in China, as they have pumped hefty investments into building their businesses there. Essentially, if these rules are implemented verbatim, foreign-owned companies with operations on the Chinese internet have to pack up and go. These include news media outlets, entertainment companies, gaming sites and publishers.
 

Myanmar's Government Hints About Closure of State-Run TV Are Merely an Odd Hoax

Many media observers were discombobulated when a state official hinted that Myanmar’s state-run TV could be shut down. But that’s just part of an outlandish government gambit to confuse people and, if possible, garner more support.
 
Media experts and journalists were left dumbfounded when last Sunday an official of the information ministry in Myanmar insinuated at a powwow of ethnic media groups in Arakan state that the country’s state broadcaster Myanmar TV (MRTV) would or could be dismantled. If MRTV is dissolved, then ethnic media will suffer, said U Tint Swe, a permanent secretary at the ministry.
 
The state has been pumping hefty cash in the past few years into strengthening its mouthpiece, as MRTV is known. Why would the government want to shut it down now?

European Court Decision Allows Media to Be Less Paranoid About Online Comments

In summer 2015, a much-criticized decision by Europe’s human rights court left online portals anxious about what comments they allowed on their sites. Now, the same court has reversed that decision in a lawsuit lodged by two Hungarian websites. That means less stress for online media.
 

Internet Providers in Eastern Europe and Former Soviet Union: Non-Transparent, Dubious, Politically Linked

The Internet has become the new heaven for unheard voices, new forms of commerce and limitless communication across eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. But who owns the companies providing this service? Many of these owners are unknown, others are linked with politics and some are dubious characters embroiled in criminal investigations.
 
A decade ago, the internet was the realm solely of the progressive, technically savvy, often nerdy youth in many countries of eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. But today, people who in the 2000s didn’t even have a computer regularly browse through their favorite news sites, email and buy their groceries online. 
 
Since 2000, internet usage in the Czech Republic has skyrocketed from less than 10% to nearly 80% of the population in 2014, according to data from World Bank. In less advanced economies such as Bulgaria, it has jumped as well to some 56% in 2014 from a mere 5% in 2000. Even in some slowly growing markets such as Armenia, over 46% of the people used the service in 2014, a gigantic leap from a mere 1.3% in 2000. 
 
But who is behind the telecom groups that provide this service?

European Audiovisual Groups Increase Their Market Share at Home

European broadcast groups are dwarfed by American ones on the global level. But at home, they enjoy a comfortable position. And they tend to further grow.

Growing media concentration continues to be a troubling global trend. Worldwide, the top 10 global media players, dominated by U.S. companies, control ever-larger swaths of the media landscape. This situation causes media scholars and activists to raise concerns about the impact on democracy when an ever-growing share of the global communications environment is controlled by fewer people.

Ranking Telcos: Name and Shame Them and They Will Improve

There are several initiatives out there that measure and rank companies. Pharmaceutical manufacturers are ranked according to how they ensure access to medicines and major foodstuffs producers are ranked according to their impact on communities. Now, we have the Corporate Accountability Index that measures how internet companies and telcos fare in their general commitment to digital rights and practices related to freedom of expression and privacy.
 
However, is this merely a game of name and shame?
 

Though it seems like one, the ultimate goal is to actually improve companies. Rebecca MacKinnon, the director of the Corporate Accountability Index, an initiative supported by a dozen of funders and several research centers, says that the main goal of this initiative and the kind of impact the index is craving is to force companies to improve their policies, because that will ultimately have positive repercussions on consumers.

How a Corrupt Minister in Romania Brought Media, Journalists and Bloggers to Clobber a Journalistic Investigation

For four years, two journalists investigating a suspected money laundering and influence peddling case at a Romanian ministry faced numerous obstacles. But they didn’t expect to grapple with so many obstructions from their own peers. A spate of emails between people involved in the case shows why journalists turned against journalists.

“Two bloggers cost €1,200, VAT included. Some of those big bloggers.”  This is what an online media advisor in Romania replied when asked whether she could place a piece written by Elena Udrea, a former tourism and regional development minister in Romania, on a popular blog.

It happened in 2011 at a time when sports journalists Catalin Tolontan and Mirela Neag were sweating over unearthing evidence of suspected graft among officials in the ministry in an investigation that became known as the Bute Gala case. The two were following tips that a ring of public officials were siphoning off public cash by illegally awarding funds to companies involved in the organization of a major boxing event in Bucharest. The event was named after Lucian Bute, a 35-year old renowned pugilist born in Romania.
 

The Moscow Times Changes: Trimming Costs and Fighting for Independence

With a new owner and now a new editor, the English-language paper The Moscow Times is being reformed from the ground up. A leaner, more economically resilient publication is likely to emerge - but, what rises from the ashes is an entirely different kind of paper which will probably not be very critical of the Russian government.

The appointment yesterday of the liberal journalist Mikhail Fishman at the helm of The Moscow Times has been lauded by many journalists as Mr Fishman is well known for his integrity and courage. He was the editor-in-chief of Russian Newsweek when it closed down in 2010, reportedly because of financial problems. He then moved on to work as an anchor on a political show aired by the liberal TV station Dozhd, which is known as virtually the sole television station in Russia that offers a non-governmental perspective on the political life. The station’s critical standpoint has often attracted the ire of the regime.

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