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EU News Outlet Accused of ‘Being Used as a Tool of Russian Disinformation’ After Publishing ‘Fake Protest’ Video

EU Reporter has launched an investigation after Byline Times questioned it about reporting on the protest that took place when Moldovan President Maia Sandu visited Bucharest

The fake protest is said to have taken place when Moldovan president Maia Sandu, seen above in February 2023, visited Bucharest on March 6 this year. Photo: ICV/Alamy

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A European news website has been criticised for publishing footage of what the Romanian authorities have called an oligarch-backed “paid protest” against Moldova’s pro-EU government.

EU Reporter published a video of the reportedly staged protest “against dictatorship in Moldova” in Bucharest as Moldovan president Maia Sandu visited the Romanian capital on March 6.

The EU Reporter story has been taken down, but is still visible on Google. Photo: Byline Times

“This [protest] is a disinformation operation: a classic way of initiating legitimate news,” Valeriu Pasha, chairman of Watchdog.MD, a counter-disinformation think tank in Moldova, told Byline Times.

The Romanian Interior Ministry claims the Bucharest protest was organised – and paid for – by sanctioned Moldovan-Israeli businessman Ilan Shor, who is currently based in Moscow.

The 37-year-old has been accused of trying to destabilise Moldova’s pro-Western path on behalf of Russia as president Sandu faces presidential elections and a referendum on EU membership later this year. In 2022, he was sanctioned by the US for “coordinating with representatives of other oligarchs to create political unrest in Moldova” with Russian state support. Shor has previously denied any role in destabilising actions in Moldova.

Byline Times has not found any evidence to suggest that Shor or his representatives either recorded or distributed the video. Neither could be reached for comment on this story, despite numerous attempts.

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Pashu suggested the protest was organised to “create fake news items that push the news agenda to benefit Shor” and that the EU Reporter had been “used as a tool of Russian disinformation”.

EU Reporter told Byline Times that it had started an investigation into the video, which it said had been supplied by a “usually reliable” freelance journalist who they had paid.

“If the story about the 6 March protest in Bucharest was a false narrative, then we clearly regret publishing it,” EU Reporter chief editor Colin Stevens said.

EU Reporter published the protest video under the headline, ‘End Sandu’s dictatorship!’ but has taken it down since Byline Times started making inquiries.

The clip shows around a dozen people holding signs protesting “dictatorship” outside a conference centre in Bucharest. Protesters in the first row show their faces, while those behind cover them with placards.

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“Moldova is a dictatorship” was one of the least inflammatory protest writings spotted in the crowd,” EU Reporter’s accompanying article said.

“The protesters were extremely displeased with the fact that the Moldovan president was trying to solve her own problems at their expense,” it continued.

According to Moldovan police, 200 people were meant to participate in the protest and each participant was set to receive “hundreds of euros”, with 10,000 EUR allocated to pay for one minibus of 20 participants from Moldova. On 8 April, Romania banned 116 Moldovan citizens who joined the protest from entering Romania.

Commenting online, Shor said that Sandu and Moldovan law enforcement had “put on a whole show” with their investigation into the protest “to demonstrate once again” that he is “the only figure in Moldovan politics that the authorities are afraid of”.

EU Reporter describes itself as a “Brussels-based European multimedia news platform, providing online news and video comment on EU and world affairs”. It offers monthly subscriptions for content supplied by clients – governments, political organisations or companies – including “general news” articles, according to the site’s media pack.

Politico criticised EU Reporter –headquartered in Ireland and owned by a UK company – in 2021 for mixing in-house coverage with allegedly sponsored content from authoritarian
actors such as the governments of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and China. EU Reporter rejected the allegations at the time.

EU Reporter’s chief editor, Stevens – who also published an interview with Shor in 2023 that has since been taken down – said the publication made no editorial checks around the video and was not paid to run it.

“We have never accepted payment from [Shor], or anyone associated with him,” Stevens said.

“However odious Mr Shor and his politics may be, he is a politician operating within the Moldovan democratic political sphere, and we therefore felt fully justified in covering [the protest].

“We have never knowingly published content on behalf of Mr Shor,” he continued.

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After Byline Times contacted EU Reporter, Stevens said the website initiated an investigation into “the source of the story, any links between the freelance journalist and Shor, and our internal editorial processes”.

He also said that the website would “re-examine our criteria for accepting third-party contributions […] and may update them in light of any recommendations.”

The protest story “and other stories relating to Shor” have been removed for the duration of the investigation, Stevens said.

He added: “Our only contact with Shor or his party has been by accepting press
releases and third-party articles, including interviews. We are aware that Shor and his organisation are now sanctioned by the EU and we will act accordingly within the law.”

In April 2023, Shor was sentenced to 15 years on fraud and money laundering charges in Moldova as part of the “Theft of the Century” case – where $1 billion was removed from three of the country’s banks. He maintains his innocence. In May 2023, he was sanctioned by the EU for “directing and planning violent demonstrations” against the Moldovan government.

Thomas Mayne, author of a recent report on how kleptocrats use western PR and communications services, said that given the Romanian authorities’ designation of the protest as “paid” by Shor, the publication on EU Reporter “raises questions over whether Shor or someone related to him is trying to publish articles that favour his activities” at the
website.


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