Tiny Baltic print media: surprising variety of threads in the colorful quilt

  • 2013-03-06
  • By Linas Jegelevicius

Latvian journalist Kira Savchenko works from London.

KLAIPEDA - You may perhaps see similar newspaper layouts, the same garish eye-catching headlines and even perhaps similar article topics, but that’s where the similarity in the Baltic media of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania ends. Perhaps one can hardly find larger differences in the EU media landscape in such proximity as in that of the three tiny Baltic States, whose outer borders are a mere 560 kilometers apart.

Estonia is the Baltic leader in media
If you were to look up the Baltic media ownership registry, you’d be surprised to find out Estonian newspapers belonging to a well-known Scandinavian media giant, the Latvian publications being owned by a fuzzy Russian-capital media company. In Lithuania, the scrutiny will turn up mostly Lithuanian ownership.

Media experts say that is the first thing to be taken into consideration when explaining the differences in the region.
“Media is not free from the political, social and cultural environment it is in. And the Baltic States are not an exception. Estonia stuck with Finland and Sweden from the beginning, and so eventually its media has done the same, developing Scandinavian media standards. The prevalence of Russian-speakers in some Latvian regions, and their ties to Russia, has had a major clout on the development of the Latvian media and its often “pro-Russian” stance. Lithuania’s media, though least affected by the outer impact and mostly owned by Lithuanian capital, has been mostly hit by the 2008 crisis and the government policies,” said Dainius Radzevicius, chairman of the Lithuanian Journalist Union (LJU).

Due to the Scandinavian ties, he says the Estonian media does much better than Latvia’s, and especially Lithuania’s.
“Economically, the Lithuanian media has been struggling the most in the region due to the whopping 21 percent VAT during the crisis years. Though it has been reduced to 9 percent from 2013, its ill-affect is felt all over,” the chairman noted. “But regional media in Lithuania is a lot stronger than it is in the other two countries,” he added.
Estonia, he says, is the leader in digital media. “Unlike in Lithuania or Latvia, there a slew of digital sites in Estonia living off advertising revenues. In Lithuania and Latvia, just those on the very top can make their ends meet,” says Radzevicius.
With the Latvian media’s close links to Russian capital, it weighs heavily on the newspaper, radio and TV content, the LJU chairman says.

Latvian media is the worst
A whole lot more interesting perspective on the differences of Baltic journalism is perhaps from local journalists’ lips. Kira Savchenko, a Latvian journalist living in London (and contributor to TBT) and who is a former Economist contributor, says: “I’d have difficulty in finding any similarities in the field. One of the very few is probably the Baltic media’s focus on home affairs rather than international events. That is where the economy factor is to be considered. It doesn’t make sense to send local reporters, for instance, to an EU summit, as Reuters or Bloomberg will provide exhaustive coverage of it, and it will be easily obtained in one form or another. Tight Latvian media budgets do not allow it to be anywhere nearer to EU events. That is why the Latvian media, even national dailies, is mostly covering the local economy and politics. To patch up the gap, it relies on translations,” Savchenko stressed.

She noted that Latvian media is “very different from Estonian and Lithuanian,” as its share of Russian language outlets makes up a whopping 40 percent of the entire Latvian media. “It refers both to the newspapers, TV, radio and Web portals. Sometimes the Russian language is a cause of major political flare-ups as Latvian authorities speaking Latvian sometimes refuse to speak Russian to Russian language TV and radio,” the Latvian journalist noted.

She insists Estonian media is less affected by the government and local tycoons. “A good example is that Vladimir Antonov, a businessman and co-owner of the collapsed Snoras Bank. With his strong ties with Russian authorities he wasn’t able to buy Estonian Delfi, a trendy news Web site, though he had purchased a number of media outlets in Latvia and Lithuania,” Savchenko pointed out.

In comparison, Lithuanian media, she says, looks like “a slightly improved version of Latvian [media].
“I mean the media budget and journalist salary cuts. Nevertheless, it is still less biased and has more quality. The bottom line is Latvian media is the worst among the three,” Savchenko concluded.

Lithuanian journalists can be nationalistic
A western editor of an English language outlet in the Baltic region has a particular view on the Baltic journalists he has worked with. “Though the journalists I’ve worked with are similar as a breed across the three Baltic States, some Lithuanian journalists can be more nationalistic - some might call it patriotic - about promoting their country and its history in their stories. I’ve worked with a few Lithuanian journalists who can be very ‘protective’ of their work, I’d say sometimes arrogant, and who will battle with any changes or suggestions from the editor or others,” he says.

The editor noted that he hasn’t had this kind of experience with Estonian journalists, nor would he expect that from a Latvian journalist. “In terms of professionalism, meeting deadlines, communication, writing and research skills, there is more of a difference among journalists themselves, not related to the country where they’ve learned and worked.”
In speaking of specifics in different fields within journalism, the native English speaker says that “In the area of investigative journalism, from what I’ve seen, this is still a relatively new area of journalism in the Baltics, and there is a lot to do, in terms of learning the skills needed to do it properly. A lack of support, decent salaries in this area may also be a contributing factor in why it hasn’t yet fully developed,” he noted.

Speaking of Latvian print media, he says there is lack of discussion or analysis on public, societal issues. Journalism, he says, maybe due to the readership, seems content to touch on the surface of issues, without going in-depth, and presents a populistic message.
“Estonians, however, tell me about some of their print publications and the excellent analysis they provide,” the editor noted.

Business newspapers in Latvia, he continues, still appear at times to provide “paid promotional articles” on companies rather than objective and analytical pieces. He comments that there are a lot of poor quality opinion pieces written in some of the Latvian papers. “In terms of the writer not expertly knowing the subject they are writing about. I’m referring mainly to areas of economics, public finance, budgetary issues,” he asserts.

News has gone online in Estonia
Monika Hanley, an American journalist that has written extensively in the Baltics, says there are more interesting differences in the Baltic States’ media in terms of the freedom of the press. “With Estonia ranked globally 18th in the Freedom of the Press Index, and Latvia 27th and Lithuania 28th, it seems that the press in Estonia is a bit more transparent than in the neighboring countries. Besides, Estonia uses Internet media much more than the other two Baltic countries, with 77 percent of its population getting news online. This is the result of the Scandinavian influence on Estonian media,” Hanley noted.

When it comes to Latvia, she believes Latvian journalists are more vulnerable to various forms of violence against them. “I still can hardly forget the case of the gunned down journalist Grigorijs Nemcovs in 2010,” she says. “In that sense, Lithuanian journalists are safer.”

Easy access to top politicians
Karl Haljasmets, an Estonian also writing for TBT, says that what makes Estonia remarkable is that when an Estonian journalist needs a quotation or commentary from a government minister, his or her telephone numbers are quite easily found on the Internet and the minister will pick up the phone himself.
“You just have to call and say: “Hi. I am Karl from the publication [such and such]… Can I ask you a few questions? And, sure, you will get an exhaustive answer,” Haljasmets noted.

“This is the privilege of a very few well-known journalists in Lithuania. No way will you find here a minister’s cell phone listed anywhere publicly,” says Livija Garajauskiene, a Lithuanian journalist.
Ulma Kavolskaja, a Latvian journalist, concurs with her Lithuanian counterpart: “I can hardly imagine that in Latvia.”
Haljasmets says all Estonian politicians and notables “always “can be reached though e-mails. “And the answer comes back usually in a few days,” the Estonian journalist said. He added: “However, Estonia is a very small country. And when you misquote somebody, or used sentences out of context, the politicians will remember you for a long time and, therefore, it will encumber you receiving information from them in the future.”