President rejects law on language use for radio and television

  • 2004-11-17
  • By Aaron Eglitis
RIGA - President Vaira Vike-Freiberga on Nov. 12 returned a law mandating that the Council of Ministers govern the proportion of state and minority languages used on radio and television, despite the fact that the bill received strong support in Parliament.

In a letter to the legislative branch, the president said that the law, which garnered 70 votes in the 100-member legislature, lacked clear criteria in determining when and if Latvian needed protection from other languages, and how that would affect state support for public media.

There are other ways to protect or promote the use of the state language, Vike-Freiberga argued, including implementing restrictions while issuing broadcasting licenses.

Industry insiders hailed the president's decision.

"Rightly so," said Andris Mellakauls, a board member of the National Radio and Television Council, the state regulator. "The intentions [of the law] were good, but the law would avoid the basic question: why is language still a problem here?"

Previous governmental restrictions have proved largely ineffective since radio and television stations wanting to subvert the law found a way to do so, Mellakauls added. Adding language criteria to license agreements, however, would allow the regulator to revoke a license if contract conditions were violated.

However, not everyone was pleased with Vike-Freiberga's move.

The decision to send the legislation back to Parliament was derided in an opinion piece in Latvijas Avize on Nov. 15, which questioned whether the president was working for the good of the state of Latvia or for Tatjana Zdanoka and her left-wing For Human Rights in a United Latvia party.

As the bill was approaching a vote in Parliament, the president had agreed to meet members of For Human Rights at the Riga Castle.

The discussion of local language policy often evokes an argument on the economies of scale. For instance, it is often more affordable to buy Russian language books than Latvian ones due to cheaper printing costs in neighboring Russia. Similarly, cable television is dominated by programming from Latvia's huge eastern neighbor.

Maris Antonevics, author of the editorial, went on to claim that "a year has already passed since the Constitutional Court's judgment, and it's possible to ascertain that there were some consequences." He added that, according to some research, the number of minorities watching Latvian programming had declined by 7 percent compared with 1998.

"We will listen very carefully to the president's objections, but the state must protect the Latvian language from threats like market forces," said Ina Druviete, an MP and head of Parliament's human rights committee. "Only in the case of absolute necessity should the state intervene. We are not talking about percentages or restrictions. If a broadcaster has a problem with the way it's been implemented, then they are free to turn to the court system," she added.

"It's a question of who will decide what is a violation and what isn't," said Ilvija Puce, a lawyer with the Latvian Centre for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies. The main problem is by what criteria, and how much language policing there should be, she said.

Still, even those restrictions that are in place do little to promote the use of the Latvian language. In a recently released study by Signe Martisune titled "The Latvian Language - a Goal or a Means in Radio and Television," the author came to the conclusion that restrictions had not increased the popularity of Latvian language programming. Martisune, who had worked previously as a researcher at the Latvian Centre for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies, wrote that "it has to be concluded that barring the use of the Russian language in private radio organizations has no connection with strengthening the Latvian language's position in electronic media."

The Supreme Court struck down an attempt by lawmakers in the past to limit the percentage of minority languages used in broadcasting during the summer of 2003. At the time, the court said such restrictions were a violation of free speech.

The current law is an attempt to replace the previous one.