MONOLITHIC: Critics say recent restructuring of LTV has subjected it to political influence and eroded its editorial independence.
RIGA - The recent dismissal of a prominent TV news producer by management of state-owned Latvian Television has caused a maelstrom of criticism over the politicization of Latvian news. Anti-corruption and transparency watchdogs have condemned the station's move, while members of the station's news department are prepared to go on strike over the dismissal of Arta Giga.
Prior to losing her job, Giga worked as the director of the wildly popular and highly influential news program "De Facto." The dismissal, over relatively minor offenses, occurred shortly before a referendum over two controversial national security amendments considered to be very sensitive for the government and over which the news program has significant influence on public opinion.
The suspicious grounds and timing of the dismissal have led critics to label it as the latest in a series of political attacks against publicly financed media.
A June 13 press release from Delna, an NGO focusing on political transparency in Latvia, blasted the decision and unveiled the results of an academic research paper conducted by one of its employees on the topic.
The press release concluded that "the editorial autonomy of the news department is being destroyed." It continued to say that through the move it has been "made clear" that the management of LTV is "in the pocket of politicians."
Ilze Jaunalksne, an intrepid television journalist and anchor for the "De Facto" news program, told The Baltic Times that the decision to let Giga go "is a really big, big mistake that they have made."
"Of all that has happened in the past few years, this is the most serious [political] attack," Jaunalksne, who is currently on leave, said.
LTV has been undergoing a "restructuring" program since 2006, many aspects of which have been perceived as political attacks on the freedom of the press. Delna agreed, arguing that of all the previous transgressions this was the worst since former News Department director Gundars Reders was "sent into exile" as the foreign correspondent in Brussels, despite the high ratings his news programs received.
Jaunalksne said that the station's administration is actively working against the News Department in attempts to appease their politician backers.
"The headquarters is doing everything they can to keep a weak and [out of touch] News Department in LTV," she said.
"There is a complicated financial system, and a lot of money comes from politicians. This causes a lot of attacks because the politicians believe that the news has a duty to talk about their good deeds," Jaunalksne said.
Robert Putnis, executive chairperson of Transparency International Latvia, has concluded that the implications of the dismissal could be drastic and far-reaching.
"If Arta Giga's colleagues keep quiet as they did when Reders left, when their job contracts were arbitrarily and suddenly changed, and when Mareks Gailitis was appointed director of the news department, then the audience will no longer have any reason to believe that the content of LTV news broadcasts is based on the fact that journalists are loyal to the audience, rather than to political interests," Putnis said.
"Public television will be destroyed as such," he said.
The staff of LTV's News Department is not, however, sitting on it's hands. In response to the dismissal, many department members are preparing to go on strike and bring the "Panorama" news section to a grinding halt.
The Latvian language daily Diena reported on June 19 that the conflict between the news department and LTV management had grown to the point where journalists were prepared to strike.
"The system has to be changed," journalist Odita Krenberga was quoted by the daily as saying.
Jaunalksne said that the strike could well make a strong impression on LTV management. "Panorama has rich traditions and has been on the air almost half of a century. People watch and trust the program 's it is one of the leaders of public opinion, maybe that sounds superficial, but it is a fact," she said.
"If this is not on the air, I think that they [management] will be afraid of that," she said.
LTV has said little on the brewing conflict. Edgars Kots, assistant director of LTV, told Diena that he believed the administration was justified in their capacity to restructure the station. No representatives of LTV were available for further comment.
The recent firing of Giga is widely seen in context with other recent events of the government's increasing tendency of heavy-handedness in pushing their agenda through regardless of public opinion or potential consequences.