Latvia’s free press comes with a price tag

  • 2011-10-05
  • By Philip Birzulis

RIGA - When it comes to the post-Soviet media, names can be deceptive. Although Neatkariga Rita Avize (NRA) means “independent morning newspaper” in Latvian, the daily seems to be firmly under the thumb of its political paymasters.
NRA’s coverage is usually skewed to reflect the interests of its owners from Ventspils, but during election campaigns it becomes little more than a propaganda sheet. The edition of Sept. 15 of this year, two days before the recent emergency polls, carried several full page ads for the Union of Greens and Farmers, a fawning interview with the party’s leader Aivars Lembergs as well as articles hurling accusations against his opponents, who were given no chance to reply. It also published statements from well-known people expressing their support for the Union, but at least one was a fake. One man first learned that he had been quoted in this way when The Baltic Times asked him about it, and he said it did not reflect his views.

Thoughtful Latvians regard NRA as a joke and get their news elsewhere. However, there is evidence that ethical standards are falling and corruption is growing at many media outlets. In the wake of the 2010 elections, media researcher Anda Rozukalne published a report titled “Hidden advertising in the content of Latvia’s media,” which investigated illicit payments made by politicians to media outlets in exchange for favorable coverage. Based on 20 anonymous interviews with editors, journalists, advertising executives and other key media figures, the report found that these practices are widespread.

Latvia’s Russian-language media outlets are particularly affected by the problem. As one Russian TV journalist stated:
“About two months before the elections, a list of candidates is drawn up. Advertising time is sold. The last week before the elections is the most expensive. And from the beginning of September we knew who would be shown on the channel in the last two days. The only chance for new candidates to get on the air was by creating a scandal or a pseudo-event. Our channel has the most hidden advertisements, we have broken all records. If during the campaign we had been able to exchange the soap opera heroes for Slesers or Usakovs, we would have done it.”
According to Rozukalne, the main beneficiary of these ads is the Harmony Center party. A tradition of deference to superiors, desire for material gain and ideological affinity for Russian-speaking politicians leads to scanty or highly distorted coverage of ethnic Latvian parties.

The report praises some Russian media such as the newspaper Telegraf as exceptions to this biased rule. Telegraf editor-in-chief Andrei Shvedov says his newspaper does not accept hidden advertising and offers balanced coverage of all parties. Telegraf’s readership is better educated and richer than that of other Russian media, but he believes that the one-sidedness of competitors like the newspaper Vesti Segodnya is due to audience demand, rather than corruption.

“The Russian audience wants more coverage of Russian-speaking politicians, so that’s what they get,” he says.
Harmony Center MP Boriss Cilevics questioned Rozukalne’s impartiality and claimed there is no quantitative data proving the bias of the Russian-language media. On the contrary, he said the Latvian-language media pays little attention to the members of ethnic minorities, except for athletes, and public television is particularly guilty of not giving Russian-speaking candidates air time. He said his party does not engage in hidden advertising.

“Harmony Center pays money under official advertising contracts to both the Latvian and the Russian media,” says Cilevics. “I don’t know about any unofficial payments, although I can’t confirm what individual candidates may have done.”
However, Rozukalne says that there is plenty of quantitative data to indicate more bias in the Russian media, including extensive media monitoring conducted during the recent elections by the think tank Providus. She also dismisses claims about the reliability of the qualitative study. The statements of the advertising staff backed up what the editors and journalists at the respective media outlet said, and in any case Rozukalne thinks there is no motivation for them to not tell the truth. 

“When I first discussed this project, some people laughed and said that no one would tell us anything, but the opposite has been the case,” she says. “I am not worried that someone has lied, because this data is so damaging to the interests of the media.”

Although the study concerned coverage of the 2010 elections, Rozukalne doesn’t think the situation has changed much since then. While some media have been corrupt for a long time, others have been pressured into accepting hidden ads by the economic crisis; Latvia’s advertising market shrank by 46 percent in 2009. And it by no means only affects the Russian-language media. In fact, Rozukalne believes the practice of some Latvian-language media of mixing critical and tainted coverage makes it harder for the audience to tell what is what than the unmistakable one sidedness of the Russians.

There are honorable exceptions, and she praises the weekly magazine Ir, the LETA news agency and channel TV3 for their objective, ethical coverage. But besides direct corruption, much of what people in Latvia read or view is controlled by a number of “networks” in which political, business and media interests are closely entwined. Rozukalne and colleague Valdis Krebs have attempted to chart these networks, and a simplified version of their work is presented in the table accompanying this article. The center-right Unity party and the Zatlers’ Reform Party are noticeably absent from these networks and during the recent campaign, the ZRP complained about media bias against it.

According to a spokesperson for KNAB, Latvia’s official anti-corruption agency, legislation passed by the Saeima in recent years has worsened the situation with hidden advertising. Amendments made in 2008 to party funding laws excluded a wide range of items, such as self-published newspapers and brochures, from campaign finance limits, and also made it easier for individual candidates to spend what they like.

Vineta Ostrovska, the head of KNAB’s Political Party Financing Monitoring Department, says parties have ignored proposals made by her agency to tighten up the rules. But she said amendments to the Law on the Press and other Mass Media, passed by the Saeima on Sept. 22 of this year compelling media outlets to reveal their beneficial owners, were positive.
“This is a step in the right direction, because it allows people to make their own judgments,” says Ostrovska.

Nevertheless, there are doubts about the effectiveness of hidden advertising, at least on Latvian audiences. Despite a barrage of favorable coverage, including Lembergs making lengthy, paid-for statements on the LNT TV channel, the Union of Greens and Farmers saw its share of the vote almost halved. Rozukalne thinks citizens are increasingly skilled at differentiating between real and paid information. Moreover, Internet portals like and are increasingly popular for airing wire reports of events as they happen and have developed a lively, if occasionally foul mouthed, commenting culture.

However, Rozukalne also believes that the ethnic divide in the mainstream media is being perpetuated online. “The general information on the Russian portals about the weather, culture and so on is the same as on the Latvian ones, but the political views are once again polarized,” she says.