For Moldova’s journalists, surveillance is the new norm

Digital and personal surveillance has become a fact of life for Moldova’s journalists. My story is the tip of the iceberg. Русский

Vladimir Soloviev
7 April 2017

4 April: Surveillance against the author in Chișinău. Image: Vladimir Soloviev / Newsmaker.“You’re paranoid,” I told Vadim Pistrinchuk, an MP from Moldova’s Liberal Democratic Party. We’d met late on the evening of 3 April, at a pizzeria in Chișinău’s Telecenter. Pistrinchuk had just remarked: “It’s strange that no one’s following us.” And here’s where I called him paranoid.

We talked for about an hour that evening. I asked him why another group of MPs had just left his party, and Pistrinchuk shared his thoughts on the matter. As we were leaving, we noticed a Kia Sportage car (registration GBR 757) parking up next to the pizzeria. Two people got out of the car — and we nearly bumped into them on the way out. But they changed their minds about the pizzeria, returned to the car and stood near it as I bid goodbye to the MP. 

The next morning, the same car was parked outside the offices of Newsmaker, the online platform I run, on Schusyev Street. I counted four men in dark coats and sunglasses standing in places with good views of the office’s front entrance. They didn’t really try to conceal themselves, perhaps, they actually wanted me to notice them.

In Moldova, surveillance in person and over the telephone has become the norm 

I saw these same four men every time I went out onto the street to smoke. I went to get a coffee — the Kia appeared next to the café. I went back to the office — the Kia went back too. They followed me until evening. 

I decided to take the trolleybus to see my friend and lawyer Stefan Gligor. Two of the four joined me on the bus — one sat facing, the other had his back to me, and out the back of the trolleybus I could still see that same Kia car.

4 April: the Kia car following the author through town. Image: Vladimir Soloviev / Newsmaker.When I got to the café on Jerusalem Street where I was supposed to meet Stefan and decide what to do about this surveillance, the Kia parked close by. Initially, the men hung around next to the car, and then decided to spread out along the street. 

Stefan and I decided the correct thing to do was call the police. I rang 902, the emergency services number, and describe the situation to the officer on the other end. The district policeman arrived a short while later, at which point I repeated my story to him, pointed out the Kia and the people that had been following me all day. 

What happened next happened rather quickly. The Kia’s driver jumped behind the wheel and started the car. I tried to open the front passenger door, but it was already locked. While I walked round to get to the driver’s door, the Kia backed up very quickly — I barely had time to jump out of its way, and the car screeched off into the evening. 

The author's encounter with the Kia on 4 April.

About a hundred metres away I noticed one of the guys who’d been following me. I caught up with me and decided not to let him go until the policeman arrived. When we got to the station I wrote a statement, and Stefan, my lawyer, gave a supporting statement. The policemen asked the detainee for his version of events. It was short: he was a random passer-by, he hadn’t been following anyone, and he was seeing me for the first time. After that, he was released. 

The police identified the Kia’s owner. I hope to see him in court. His actions fall under Article 78 of Moldova’s Administrative Code: “the systematic persecution of an individual that causes anxiety, fear for personal safety or safety of close relatives, and which forces the individual to change their way of life.”

This can be done either via “a) following the individual, or b) establishing contact or attempts to establish contact by any means or via another person” and carries “a fine or unpaid public work from 20 to 40 hours or arrest from 10-15 days.”

Perhaps there won’t be any court. I had a similar experience in 2014, ahead of Moldova’s parliamentary elections. I was followed, and I turned to the police for help, showing them images of the car that appeared everywhere I had meetings. Back then, the police told me that they couldn’t help me at all. If the current situation turns out the same way and the law enforcement agencies can’t find out who organised surveillance against me and why, then this will answer the question of who needs me under surveillance.

Today, you can’t find an opposition politician in Moldova who wouldn’t complain about surveillance or informal pressure 

In Moldova, surveillance in person and over the telephone has become the norm. Politicians rarely talk to journalists over the phone, and ask them to use all sorts of messaging apps instead. Frequently they meet in secret, and try to avoid taking their mobile phones to meetings. If they give comments to journalists, then only on condition of anonymity. 

Today, you can’t find an opposition politician in Moldova who wouldn’t complain about surveillance (personal or digital) or informal pressure. Even those who have a relationship with the authorities — and the authorities in Moldova today are the Democratic Party and its leader Vladimir Plahotniuc — are scared. For example, I recently met someone close to the Democratic Party. He picked me up in the middle of the street and asked me to sit in the back, behind the blacked-out glass. During our hour-long conversation, he didn’t stop once, driving round Chișinău the whole time.

Another example: I recently agreed to meet a western diplomat. We met in his office at the embassy and, just before we started, he placed his mobile in a special case. Noticing my look, he explained that he wasn’t just concerned that he was being tapped, he knew that he was being tapped. And he even knew who was doing it. He wasn’t even referring to the all-powerful Russian security services, no, but local specialists.

An acquaintance in Moldova’s law enforcement agencies warned me a year ago that I should be more careful on the phone. “I’ve also got personal surveillance… Usually they follow in the day, when I meet someone from Transnistria or even middle-ranking businessmen,” this is what a colleague from an investigative outfit wrote to me just the other day. 

Someone thinks it is important to know not only who Moldova’s journalists meet and speak on the phone to, but who they sleep with, too

Two weeks ago, Evgeny Shopar, a journalist at Newsmaker, was detained at Chișinău airport on his way back from Venice. He was asked to undergo a more serious search. “We’re looking for any notes, notebooks, documents, papers,” this is what the border police said to one another during the search. Furthermore, they mentioned a particular state agency that had “ordered” Evgeny to be carefully searched. They refused to name it. Having searched my colleague’s luggage and turned out his pockets, the border guards issued him a document stating that “no illegal documents” had been found. 

Last year, Natalia Morar, a Moldovan journalist, revealed that some people had tried to blackmail her with an intimate tape. That is, someone thinks it is important to know not only who Moldova’s journalists meet and speak on the phone to, but who they sleep with, too.

I link my experience exclusively with my professional activities. I’m not involved in business, I don’t owe anybody money, and no one owes money to me. My personal surveillance, obviously, is a reflection of the work carried out by NewsMaker and Kommersant newspaper. 

This article was originally published in Russian in Newsmaker and Kommersant.

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