Latvian free press dying off

  • 2010-07-21
  • By Kira Savchenko

IN RETREAT: The last bastion of Latvia’s free press, the daily Diena, has fallen as the top two posts are now held by purported politically connected henchmen.

RIGA - Ahead of the national elections, scheduled for this fall, the most influential Latvian daily newspaper Diena is now headed by politically motivated persons following personnel changes. This could be the beginning of the end for the free press in the country, say analysts and established journalists.

Since Latvia’s independence was restored in 1990, Diena had been the most powerful and influential newspaper in the republic. The daily was well-regarded for its outstanding opinions, fresh angles and investigative reporting. The first convulsion in Diena happened a year ago, when many experienced editors and journalists left because of a dubious change of ownership. The previous owner, Swedish company Bonnier Business Press, sold Diena and business daily Dienas bizness to the Rowland family in England, who continuously avoided meeting the paper’s staff.

On July 13, another wave overwhelmed Diena, when two former public relations experts, connected to political parties, moved in. Sergejs Ancupovs, the former spokesman of then Prime Minister Valdis Birkavs and his party “Latvian Way,” was appointed editor-in-chief. Ancupovs was one of the first to sign the memorandum of another political alliance, “For a Good Latvia,” which is running for the national elections in October together with the People’s Party and Riga Vice-Mayor Ainars Slesers’ party “Latvian First Party/Latvian Way.”

The deputy editor position is now occupied by Dzintars Zaluksnis, who used to be one of Riga Council’s spokesmen. The new owners’ representative explained the change with the necessity to make the newspaper profitable. Compared to 2009, when the first scandal took place, Diena has lost about 30 percent of its subscribers.
Former Diena editors consider the change of executives as a mock at freedom of the press.

“PR experts and journalists have always been playing for the opposing sides. It is the end of journalism in Latvia. It was not possible to make this clearer. It would be better to end this farce and shut Diena down, rather than continue to goof on a famous brand,” said Nellija Locmele, former editor-in-chief of Dienas mediji.
There are many reasons to suspect that the content of Diena will soon change, said Sarmite Elerte, the former editor-in-chief, who is running for the parliament with the “Unity” political coalition.

“Sergejs Ancupovs is a very nice man, who plays an Indian musical instrument and has no professional qualification to hold this position, but his assistant, Dzintars Zaluksnis, is widely known for executing political favors. I have never thought that the Rowland family was the real owner of Diena, and the latest events are the best proof of this.”
It becomes quite obvious now that Diena was bought by politicians a year ago, said Segejs Kruks, a media analyst. “Last year’s deal was connected to the parliamentary elections and recent change of editorial. Now we see it clearly. Diena has officially become the newspaper of ‘For a Good Latvia’ and I do not know what will happen to the daily after October.”
Ancupovs denied all accusations and promised to restore Diena’s brand image.

“Diena has to remain politically independent. I am not a member of any party and I do not understand why everybody tries to associate me with politics. These are just intrigues; everybody tries to fling dirt at Sergejs. I will not allow any party to affect the content of Diena,” said Ancupovs to Latvijas Radio.