Showing Corruption from the Skies

In the first shots, the camera lingers. On the pocked and muddy streets of the Moldovan village. On the thin cows walking listlessly past broken fences. On the humble farmhouses, once pastel, now scratched and fading, their shabbiness testament to the deep poverty of this country squeezed between Romania and Ukraine.

But then the images start flashing rapidly by, the video camera soaring high over rooftops and forests as if it has been freed. And what it shows is startling. Just past the impoverished town is a high gate, and beyond that is one vast, elaborate mansion after another, each more spectacular and improbable than the next.

Drone footage of some dilapidated village houses
Drone footage contrasts the modest farms of Moldovan villagers and the nearby luxury retreats (see below) of government leaders. Credit: Agora.
Drone footage of a mansion
Luxury retreats of government leaders, separated by gates and protected as “state secrets.” Credit: Agora.

The camera is mounted on an unmanned aircraft called a Quadcopter Drone, and the images reveal in stunning detail what had long been the object of rumor in this impoverished former Soviet republic — a secret luxury retreat for powerful Moldovan government leaders, heavily guarded and paid for with public funds. The report on the politicians’ refuge, by a team of courageous and skilled journalists, posted on a scrappy online news portal called Agora, has caused a stir in a country where government officials regularly live lavishly off public coffers while one fifth of the nation’s 3.6 million people scrape by in poverty.

Within hours of the report’s first posting in February, it had 58,000 views and 3,500 shares on Facebook. A shorter version of the story, posted separately on Facebook, has been viewed more than 17,000 times and shared by hundreds more. Stung by the impact of this report and recent others like it, but unable to combat them in court because drones are not covered by current Moldovan law, legislators are pushing a bill through the country’s Parliament that would severely curtail the use of drones in the future.

The team of young reporters who produced the story has joined a small but growing cohort of journalists around the world who are using the bird’s eye perspective of drone-mounted cameras to challenge some of the globe’s most repressive regimes by revealing secrets from the sky.

“As a child in Moldova, every boy dreams of being a pilot,” said Constantin Celac, the 29 year-old democracy activist turned journalist who led the report. “Growing up, my dreams and desires have changed. Now I dream of using the power of journalism to send a message to the people who govern us, to make a difference. Producing such a report with a drone, well, it’s a perfect realization of my childhood dream and my adult reality.”

“We were able to send a message to politicians that they should be more transparent with the money they spend, because this money belongs to all of us.”

Celac and his team have their own courage to thank for the story, but they owe their skill in using the drone, as well as the technology itself, to a training offered in the Moldovan capital of Chisinau last November by the Independent Journalism Center, supported by Internews.

The training brought together 16 journalists and activists from the country’s independent news outlets for a two-day workshop in using drones to produce news. The workshop was led by journalists from Ukraine, where reporters have documented anti-government protests with drones, and photographers and entrepreneurs from Romania whose company is the first in that country to specialize in drone photography and filming.

At the workshop, teams of journalists learned how to fly the drones and manage the images they shoot using remote controls. They were taught investigative journalism techniques and instructed in the legality of using drones in Moldova. They then competed to produce story proposals that were later reviewed by a jury of photographers and journalists from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Celac’s team was one of two to win the top prize — a drone worth about $2,200 and with it, the ability to make their proposal reality.

In a country stymied by poverty, its government riven by corruption and its journalism still nascent, that represented a stunning step forward.

“Drones are an amazing tool for investigative journalists because they are a cost-effective way to help the public get a view of places that they have never seen before,” said Jenny Holm, Internews’ Senior Program Officer for Europe and Eurasia.

“This is leapfrogging for them, technology-wise. A lot of the outlets we work with in Moldova have very little money to do even basic reporting, even to pay their own staff. To be able to use technology like drones to do investigative stories that go online and go viral, that’s just four steps ahead of where many of these journalists imagined they could be,” said Holm.

The Internews project in Moldova builds on years of efforts to foster independent journalism across the former Soviet republics. Drones are one of the latest technologies embraced by journalists around the world, in order to better inform the public.

Since 2010, when spectacular video of a riot in Warsaw, Poland by a semi-professional cameraman using a RoboKopter drone went viral on YouTube, journalists have increasingly used aerial photography, videography and airborne sensors to document environmental devastation, monitor pollutants emanating from dumps and cover natural and man-made disasters. In Moscow, journalists shot vivid images in 2011 of demonstrations against the government of Vladimir Putin. Reporters in Poland, Venezuela and Thailand followed suit.

In Australia, television reporters used drone images shot from above to document deplorable conditions in an immigrant detention center. In Brazil, El Salvador and Mexico news organizations have used drones to cover protests, elections and traffic jams. And in the United States, one drone report showed a bird’s eye view of a drought-stricken Nebraska landscape. Another, by reporters from the New York Times, showed the rushing waters of a melting glacier in Greenland inaccessible by land.

Even as the popularity of using drones expands, drone journalism in the U.S. faces growing regulation. Critics argue that the unmanned aerial cameras could be used for overly invasive purposes and could fray the ethical and legal guidelines that journalists have worked under for decades.

But in countries like Moldova, the excitement about drone journalism is real. The focus is on exposing relatively undemocratic governments to public scrutiny in societies where the ground is particularly ripe for holding leaders accountable.

Moldova, independent only since 1991, is deeply dependent on Russia for its energy needs. Its government, which had been leaning toward integration with Western Europe, is increasingly aligning itself with Moscow. At the same time, protests against corruption and nepotism within the political class have been building, said Angela Sirbu, Project Director at the Independent Journalism Institute in Chisinau.

“There is a lot at stake here,” Sirbu said. “We are talking about journalists who are desperate to get out from under state control. There is a lot of courage among them to expose officials and organizations that are corrupt. But they are starting from the ground up. They face persecution of the media, deteriorating standards, media outlets that are reporting along political lines. In this situation we see our role as being there to make journalism good.”

For those journalists, the use of drones offers a powerful tool, Sirbu said.

“This empowered them,” Sirbu said of the journalists who attended the Internews workshop. “It gave them a chance they didn’t have before. They are involved in a struggle and a choice every day, to work on these types of stories, to reveal the pieces, to improve the quality of their work to fight the system.”

For Celac and his team, the drone proved the perfect instrument to make an impact.

Rumors about the gated retreat in the town of Holercani, a village about 26 miles from Chisinau, had long circulated in Moldova, but information about it was referred to in government documents as a “state secret.” And the 161-acre compound was under constant, heavy guard by Moldovan military personnel. Official records dug up by Celac’s team showed that the government had spent $1.9 million dollars on upkeep of the villas over the past five years — a fortune in a country where per capita income hovers at about $3,000 per year.

When Celac’s team applied for access to the compound, the application was denied. Repeatedly, officials they asked about the complex told them to leave well enough alone, Celac said. In the team’s video report, guards at the iron gates to the property brusquely turn the journalists away.

That’s when Celac and his team launch the drone. In their video, viewers can see them, laden with equipment, trudging through the snowy, forested hills behind the compound.

At one point they come upon a local woman. She warns them to turn back. Later they come across another security officer, who tells them not to film.

Celac and his team ignore them both. In the video, the camera takes off from the snowy woods, its propellers spinning over the treetops and above a metal fence.

“It was stressful because we were far away from the city, in a forest where nobody knew where we came from and nobody would know if we disappeared,” Celac said.

“Of course we were afraid that they would take all our cameras and all our equipment and do something to us. We were joking that if we ended up in prison, we hoped our friends would bring us oranges. There were a lot of thoughts like this, but the biggest thought was, we had to do our work.”

And they did. The footage they shot that day shows the retreat in detail. There are vast, columned mansions and contemporary villas. There are fountains, undulating lawns, tennis courts and boat docks.

At the end, the camera goes back to show the little village of Holercani, a stone’s throw from the manses and yet, like most of Moldova, a world away.

Marjorie Rouse is Senior Vice President for Programs at Internews.

(This story was originally posted on Medium.)