It was December 2007, and Natalia Morari, a doe-eyed journalist with a disarming smile, was sharing a drab holding cell with migrants from Central Asia. Six years earlier, the ambitious young Moldovan had arrived in Russia as a university student with dreams of making a splash, and after producing a series of investigations into high-level corruption for The New Times, a leading opposition newspaper, the former sociology major had done just that. Now, returning from a reporting trip to Israel, Morari found herself stuck at a Moscow airport — and banned from entering the country.
Forced to fly back to Moldova, she later learned that her ejection from Russia was supposedly ordered by the powerful deputy head of the presidential administration, one of Vladimir Putin’s right-hand men, who added a parting shot: “That Morari can go fuck off.” It was a sign she was doing something right. “And that,” she recalls with a carefree laugh that belies her fortitude, “is how I fucked off from Russia.”
These days, the headstrong 34-year-old is ruffling feathers back home as a media crusader and TV presenter at TV8, a budding independent network. One of Moldova’s leading critical voices, Morari has combined a track record of dogged reporting with a passion for social activism to fight for free speech and transparency in a country that desperately needs more of both. Routinely described as Europe’s poorest country, the former Soviet republic is gripped by widespread corruption and run, critics say, by a crooked cabal beholden to powerful business interests. The last time it made international headlines, the country had fallen victim to an elaborate money laundering scheme in which $1 billion — or one-eighth of its gross domestic product — disappeared on the government’s watch. Virtually no one trusts the ruling class, and few believe meaningful change is possible.
If I leave the country, it means I surrender.
It wasn’t always so bad. Shortly after Morari returned from Russia, she helped organize protests against rigged elections in 2009 that drew thousands to the streets of the Moldovan capital, Chisinau. When the demonstrations turned violent, thanks mostly to provocateurs, Morari was prosecuted by a vengeful communist government. But months later, a second election handed pro-European forces a collective majority — and, for a generation seeking to distance itself from the Soviet past, a fresh opportunity. “Now when I look back,” Morari says, “I understand that if I knew what would happen next, I would never, ever [have gone] out into the streets.”
Over the next few years, corruption flourished. Business tycoon Vlad Plahotniuc, the current head of the ruling Democratic Party and seen as the country’s chief puppeteer, expanded his influence across the political landscape, allegedly purchasing loyalty in Parliament and the judiciary while also wrangling control over much of Moldova’s media. The rest is said to be controlled by Igor Dodon, the country’s socialist president. Both deny they’re corrupt, but critics say their rivalry — Plahotniuc is “pro-European,” while Dodon is “pro-Russian” — is stage-managed, while their media machines tap into voter fears over Russian meddling or gay rights, respectively, to distract from failures to reform. “Politicians declare one thing, think another and then act a third way,” says Petru Macovei, executive director of the Association of Independent Press in Chisinau.
Enter Morari and her colleagues at TV8. A response to the stifling media landscape, the network, of which Morari is a driving force, is something of an experiment: Can a majority journalist-owned network, financed partly by donations from Western countries, bolster healthy public debate in Moldova? Launched last summer, TV8 provides a diverse array of content, from Morari’s prime-time political talk show to progressive discussions on women’s issues. Focusing on quality programming viewers can’t find anywhere else, its slogan is simple: “For free people.”
Unfortunately, Morari and her team are keenly aware of what happens when an outlet attempts to flout Moldova’s unwritten rules. TV8’s previous incarnation, TV7, was a target for official harassment, its owner prosecuted for what supporters say are phony corruption charges. After the network set out to rebrand itself, it ran into “absolutely artificial” licensing issues, Morari says, aimed at keeping the network off the air. The advertising market, meanwhile, is also conveniently controlled by Plahotniuc and Dodon through their respective agencies. “They have everything,” Morari says, “and we have almost nothing, except people’s support and, thank God, donor support.”
Daunting as it all seems, Morari is no stranger to uphill battles. She was once nearly kicked out of Moscow State University for staging protests against the dean of the sociology department over his outdated teaching methods and inflated cafeteria prices. Her political activism thrust her into a social circle that amounted to a who’s who of Russia’s liberal intelligentsia — including opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who was gunned down in 2015 in front of the Kremlin — during a time when dissent was wilting under Vladimir Putin’s consolidation of power. At The New Times, where she worked under venerated editor Yevgenia Albats, Morari grew into a sharp investigator who dug deep and questioned everything. “Never before in my life did I see a journalist who was capable of learning so quickly,” Albats says.
With Moldova sliding further into a spiral of graft and misrule, Morari sometimes wakes up wondering what she’s doing. Many of her friends have emigrated, or are considering it. After all, prospects for a better life abroad were what first propelled her out of provincial Moldova, where opportunities for ambitious young women aren’t exactly abundant. Out of 24 students in her high school class, she says, 18 left the country after graduation. Then Morari stops herself: “If I leave the country, it means I surrender,” she says. “And if everyone will give up, then how can we expect that someday, something will change in Moldova?”
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