Language broadcast law to be reviewed

  • 2002-11-07
  • J. Michael Lyons

Latvia's broadcast regulators will for the first time review a controversial language restriction on commercial radio and television now in force that ensures Latvian dominates the country's airwaves.

Members of the National Radio and Television Council, the politically appointed body that issues broadcast licenses, passed a draft three-year plan last week that includes a thorough review of the law, which contains a restriction on foreign language programming to 25 percent of all programming on commercial stations.

Human rights activists have long held that the law, passed in the mid 1990s to protect the Latvian language and promote integration, discriminates against Latvia's large ethnic Russian minority. Now some members of the council are beginning to agree with them.

"I don't think the majority of Latvian society thinks our language is in danger any more," said council member Ilmars Slapins.

Slapins said the law is difficult to enforce and has failed as a tool to teach Latvian to Russian speakers. "It does not integrate our society," he said.

The council has suspended broadcasting of some Russian radio stations which it says broke the law and has warned Latvian television channels that show too many Russian-language movies.

TV 5 programming director Gunta Lidaka says the law helps maintain ethnic divisions in the country by limiting the news and current affairs programs Russian speakers can watch in Latvia in their own language.

She said integration in Latvia would be better served by airing more programs in Russian about Latvia.

Lidaka also says it's not TV 5's role to teach Russians the Latvian language.

"That's the state's job, not ours," she said. "We are a business."

Cable television, which is not subject to the law, has helped undermine the regulation's original intent. Russian speakers now have access to every major channel broadcast from Moscow.

"As it exists now it's really an obstacle for some private broadcasters who really want to do some programs about local problems or issues in Russian," said Signe Martisune, a public policy research fellow with the Latvian Center for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies.

Martisune said research shows that restrictions on Russian-language programming is not prompting more people to learn Latvian.

"Surveys show that Latvian language speakers are increasing each year," she said. "On the other hand, the number of people watching or listening to Latvian programs among Russian speakers is decreasing each year."

Council member Andris Mellakauls, who supervises regional and Riga-based commercial radio, says the Russification process undertaken during the Soviet period made the law necessary, but agrees that it should be reviewed to determine whether it's serving its original intention. He doubts whether it should be scrapped entirely.

"My fear is that I suspect that many commercial stations would just go to the lowest common denominator," he said. "Just about everyone here over the age of 20 speaks Russian, and I'm afraid we would just hear Russian on the radio."

He also shares a concern put forward by human rights officials - that the law does not comply with European Union laws on minorities.

It also violates the Council of Europe's Framework Convention on National Minorities, which guarantees minorities unhindered access to media in their own language. Latvia and a handful of other countries, including France, have yet to sign the law.

Amendments to the law would require parliamentary approval. Legislators, broadcasters, regulators and human rights activists will discuss the law during a meeting in Riga on Nov. 22.