Several non-governmental media and civil society organizations, journalists and prominent representatives of Moldova’s Parliament and the Ministry of Justice have joined forces with reporters from the Center for Investigative Journalism after the organization announced last week that the authors of a journalistic investigation into an undeclared property of a prosecutor, risk being prosecuted for accessing the personal data of their family members.
The Center for Investigative Journalism issued a public statement to show concern over a magistrate from the Chisinau Court based in Ciocana, who cancelled on January 27, the prosecutor's order refusing to start criminal proceedings at the request of the prosecutor's wife targeted in the investigation for illegal collection of data about the property of Igor and Ala Popa, during the journalistic investigation "VIDEO // The fictitious divorce and the hidden property of prosecutor Igor Popa", published on July 22, 2020.
Transparency International Moldova reacted the first, saying in a public statement that "pressure on investigative journalists through criminal proceedings is a serious attack on media freedom and a dangerous precedent for a state's democracy."
"The biased use of personal data protection legislation against the right to information and freedom of expression in cases of public interest is an abuse, and intimidation of the media for corruption cases and the illicit enrichment revealed in journalistic investigations is to be punished under art. 1801 of the Criminal Code”, reads the statement of the Transparency International Moldova.
The TI Moldova Statement was signed by several non-governmental organizations, media institutions and journalists, including journalists Andrei Dumbrăveanu, PhD in Sociology, Associate Professor, Faculty of Journalism and Communication Sciences of the State University of Moldova, and Pavel Păduraru, investigative journalist, ARIM organizations, Eco-Titas Association, UOI RM, IDIS Viitorul, BPW Moldova, IPRE, Institute of Public Policies, Gazeta de Chisinau and Alternative Media Association.
Moreover, the authorities reacted promptly. The Minister of Justice, Sergiu Litvinenco, described as "unacceptable the harassment of journalists who conducted journalistic investigations into the property of state officials through criminal proceedings." The official said in a post on his Facebook page that "it seems that justice protects officials against whom there are reasonable suspicions that they cannot justify their property to the detriment of the media's right to report these facts, which is inadmissible".
SCM is requested to investigate the case
The Chair of the Parliamentary Committee on culture, education, research, youth, sports and mass-media, Liliana Nicolaescu-Onofrei, on Friday called on the Superior Council of Magistracy to urgently investigate the legality of the magistrate's decision to cancel the order not to prosecute journalists from the Center for Investigative Journalism, which conducted an investigation into a prosecutor who hid his property.
"I requested the Superior Council of Magistracy to urgently investigate the legality of the decision of Judge Victor Rațoi, who allowed an attack on the freedom of the media. Or, such illegalities cannot be tolerated ", the deputy wrote on her Facebook page.
Media NGOs condemn "attempts of journalists’ intimidation by unjustified criminal cases"
In a public statement, several media NGOs condemned "attempts to intimidate journalists by unjustified criminal cases." The media NGOs consider that the practice of starting criminal cases against journalists who have exercised their mission of informing citizens about issues of public interest "constitutes an attack on the media and freedom of expression ".
In this context, the signatory organizations call on those who consider themselves to be prejudiced in their rights through the activity of the media to renounce “the abusive use of the levers provided by law as a means of intimidating journalists and call on law enforcement to solve criminal cases targeting journalists, by respecting the law”. Among the signatories of the statements are: the Center for Independent Journalism, the Independent Press Association, the Committee on Media Freedom, the Media-Guard Association, the "Acces-Info" Center, the Association of Environmental and Ecotourism Journalists, the Electronic Press Association and RISE Moldova.
CU SENS team of investigative journalists also publicly condemned the attacks on CIJM’s journalists. CU SENS considers that this is a dangerous precedent, which hinders investigative journalism and the role of the media in society, which is INADMISSIBLE in a state of law and democracy such as the Republic of Moldova, reads a post on the Facebook page.
"A judge forced prosecutors to start a criminal case against the Center for Investigative Journalism and investigative journalists. "The aim is to prevent journalists from doing their job and reduce them to silence" said the journalists concerned, "writes the Media Guard Association.
"This is probably the most vicious attack on media freedom in the entire history of the Republic of Moldova.
Now, amid the justice system reform, a hateful premiere is taking place in this country, which arouses only laughter but sad laughter ... For the first time, a judge is forcing prosecutors to file a criminal case against a group of journalists, because they did their job correctly. It's a shame, guys! ”, wrote the investigative journalist Pavel Păduraru.
Civil society expresses its solidarity with investigative journalists
The Center for the Analysis and Prevention of Corruption (CAPC) has joined civil society organizations that have warned of the unacceptable intimidation of investigative journalists against boosting the process of checking the property of prosecutors and judges. "Any attacks and intimidation of investigative journalists are inadmissible and we condemn these facts. The role of the media is to inform society, including about the activities, properties and interests of judges, prosecutors, civil servants, deputies, etc. We consider that any kind of interference in the activity of journalists is a violation of the right to free expression and the right to access information ", reads a message of the organization.
CAPC's message was backed by the anti-corruption expert Cristina Țărnă.
IDIS shares the concerns of investigative journalists. In a statement published on its website, IDIS "Viitorul" warns the state institutions, the media, responsible for the good management of the situation, the law institutions, and last but not least the development partners, that such situations are not admissible in a society that strives for democracy and demands that they intervene urgently. Journalistic investigations into the unjustified property of officials are in the public interest, and the company needs verified, documented information to create the impression of those who claim to defend their rights and interests.
"IDIS" Viitorul " believes that this case is a dangerous precedent, a serious attack on media and freedom of expression. According to investigative journalists, they accessed and collected information legally, using legal methods of documentation, about the undeclared property of prosecutor Igor Popa and his ex-wife Ala Popa, and for these deeds journalists cannot be held criminally liable ", reads the published message.
The case of journalists from the Center for Investigative Journalism was covered by TVR Moldova, TV 8, Jurnal TV, Gazeta de Chisinau and other media outlets.
We remind that on January 27, 2022, the Chisinau Court based in Ciocana, Judge Victor Rațoi, cancelled the prosecutor's order regarding the refusal to start a criminal case at the request of Ala Popa for the alleged ILLEGAL collection of data on the property of the former couple, Igor and Ala Popa, in the journalistic investigation "VIDEO // The fictitious divorce and the hidden property of prosecutor Igor Popa", published on July 22, 2020.
The journalistic investigation reveals that the prosecutor Igor Popa, head of the Ciocana office of the Chisinau Prosecutor's Office, formerly Deputy General Prosecutor, did not indicate in the statement on property his property. He divorced, after which the properties were registered on his wife’s name. The journalists revealed in the journalistic investigation that the prosecutor lives with his wife and children in a luxury building in the center of Chisinau. Late in 2021, prosecutors started two criminal cases against Igor Popa, for false statements and illicit enrichment, both cases were based on information from the journalistic investigation.
The Center for Investigative Journalism is concerned that the editorial team and the authors of the investigation have been intimidated by the prosecutor's ex-wife, Ala Popa, since 2019, right from the beginning of the investigation process, when the Cadastre Real Estate Data Register was accessed. A worrying fact is that state institutions are being used to achieve the goal of intimidating and silencing journalists. For example, the National Center for Personal Data Protection issued two contradictory decisions in the CIJM case, one of violation of the law and one of non-violation - decisions that were the basis for Judge Ratoi's motivation to cancel the prosecutor's order. The entire harassment process of investigative journalists is documented in another journalistic material, "Case Study: How a prosecutor's wife tried to silence journalists," published in October, 2021.
The CIJM team considers that this case is an attempt to intimidate the journalists, because currently, there are two criminal cases started against the prosecutor Igor Popa, targeted in the investigation of the Center for Investigative Journalism. The journalists reported that the intimidation started from the moment of investigating the investigation, in 2019.
The CIJM filed an appeal against the court's decision, as well as a complaint to the police against lawyer Ala Popa for preventing journalists from doing their job.