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Moldova’s digital upheaval

2009's political earthquake and the turmoil that followed opened the doors to a much-needed digital revolution that Moldovan society is eager to exploit to its very core.

by Emanuele Comi On December 21, 2010

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After its so called “Twitter revolution” made the headlines on papers all over the world a year and a half ago, Moldova disappered back into the shadows that have always enveloped this corner of Europe. And, regardless of whether the protests had very little to do with Twitter, or if the brutal repression which followed them didn’t reach the newsrooms in the West, people in Moldova moved on with their lives. In less than two decades they have experienced the end of Soviet era, a bloody conflict with a Moscow-backed breakaway republic in its own land, and then the return in power of the Communists when people got fed up with the hardship of the new system.

Two decades in which people have left. According to official figures, some 500,000 Moldovans currently live abroad. However, other estimates – it is impossible to get a precise figure due to illegal workers living in Europe – put the number at 1 million, almost a quarter of the country’s total population forced out of the country by extreme poverty. ost of them have left their youngest behind, leaving a huge gap in society between the elderly – raised during the Soviet era and now retired – and their grandchildren, whose eyes and ears peer out from the tiny Republic’s borders to see how the rest of the world looks.

Eeconomic security remains the major concern and is still forcing people to leave: according to the Barometer of Public Opinion, 77 percent of Moldovans claim they do not have a decent living. Now, a technological wave is hitting Moldova and reshaping the way its people – but mostly the young ones — see themselves in this world. According to InternetWorldStats, Internet users have boomed by an astonishing rate of 5,080 percent in the last decade, and the 30 percent of the overall population is now online.

However, the vast majority of senior citizenshave never touched a keyboard. Young people are riding this revolution. And whether they use it to keep in touch with their peers in Europe, get fresh and unfiltered information, or simply get together, this revolution has already left a permanent mark in people’s way of life.

The Public Enemy

When considering local media the changes appear to be ground-breaking, especially when compared to media freedom during Communists rule, when State-owned television had the monopoly of information on entire sections of the country. And even then, when alternative views were banned and protests harshly repressed, some activists still found a way to take out their frustrations on platforms the police could reach.

Like in the case of journalist and political activist Oleg Brega: arch enemy of the mainstream media and journalists alike. Involved in three NGOs focusing on freedom of expression, he is currently the presenter of Public Enemy, a program on local TV station Curaj which exposes controversial stories and is constantly threatened to be shut down. In the last ten years, especially during Communist rule, he has constantly had to deal with censorship and repression.

Tired of being constantly harassed and beaten by policemen in the street, two years ago he decided to organise through his blogs original protests in unthinkable locations, such as a kitchen or an empty field. How? He got people together, shouted and whistled with them, and posted the video of the protest online.

That way no one would risk getting beaten up, and protesters would still be able to express themselves and spread awareness thanks to their vast online audience.

On the International Day of Access to Information – September 28 – he orgaised something similar on top of a hill at the outskirt of the capital Chisinau. If these experimental protests were not intended to change anything, at least they wanted to show something, and they reached people through the net.

“We wanted to start a model by being courageous, and not being concerned about [your] freedom and about [your] rights.”

Blackout and boost

And then the dark days of April 2009 came, and Moldova was brought to a standstill. Internet was abruptly shut for at least a day, social networks locked for days, and reporters harassed in their newsrooms.
Long and frightening days followed the second day of protests, when, right in front of the Parliamentary building, peaceful demonstrations turned suddenly into brutal violence. To this day it has not been established who ignited such violence.

However, what was meant to scare citizens and keep the youngest away from their laptops, triggered instead the opposite reaction. The sudden blackout of information – a real shock for an entire generation of Moldovans - amplified the thirst for information and channeled it online, where people were sharing and searching for news relentlessly.
Shortly afterwards local media began to understand such potential, and changed its approach to its audience almost overnight, focusing on its online newsroom so as to harness a rising traffic onto their websites.

Star-ups popped up almost overnight to address a lack of sources, and direct a souring traffic onto brand-new news sites. The call for another election marked the end of the Communist rule and the beginning of a fresh start. New sites such as the successful Unimedia.md saw an exponential rise in readers over the months. Political parties followed too. In the last three electoral campaigns in less than a year political parties, including the Communist Party, have been experimenting new ways to reach young voters through social networking sites.

PRIVESC.EU

Brainchild of four pioneers in new media, Privesc.eu is probably the most successful online
start-up recently created. Back in July 2005 its four founders wanted to address the issue of transparency in a country with serious issues of media freedom. They revolutionised the way information is handled to the public through three simple steps.

First of all, they bought a cheap camera, a 3G Modem and invited people to come around in downtown Chisinau to witness the start of a “new media project”. The aim was to film a public event and upload it on the net in real-time. Since then they have filmed all sorts of events, from public speeches to Parliamentary debates. People can stream them, all free of charge and unfiltered.

“We were sick of the manipulation [carried out by] our mass-media and so we decided that we needed somehow to get information directly from the source.”

Privesc.eu started its adventure by uploading videos for free through usstream.tv, but soon later it opened its own servers for video streaming. Born as an NGO, the project won a small grant from the Open Society Institute and SOROS Foundations but later – when a second grant from NED was denied due to a recommendation from the Communist Party – the founders requested recommendations from all other parties – Privesc.eu decided to become a private company. One of its founders, Vitale Esanu, considers the platform as the biggest web resource in Moldova for citizens and journalists. Its widgets are now on every top popular news sites, and governmental too.

Uncut: The Revolution is Televised

To this day no one knows what happened during the earthquake that shook the country a year and a half ago, and despite an official investigation, only two policemen have been convicted – they are now back to work. Some activists – officially four, but other reports say six — were found dead on the streets after the frightening “night of the long knives” at the end of the second day of protests. Campaigners were beaten badly during the day and almost one thousand young people were illegally detained and tortured at the end of those events.

Twenty months later the Romanian Centre of Investigative Journalism, with the technical support of the Massachusetts, went through over 16 hours of footage recorded by thirteen surveillance camera April 7, 2009. The team of journalist from the investigative centre is now asking people who were there to shed some light on the events of that confusing day by watching the footage through the websites they have built:    DickGregoryForPresident.com

“We ask Moldovans to identify people and situations that were not reported in the media and to post a detailed comment under the video you are screening. Agents provocateurs? Violent protesters? Please log in to leave your observations, especially ones that might allow victims to hold perpetuators accountable.”

A Fast Connection

How could such a fast development have been possible in just a few years? Moldova’s internet users have tripled since 2006 according to United Nations International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Not only internet users have dramatically increased, but the quality of the connections too. Those two trends have gone hands in hands in the last few years, often helping each other. According to Speedtest.net — the global service offered by Ookla which brows top bandwidth speed by country — Moldova ranks seventh in the top countries for download speed with an average speed of 21.55 Mb/s, two places above Japan, and way above the United Kingdom and United States.

According to the National Regulatory Agency for Information Technology (ANRCETI), in the third quarter of 2010 out of total 245 subscribers at fixed locations, 244 are using a broadband connection. Dial-up subscribers have literally vanished. Only at the beginning of 2008 they were as much as broadband ones.

Looking at the bulky estates that dominate the skyline of certain neighbourhoods of Chisinau, the feeling of being back in the Soviet times is acute. These estates host hundreds of flats, have centralised heating and little shops that sell basic food at their ground floors
– a social way of living promoted in the Socialist block. And if living in such a dense habitat can cause its annoyances, surely there are many advantages when it comes to sharing things. This is what StarNet – a Moldovan ISP — first thought back in 2006 when it decided
to introduce fiber-optics technology in order to reach the basement of those buildings in Chisinau. The fiber-to-the-building technology – or FTTB — gets to the boundary of the building, while the final connection to the individual living spaces is made through alternative means.

While the initiative was seen at first with scepticism, the pioneer ISP has seen a steady increased in subscribers over the years, and was joined by the major ISP Moldtelecom which started investing in the technology in 2008. The healthy competition between these two actors has increased the quality of the service, but most importantly kept the prices low. The most expensive package with StarNet now costs 20 euro a month, and speeds range from 40Mbit/s to 100Mbit/s. However, prices are not so cheap if compared to the average salary. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, the average salary in Moldova is below 200 euros.

The technology is now available in every regional centre, and has grown quickly over the years. According to ANRCETI, it now accounts for the 30.9 percent of the broadband service market.

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Photo Credits: Claire Bathelemy

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