Figuring out Latvia's press

  • 2002-04-11
  • J. Michael Lyons

Remember Gerard Stoudmann? He was the OSCE official who last month at a conference in Riga said offhandedly that Latvia should maybe consider adopting Russian as a second official language.

The debate that ensued in the Latvian- and Russian-language press offered a textbook example of how the local media works.

The circus began within minutes of Stoudmann's remarks appearing on Agence France-Presse's wire.

A top Foreign Ministry official angrily marched through gaggles of diplomats and politicians during the afternoon coffee break looking for the reporter who misquoted Stoudmann.

That's usually how it works with the Latvian-language press - angry politician wrings reporter's neck before telling him how the story should have been written.

In the following days, the Latvian-language press included stinging commentaries from politicians who offered a variety of conspiracy theories to explain Stoudmann's comments. Some thought the OSCE was using him to send a warning that demands for a second state language were imminent.

One commentary offered the finely-tuned hypothesis that the OSCE was somehow testing Latvia's resolve to keep the state language Latvian.

This approach to a politically sensitive story is endemic in the Latvian-language press, say media analysts. Politicians set the news agenda and outside observers are usually not to be trusted.

In 1996-1997, when the ruling coalition agreed not to talk about citizenship issues in Parliament, the issue virtually disappeared from the pages of Latvian-language newspapers.

On the other end of Latvia's journalism spectrum is the Russian-language press, which sets its own agenda.

Journalists in the Russian-language press here, like the press in Russia, tend toward activism rather than observation.

It stems partly from the 19th century Russian poet and newspaper editor Nikolai Nekrasov, an icon of the Soviet resistance press and the Russian intelligentsia, who said, "You may not be a poet, still you must be a citizen."

This tendency played out in the Stoudmann story as well.

The Russian-language press responded with typical "hyperbolized rhetoric," said one media analyst, which leads it from one scandal to another.

The front page of Chas, a leading Russian-language paper, had a splashy story calling Stoudmann "a beetle in the anthill" with very little of the reams of clarifications he and other OSCE officials made within hours of the original gaffe.

Telegraf, which in its short life has become a fairly respectable paper, also couldn't resist. It led its March 22 front page with the banner headline: "Foreign Ministry pressures Agence France-Presse journalist." Not true.

Both sides of the press here, through their own methods, have become so polarized, said one political observer, that compelling current events reporting that is truthful and fairhanded has died in the womb.

There were far more important stories at the conference where Stoudmann made his gaffe. Issues like language education have to be addressed.

Rolf Ekeus, the OSCE's high commissioner on human rights, said after the conference that he was looking forward to discussing the issues with local journalists.

Unfortunately, most of them were too busy looking for Gerard Stoudmann.