Latvian media on the rise

  • 2001-01-11
  • Jorgen Johansson
RIGA - Over the past 18 months, Latvia has seen many changes in its media
climate. Journalists are no longer afraid of asking tough questions
and authorities are being viewed with new skepticism.

Still, there have been cases where ethics have been tossed straight
out the window in order to leave more room for subjective opinions
and in some cases defamation.

The biggest political scandal in Latvia to date has been the
pedophile scandal, involving several top officials here, which kept
reporters busy for more than a year. In the end, all the big fish
were thrown back in the pond again, free of charges.

In June last year it was time again for a new scandal. The
Russian-language daily Chas printed a story alleging 60 percent of
all Latvian children adopted in Sweden were victims of child abuse.
Just a few days later, editors at Chas decided to retract the story
and publish an apology.

Then came the Latvian business magazine Kapitals article on Jews,
which was more or less based on prejudice. The then editor-in-chief
was asked to resign and did, but is still reportedly working at the

Juris Kaza, journalist at the Latvian daily business newspaper Dienas
Bizness, said the tone of the article incorporated a lot of
prejudice, but the real mistake was the cover of the magazine.

It featured a stereotypical caricature of a Jewish man trying to put
his arms around the world.

"Latvian media are getting better gradually. Its reportings becoming
more aggressive. A few years ago, journalists didn't ask questions at
press conferences, but today they do," Kaza said. "One will see signs
of prejudice in articles because people are uneducated and naive."

Karlis Streips, a Latvian-American journalist working in Riga, said
he doesn't think Latvia's media is systematically prejudiced, but
rather that individual journalists bring their own nonsense with them
to work.

One opinion which seems to be shared by journalists in Latvia is that
the awareness of ethics and objectivity is playing a bigger and
bigger part in the reporting of news.

Streips says the Latvian media is ethically challenged. They have
never been familiarized with what ethics is, he says.

"The media are a reflection of their society. Society wants
conspiracies and scandals, and if the media provides it, society
doesn't care whether it's true or not."

The president of the Latvian journalist union, Ligita Azovska, said
there are cases when journalists don't act in an ethical manner, but
there are also many cases where journalism is ethical.

"Latvia has only seen free journalism for 10 years, and people want
to earn money and have a more stable life," she said. "The economic
situation influences journalists as well."

It is rumored to be possible to buy a news story as one would buy an
ad in a paper.

"I've heard rumors about how it's possible to buy news stories from
certain newspapers," Kaza said.

Azovska also thinks it's possible to buy stories from journalists.
She has heard that it has happened, but she wouldn't name names, she

"This is something we should fight with all possible measures at all
levels starting in universities," she stressed.

There are two camps of journalism in Latvia: Russian language and
Latvian language. There's a noticeable difference between the two,
even though they report on the same events.

"I don't read Russian myself, but I've been told that
Russian-language reporters produce much more subjective reports,"
Kaza said.

Azovska said there's a rather big difference between the Latvian- and
Russian-language media in Latvia, and expressed indignation that the
Russian-language edition of Diena disappeared.

"When one reads Russian- and Latvian-language news in Latvia, one
sometimes thinks that one is in two different states. They
(Russian-language journalists in Latvia) stress different things from
different points of view when it comes to politics and business," she
said. "The Russian-language media here more or less present news for
Russians in Latvia, and sometimes with a touch of Moscow's view on
what's going on here."

Alex Krasnitsky, Web editor and senior staff writer for Chas, agrees
that there's a big difference between the Russian- and
Latvian-language media in Latvia.

"In the Russian-language media there's a clear definition of ethics
between editors and publishers. I think the Russian-language media in
Latvia is less biased," he said. "I've never heard of any
Russian-language media channel (in Latvia) affiliated with any
political interests."

Whether or not Latvian journalism is objective or subjective in its
presentation of news is still an open debate.

"I think readers expect to see statements and opinions in news
stories," said Kaza. "People here were used to being told what was
going on and what to think about what was going on. Still, this is
not just a journalistic problem. This is more of a general problem in

"The role of the press is not to tell people what to think but to say
it's wrong for anyone to tell you what to think."

Azovska said she doesn't think the media or journalism in Latvia
differs much from other countries, but what is lacking is
profound-quality journalism.

"In a way, journalists are guided by editors and in many cases
editors are influenced by publishers who want to earn money," she
said and added "On the other hand, can a journalist be absolutely
objective? A journalist writing from his or her heart is subjective
in a way."

Krasnitsky believes the Latvian- and Russian-language media in the
country are equally subjective judging by how stories are presented
and angles that are chosen. "For example the story about the SS
legionaries, who are heroes for Latvians but enemies to Russians," he

"The objectivity level is going up, which is good, but it's going up
slowly, which is bad."

Some experts agree the future for Latvian journalism lies in the
level of education of journalists graduating from universities and
their ability to objectively cover authorities and politicians.

"The increasing skepticism of authorities is important," Kaza said.
"They (Latvian journalists) have dug up a few good stories. I don't
know if they were fed the stories, but I'm sure they checked the

"Journalists here need to be more aggressive and keep an eye on
politicians and money. The level of education about what is going on
in the rest of the world has to go up so they can put things in
context better."

Azovska said the media situation is improving.

"A few years ago, young journalists with not enough education started
working in different media, but today the education level is