Were you scared? “Of course, I’m just a journalist, not some sort of superhero, daredevil or war reporter.”
HackPack member Andrew Ghilan got up close and personal to the political demonstrations in Chisinau, Moldova which started in fall 2015. He left the office, threw a camera over his shoulder and set off through the crowd, not quite expecting the tussle that he found.
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We spoke with Andrew to learn what it is like reporting and being caught in a protest, to discuss Moldova’s media and the benefits of freelance journalism.
Andrew, can you tell us a bit about your career, have you always been a journalist?
My career began just over 12 years ago, when I started worked at Komsomolskaya Pravda, Moldova’s most popular publication. When I was 25, I became editor for the economic journal Business Class. Then I got into digital media, managing the news feed for allmoldova.com, a business website. Occasionally, I left journalism and worked in PR, SMM and even management, but in the end, I kept coming back to my favorite profession.
What was it about journalism that kept pulling you back?
Similar to science, I think journalism is a way to satisfy your curiosity on someone else’s dime. For journalists, every door is open, well as long as you are interested and determined to open it.
Don’t get me wrong, journalism is often romanticized and people think it is full of investigative reports and interviews with stars. That’s a complete fairy tale. A journalists job is full of tireless work. You are constantly calling someone, searching for information, going from meeting to meeting, working with sources and doing endless overtime.
When a metal worker comes home from work, he doesn’t continue melting iron. But a true journalist will sometimes be monitoring the wires at 1am, keeping their finger on the pulse and ready to take off to be on location. This isn’t so bad though if you love your job.
Why did you get into freelance?
Many people think that a journalist writes when a muse strikes, but this is also a myth. Journalists tend to write with short deadlines and on topics that often don’t interest them. The editorial policy, advertisers and media holding’s owners truly dictate what you write about. There are very for outlets for ‘artistic freedom’.
This is actually one of the main reasons I left one specific publication. I couldn’t handle the monotonous routine of writing bland news stories, aggregating content and the like. I prefer spending the majority of my time covering things I enjoy. Lately, this has really been focusing on story telling and photo essays. The two actually compliment each other very well.
But I don’t consider myself a professional journalist, let alone a photographer. However, on the whole, the result isn’t too bad. Or at least that’s what I hear from readers. So I decided to become some sort of freelancer to tell stories that I care about. I collaborate with several publications, pitch story ideas to editors and if they bite, work on the content. This allows me to be relatively independent and free to cover what I prefer.
What was it like to report during the political protests in Chisinau?
From October 2015 through May 2016, there has been a constant cycling of mass protests and demonstrations in Chisinau. It’s an age-old story — the people are unsatisfied with the government and want changes. I won’t drown you with details, but I’ll highlight a few key moments that stuck with me.
In October 2015, protesters set off for the Global Business Centre, a massive black building in Chisinau. According to them, the infamous oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc was hiding out there. I remember how the crowd approached, let out a roar and rushed to take it. At that moment a team of journalists from newsmaker.md and I found ourselves stuck between the combatants (veterans from the military conflict with Transnitria) and a police cordon — between the anvil and a hammer. They literally swept us away. Everything happened so quickly that we didn’t even realize that we were in danger. We easily could have been trampled. We just got lucky.
That same day, I was taking pictures of the demonstrations in Chisinau. The authorities tossed some poor police officers onto center stage to defend the government buildings from the mob. The police officers took up their posts. When I got ready to take a picture of these courageous guys, an elderly women suddenly threw herself on a few of the officers and began hugging them. They were ready for any form of violence from Molotov cocktails to stampedes, but they were not expecting this type of ‘weapon’. The women kissed their hands, read something about her sons and the police officers lost, embarrassed and wishing they could just crawl through the earth.
In January 2016, the protesters tried to take the parliament building. And once again, I wound up in the middle of the crowd. As the crowd shuffled in the free-for-all for the door, I got tossed against the wall of police officers and I couldn’t even move my arm.
Were you scared of getting crushed?
Of course. Fear is an absolutely normal feeling — a defensive instinct. I’m just a journalist, not some sort of superhero, daredevil or war reporter.»
Then why did you get so far into the crowd?
Well, probably because my desire to see what was going on with my own eyes overpowered my fear and concern for my well-being.
How free were you to cover the protests?
In Moldova, we really do have a free press. Yes, with a few limitations, but there weren’t any issues in covering these events.
How open is the government to speaking with journalists?
Well it depends on what side a specific publication is on. In Moldova, almost all media publications are affiliated with political parties and specific politicians. Government officials belonging to a certain party find many different excuses to avoid unsavory responses. We have a law on access to information and government officials must respond to journalist requests within 15 working days. However, they often violate this law, dragging out the time to deliver information, demanding that the request be sent on official letterhead, despite this not being a requirement, etc.
Does the tone of coverage for the events differ between local and foreign media outlets?
Dramatically. Local outlets, based on their political affiliation, covered the events to the benefit of their specific camps, while foreign publications tried to paint the protests as a geopolitical battle between east and west — a battle between good and evil. Each side presents information in a way that benefits them and matches their interests.
What was the main lesson you learned while covering the demonstrations?
Always be alert and on your guard.
What other stories do you really crave to work on? Maybe an investigative report?
I take my hat off to investigative reporters. They have balls of steel. Among my close friends are Journalists with a capital J, so I know what I’m talking about. For example, one colleague, Vladimir Tkhorik did a series of investigations about exporting Moldovan apples. He took on an international circuit, which was using Moldovan export documents to disguise thousands of tons of EU fruit as Moldovan and send it to Russia.
Inna Civirjic was the first to publish a story describing how $18 billion was laundered from Russia through Moldova’s court system. She also was the first to write about the so-called theft of the century [1 billion Euros disappeared from Moldova’s banking system in 2015].
I don’t specialize in investigative reporting. Feature stories and storytelling are far dearer to me. I like to tell uncommon stories about common people and I have many story ideas. For example, I’ve wanted to do a photo report for quite some time about the lives of Russian Old Believers (Lipovans) in Romania. I’m hoping that someday I will get a chance to work on this story.
What stories have you been really proud of?
Another story that I was very satisfied with was that of a cobbler who has perfected his craft to such an extent that even Moldovan presidents buy his shoes.
Connect with Andrew today through HackPack and create great stories!