• 2007-06-20

cartoon by Jevgenijs CHeKSTERS

The quality of governance in Latvia slid even further toward a slimy nadir after two incidents this past week. The center-right coalition, which has watched its rating fall precipitously in as little as a half-year since general elections last fall, is akin to a fanged beast trapped in a corner: desperation is forcing it to behave ever more brazenly. At stake is its very survival.

Coalition leaders are exasperated that the presidential election failed to reverse their fortunes. Party bosses had hoped that a strong show of solidarity behind a single candidate would mend their mortally wounded rating, particularly five weeks before a doomed referendum on national security amendments. Instead, the election of a politically inexperienced doctor who refused to abide by the law has only catalyzed Latvian society. For coalition members, the guilt lies within that unwieldy fourth branch of power: the media.
And so the bosses have targeted unfriendly journalists. The National Radio and TV Council has dismissed Arta Giga, director of the popular 'De Facto' news show, on the basis of several minor violations, particularly allowing a Russian curse word to be aired on a program about popular disgruntlement with how the May 31 presidential election was handled. Colleagues, NGOs and journalists have rallied behind Giga, whose reports contain the requisite barbed attitude and have, by and large, reflected popular opinion.

The individual spearheading the coalitional crusade against the media is Aivars Benkis, a member of the Green and Farmer Union, which in turn is financed by the jailbird Ventspils major, Aivars Lembergs. (Can anyone logically explain why Lembergs remains mayor after two months in jail? Is this not another example of shoddy governance?) Benkis claims to have 24 years of experience in journalism, but most of those years were during the Soviet era, which means they should be drastically discounted. (Equally ludicrous are Benkis' studies at the Marxism and Leninism University's diplomacy school in the 1980s, which undoubtedly had a stunning curriculum.)

At the same time, Benkis' experience also means he knows what censorship is all about. To quote him in an opinion piece this week: "I am against evil behind the bad news. I am against hatred that comes from the mouths of news anchors."
By Benkis' logic, taxpayers have the right to chuck a few politicians on the basis that taxpayers are "against the evil behind the bad leadership" 's the backroom deals that allow millions of euros in soft money to be spent on campaign propaganda and the manipulation of the law to ram through amendments without debate. Which is more evil: a journalist with an attitude, or a politician without a conscience?
A question for Mr. Benkis: If Latvia's government discards independent journalists from public radio and TV, then what is the difference between Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis' Latvia and Vladimir Putin's Russia in terms of media freedom? Perhaps Benkis, before answering, should consult with Mikhail Lesin.

Arguably, the other event over the past week is even more worrisome. An amendment to a law on administrative codex that had been rejected made it into the final version of the law, which was subsequently signed by the president. The amendment involves a highly contentious issue of penalties for showing disrespect to the Latvian language, and is a pet project of the nationalist For Fatherland and Freedom. A clerical error, or an attempt to slip an amendment through the back door? The answer is still unclear, but it shows a frightening lack of professionalism in Latvia's legislative system. One wonders what other rejected amendments slithered into law.