Kremlin propaganda in Romania rears its head again

The Romanian information space has come under a new Russian attack. Some TV channels that have been repeatedly accused of spreading Russian propaganda have launched another anti-Ukrainian campaign. The final beneficiaries of these broadcasters clearly show a Russian trace.

The Romanian media sector is quite specific: for hostile narratives to “go viral,” they need to be skillfully “wrapped” by creating an emotional roller coaster using topics that society is deeply concerned about. 

Such a cross-cutting theme in bilateral Ukrainian-Romanian relations is the rights of national minorities. Even without the war, Russia was stirring up drama around them on both sides of the common border. In the current realities of war, the strategic goal of all this is, of course, to undermine support and solidarity with Ukraine. 

The propagandists also used the sore subject in the religious context but obviously overdid it because even the Romanian Orthodox Church had to explain.

How Romanian TV was thrown into the hot topic

The Romanian TV channels Romania TV and Antena 3/CNN quickly picked up a promisingly scandalous topic that originated in the abyss of social media. The case turned out to be really “fat” and provoked a lot of hype. A priest from the Ukrainian border town of Herts, Chernivtsi Oblast, Michail Jar (Longhin), an ethnic Romanian, accused the Ukrainian authorities of persecuting Romanian priests under the guise of opposing the Moscow Patriarchate. Jar recorded dozens of video messages in which he called for Romania to stop supporting Ukraine.

Although such content disappears from the Romanian space surprisingly quickly, and most videos are now blocked, Jar’s statements have sprouted up. A group of today’s anti-globalists and yesterday’s anti-Vaxxers began to accuse Ukraine of persecuting ethnic Romanians through their “expert” comments.

One of the goals of the propaganda campaign was achieved immediately: Romanian society, which is quite religious and conservative, was swept up in a wave of offence. Even the Romanian Orthodox Church needed to explain the situation of Romanian priests in Ukraine. In an official commentary, Romanian Church spokesman Vasile Binescu noted that the priests mentioned by Jar, who is allegedly being persecuted, are, in fact, representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate and have no ties to Romanian Orthodoxy.

Longhin-Jar is well-known: he is the founder and head of a children’s shelter in the Chernivtsi region. He has been politically active recently and openly supported pro-Russian parties, such as the “Opposition Bloc” backed by the Russian Federation. Moscow’s supporters, in turn, often visited Longhin’s “property” for PR in the style of “defending traditional values.”

After Russia occupied Crimea, Longhin sided with Moscow, calling the Ukrainian government “cursed” and “satanic.” Since the outbreak of hostilities in Donbas in 2014, this priest has been obstructing mobilization in the region and denying Ukrainian defenders church services. He blamed the war on “cursed Europe” and the United States. At the same time, Longin-Zhar, as noted in numerous journalistic materials, has Romanian citizenship, and what is most shocking is that President Yushchenko awarded him the title of Hero of Ukraine.

A TV propaganda factory

In addition to “Romania TV” and “Antena 3/CNN”, the propaganda triad in Romania includes “Realitate Plus”, excluding “cisterns” and openly pro-Moscow websites. At the same time, it is no secret in Romania that these media remain leaders in violating audiovisual legislation.

The TV posts mentioned above, “Romania TV”, “Antena 3/CNN”, and “Realitatea Plus”, which began to replicate the statements of the priest from Bukovyna, have repeatedly found themselves at the centre of scandals over the dissemination of false information, harassment of their owners’ political opponents, and discrediting anti-corruption institutions. And this is even though the owners of all three media companies (all of whom will be discussed below) were accused of fraud.

Since the beginning of the full-scale war, these information resources have been repeatedly sanctioned for spreading disinformation and propaganda, including on the topic of Russian aggression. From these channels, pro-Kremlin narratives about Soros, LGBT people, and the anti-corruption protests that erupted in Romania in 2018-2019 were poured directly onto the heads of Romanian viewers.

After the start of the full-scale invasion, these TV channels seriously discussed fakes about “biological laboratories” and “Nazis from Azov”. In reality, these topics were bloody pretexts for the murder of Ukrainians by Russians. And it was against this background that the systematic oppression of Ukrainian refugees in Europe was provoked.

For example, in March, “Realitatea Plus” was fined for violating the balance in its coverage of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine when it started talking about “biological laboratories in Ukraine.” In addition, the channel stated that the war in Ukraine was not the fault of the terrorist Putin but the joint responsibility of Western leaders. “Romania TV” News has also been fined many times: for the imbalance of opinions, attacks on LGBT people, and tales about Soros during anti-corruption protests in Romania in previous years. Over ten years, “Romania TV” received 74 fines totalling 1.4 million lei (almost $300 thousand). Antena 3 was fined 1.05 million lei (nearly $230 thousand).

Fugitive oligarchs and a media empire financed by the Revolution

“Romania TV” is associated with Sebastian Ghiță, a Romanian politician hiding in Serbia. Ghiță won a seat in the Romanian parliament – the Chamber of Deputies (Social Democratic Party), in 2012. He was a member of the friendship group with the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland and a member of the committee to oversee the Romanian intelligence service, the Service of Information (SRI).

He was later sentenced to prison for financial fraud and money laundering through his IT company “Asesoft”. But Ghiță managed to escape to Serbia, where he remains today.

In 2017, Serbia refused Romania’s extradition request and granted him political asylum. A telling detail: Ghiță built his capital and business connections on contracts he received from the Russian oil company Lukoil.

In Serbia, Ghiță is active in politics and continues to engage in the IT business. In January 2019, the Romanian refugee was spotted at the “First Digital Dialogue Serbia-Russia” event, attended by more than 60 Serbian IT companies, during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Belgrade. Romanian media reports that Russian special services primarily guarantee Ghiță’s inaccessibility to Romanian justice.

Dan Voiculescu, owner of Antena 3/CNN and founder of the Intact media foundation, according to the DIICOT (Directorate for the Investigation of Organized Crime and Terrorism) and the Romanian Foreign Intelligence Service (SIE), stolen between $150 and $300 million during the anti-communist Revolution in Romania in December 1989 and the first months of 1990. He used this money to set up his companies in 1991. Voiculescu was sentenced to 10 years for embezzlement of public funds but did only a few years.

And finally, the “Realitatea Plus” news channel, owned by Cosmin Gușa and Maricelu Pacuraru. Romanian journalists recall how Gușa said during one broadcast that Russia was his second homeland. The “Realitatea Plus” channel was licensed in 2013 and broadcasted in Romania, the Republic of Moldova (and here’s attention!) and the Western Balkans. It is probably no coincidence that a photo of Guša and Ghiță discussing something in Belgrade, where Ghiță attends (or organizes?) various pro-Russian IT parties, is circulating online.

Why is it dangerous?

In Moldova, Russia has tried to build a system of controlled TV channels using the same scheme: an oligarch – also a fugitive one, Ilan Shor, who is hiding from Moldovan justice in Israel – and leaders of corrupt political forces are the primary beneficiaries of the media, broadcasting the same narratives about “Soros”, “external domination”, and “the West that wants war”.

We are talking about six TV channels whose broadcasting was suspended at the end of last year in Moldova. These are Accent TV, Orhei TV, TV6, NTV-Moldova, Primul in Moldova, and RTR-Moldova, which were affiliated with oligarch Ilan Shor, who is hiding in Israel and is financing anti-government protests in Moldova, as well as with owners from the pro-Russian Party of Socialists. On the same days, the retransmission of “Romania TV” in the Republic of Moldova was also banned.

It is interesting that after the suspension of broadcasting of propaganda TV channels in Moldova, the employees of these information resources went to Bucharest, where only colleagues from “Romania TV” covered their staged demonstration. At the same time, this situation seems particularly dangerous for the Republic of Moldova, first of all, not for Ukraine, which has gathered persuasive expertise in Moscow’s media techniques over the nine years of war.

Propagandists try hard to present this ban on the pro-Kremlin channels in Moldova as an attack on “Russian-language TV channels” rather than a fight against Russian influence. And with the support of Kremlin proxies operating in Romania, they also appeal to the fact that the Sandu “regime” allegedly suppresses freedom of speech.

Therefore, it is worth considering this problem in the information plane, realistically assessing the scope of hybrid influences and cross-border corruption. Perhaps the case of three pro-Kremlin TV channels from Romania will be of interest to Laura Codruța Kövesi, the former anti-corruption prosecutor of this country and now the director of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office. The three Romanian channels mentioned above diligently maligned her on the respective days.

Author: Marianna Prysiazhniuk

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February 2023
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