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A night to remember at the TBT gala: Supporting independent journalism in style at Riga’s Grand Palace

  • 2014-11-05

With Russia and the West still locked in an on-going information war as a result of the Ukraine Crisis, the continued existence of impartial and editorially independent journalism in the Baltics is now more important than ever.
But alongside independent journalism’s increasing importance to civil society — as the world enters into an increasingly acrimonious state of information war — lies the question of how these media outlets can successfully adapt to the challenges and opportunities posed by the digital age: a question that has yet to be answered comprehensively by any news organisation in the region to date.

Which is why the Baltic Times hosted a gala dinner at the Grand Palace Hotel this October — bringing together leading figures in business, finance, politics, diplomacy and journalism from across the Baltics and beyond to discuss the ways that independent media companies can be more innovative, sustainable, responsible, accountable and influential.
Gene Zolotarev, publisher of the Baltic Times, laid the premise during his introductory remarks for the evening: “There is evidence to show that independent journalism is vital for civil society, political stability and economic prosperity,” he said, before outlining his future vision for the paper, announcing the appointment of the new editorial team, and unveiling his plans for offering a new internship training scheme at the paper.

This was followed by a keynote speech from former Latvian prime minister Valdis Birkavs, who spoke of the need for journalism to have local historical context “always in mind” as a profound mode of deriving valuable meaning from political events. Only with a profound understanding of historical context, and an ability to establish concrete facts on the ground, as Birkavs informed the Baltic Times after the dinner, could newspapers not only “fall onto the desks of decision makers” - but they could also substantially influence policy.

The other main keynote speaker was Michael Idov, former editor in chief of GQ Russia. Idov spoke of his first hand experience as an editor faced with increasing pressure from government authorities as the Russian government moved to restrict press freedoms in the period from 2012 to 2014.
But Idov also spoke with optimism about what the clampdown on press freedoms would mean for the Baltics if they could provide “a safe environment for journalists.” Riga in particular, he believed, could be a meeting point for Russian journalists in-exile, serving as “the place to stage a comeback.”

If the environment is right, and political stability is ensured, Idov went on, “You have a chance to influence a lot of minds in Russia and the West.” Idov also marked out a special role for the Baltic Times itself to use its position as the only pan-Baltic English speaking newspaper to help the West understand what is actually going on in Russia. “An independent voice in English has to keep happening,” he said, recommending close collaborations with any Russian investigative journalists who set up shop to the region.

Another highlight of the evening, which took place just before a surprise solo performance from the famous Latvian opera singer Olga Vresca, was the presentation of a Baltic Times lifetime achievement award to veteran journalist Juris Kaza, the Baltics correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and a former contributor to the Baltic Times. During his acceptance speech, Kaza called on the Baltic Times to keep “changing with the times, carrying the banner of the free press well into the second decade of the 20th century.”