The Baltic Times and media development in the Baltic States

  • 2017-01-11
  • Gene Zolotarev

The media landscape in the Baltic States is a vibrant and rapidly evolving mosaic that reflects social, political and cultural diversity of its consumer base. Gone are the days of State controlled media, ubiquitous in the region prior to the Baltic States’ gaining independence in the early 1990’s. However, today’s fragmented social and political landscape poses a number of serious challenges to understanding the media market, how it influences the views of Baltic people, and how they see the future for themselves and future generations of Balts.

Like other former Soviet republics, the media landscape in the Baltic States grew out of the Moscow-controlled communication apparatus of the Soviet Union. Newspapers, radio, and television were owned and operated by the Communist Party, which naturally held full editorial control over all content. The Soviet Union completed penetrated the market of both the written and spoken word. All citizens in the Baltic states, from the party cadre in Riga to the collective farm-worker in western Lithuania enjoyed access to state television and radio, and at least a weekly, if not an array of daily papers. Like in the rest of the Soviet Union content was offered both in Russian, and in the local languages of the republic.1

From the Baltic States’ entrance into the Soviet Union in 1940 up until the mid-1980’s, news reports largely consisted of optimistic outlooks on Soviet life and even sycophantic coverage of the authorities. This changed dramatically under Gorbachev’s glasnost’ program, which handed over editorial control to the media outlets themselves. Local journalists, editors, broadcasters could decide what stories to publish, express their own opinions, and even criticize the government. Journalists took advantage of the opportunity to bring to light their nations’ painful collective past, white washed for forty years by Soviet propaganda. This sparked nationalist movements across all three states. Television and radio stations began calling themselves “the people’s stations.” By the late 1980’s the most popular of these stations openly called for national independence from the Soviet Union – an aspiration all three states achieved in 1990. Balts recall the second half of the 1980’s as the media industry’s golden age. It established a trust and popularity that largely remains today.

The emergence of the Baltic media

When the Baltic States left the Soviet Union, the new governments wished to implement “Western-style” media systems. This meant cutting off state influence of editorial decision making, creating a private market in which media companies would compete for advertising dollars, and keeping that market highly liberalized with low levels of state regulation both on the business and journalist fronts of the organization. Each country kept one or two television and radio stations public and handed ownership of the other stations and all to their respective managers. In the early 1990’s Baltic media was largely in a wildly free market left to regulate itself.

Over the course of their first decade of existence, the three Baltic media markets largely followed the same ebb and flow. In the early and mid 1990’s, the markets were highly competitive. There was an explosion of new independent publications and broadcasters, freshly broken off from the former Soviet media behemoth. These small companies competed fiercely for advertising dollars, engaging in price wars and loud subscription campaigns. It was at this time that the structural challenges of the Baltic media market became clear: the markets were small and highly fragmented. The populations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are, respectively, slightly over one, two, and three million. The latter two countries feature significant ethnic Russian populations. In addition to the usual divisions such as medium preference, political ideology, age, and interests, the ethnic and linguistic divisions keep the media markets in the Baltic small and specialized.

Like much of the post-Soviet economy in the mid to late 1990’s, media firms in the Baltics received a major blow. Consumers had less money to spend on subscriptions, advertising dollars were limited, and corporate managers had little experience in managing a company in a free market. Publications and stations raced to find investors that could keep their enterprises afloat. In Latvia and Estonia, a significant portion of those investors were established Scandinavian media corporations, who continue hold large stakes in Baltic media enterprises today. In Lithuania, much of the capital was raised internally.

The Baltic media landscape today

The Baltic media industry has enjoyed steady growth throughout the 21st century. In each country, consumers are free to choose among public and private television and radio content, regional and national newspapers, and highbrow and entertainment-oriented content. Freedom of the press is largely institutionalized in full. Media outlets enjoy a high degree of autonomy from state regulation, raising questions about the relationship between the business and journalistic ends of the industry.


According to the European Journalism Centre 74.3% of the population reads newspapers, 58.9% magazines. The average Estonian watches four hours of television and listens to four hours of radio each day. Estonian can choose between five national daily papers, eight weeklies, and twenty-three regional papers. Competing with newspapers in the print industry are the 322 magazines circulating in the country. Family, home, and lifestyle magazines are the most popular and the most commercially successful, followed by comics, travel, and sports magazines. The print market is dominated by two publishing groups - Postimees Group and Ekspress group – who historically have been kept afloat by Norwegian media firm Schibsted and Swedish publishing group Marieberg. Although print is slowly losing advertising revenue to television and digital media, it remains a viable industry thanks to law exempting subscriptions from value added tax.

The television market in Estonia is divided between those channels that are funded publicly and those run by private companies. Public service broadcaster Eesti Rahvusringhaaling transmits two channels, ETV and ETV2 – both show programming almost exclusively in Estonian. There are also two major private stations – Kanal 2 (run by Norwegian group Shibsted) and TV3 (run by Swedish firm MTG). There is ostensibly little demand for a Russian-language television channel. This is probably because Russian speaking residents can pick up Russian stations though cable and satellite.
Perhaps the widest array of choices in Estonian media comes through the medium of radio. Estonia boasts five public radio stations and twenty-five private stations. Many of the private stations are owned by Sky Media Group and Trio Radio group - both Estonian companies. The stations run an assortment of programs ranging from standard talk shows formats to Christian radio. Swedish firm MTG also operates two music stations.

Estonian media has by and large adapted admirably to the market disruptions caused by the internet. All major newspapers, television stations, and radio broadcasts maintain an online presence, and viewers/listeners can access online the same content typically distributed though the traditional media. Estonian companies are fortunate; Internet access is nearly universal in Estonia.3


As in Estonia, Latvia is a ferocious consumer of printed media. In 2009, daily 244 newspapers printed 155,232,000 issues. The country boasts 20 national daily newspapers, and dozens of regional and weekly ones. Latvians read even more magazines – 370 were in print at the time of the European Journalism Centre’s latest report. Language is a major element in the divisions in the press. Latvian language dallies such as Diena, Neatkariga Rita Avize, and Latvijas Avize, provide global news coverage, while separating commentary from reporting. Russian papers like Vesti Segodniya, Chas, and Telegraf tend to stick to the Russian speaking world, focusing on issues relevant specifically to the Russian diaspora in Latvia. These papers are especially critical of the government, prompting a backlash from the Latvian press, who have taken up a role of defending the state from the Russian press.

Television and radio are much less divisive than the papers. This is probably the quality of Russian-language content is much higher than its Latvian counterparts. Latvia an array of public and private television stations. There are two public stations LTV, which offers straight informational programing and LTV7, which broadcasts sports, children’s shows, environmental programming, and entertainment. MTG is a major player in the private television, owning several stations. Local media companies control other stations. Among the Latvian-language private stations, no single channel dominates the race for ratings or advertising revenue. They all generally attract the same viewership and also feature similar mixes of programming.  Soap operas, competitive song and dance competitions, and news broadcasts are Latvia’s most popular types of programming. Notable, television is the most trusted news medium in the country, with 59% of the public expressing positive attitudes to it in national polls.

Radio is also a trusted and popular medium for news and entertainment in Latvia. In a 2010 poll, 80% of respondents reported listening to the radio at least once a week and 62% reported listening every day. 58% of respondents said they trusted the radio. The country boasts forty-three radio organizations, which may have one or more stations. The most prominent groups are the public Radio Latvia, SWH, Super FM and MIX. The first three broadcast in Latvian (except Radio Latvia’s fourth station), while MIX broadcasts in Russian. The stations do not differ widely from one another; they all largely broadcast a combination of news reports, music, and talk radio.4


The Lithuanian media market is unique in the region, in that its consumer base is ethnically and linguistically homogenous. More than 80% of the country’s population is Lithuanian and considers the Lithuanian language his or her mother tongue. Consequently, the market is not as fragmented as it is in Latvia and Estonia. Lithuania is also the largely country in the region with a population of over three million, making it the relatively attractive to foreign media investors.
Lithuania features 327 newspapers, 14 of which are distributed nationally every day. The major newspapers are, in order of popularity, Vakaro zinios (with 66,000 subscribers), Lietuvos rytas (60,000 subscribers), and Respublika (36,000 subscribers). Regional weeklies are also popular and glossy magazines are also people. Interestingly, surveys suggest urban readers prefer the daily newspapers and tabloids, while readers in rural areas prefer weeklies and magazines. 92% of newspapers and 87% of other periodicals are printed in Lithuanian, while only a few Russian-language publications appear on newsstands. Many of the magazines are owned by Scandinavian media companies, such as the Norwegian group Shibsted and Finnish company Rautakirja.

Lithuanian television is comprised of 28 broadcasters, including the public station LTV, and three national commercial channels – LNK, TV1, and BTV. The television markets have been steadily growing on both the supply side and the demand side through the twenty first century. The growth in this media sector can be largely attributed to foreign media groups such as Swedish Modern Times, who provided major investments during the stations’ early years. The global financial crisis of 2007 and 2008 scared many foreign investors out of the television market, leaving companies to reap the benefits post-crisis upswing.

Radio is the most monopolistic and national of the Lithuanian media markets. Public station LR1 dominates the airwaves, while a pool of smaller players who compete on regional and local airwaves. Many stations are funded by the Achema Group, a Lithuanian investment firm that also holds stakes in some television and newspapers in the country.5

The Region at Large:

The three Baltic States also feature several institutions that spread themselves across the region. First and foremost is the area’s only news wire Baltic News Agency.
Among English-language publications, The Baltic Times stands out as particularly notable. It has been published for as long as the Baltic countries have been independent, since 1991 initially as The Baltic Observer and from 1996 as The Baltic Times. The publication has been strongly committed to maintaining a balanced view, reporting in-depth of political, business, social and cultural events, that the editorial board feltwere topical and relevant to the Baltic people. TBT also felt it had an inherent responsibility to keep a huge Baltic diaspora - from recent economic migrants in Western Europe, Scandinavia, and the UK to as far away as Canada, the US and Australia, where many Balts have settled just prior or following the Second World War. This multi-faceted approach presented many challenges to the TBT editors to always maintain a balance of view, maintain journalistic integrity while giving voice to many issues and topics important to the future of Baltic States and the people who live there.

Like the region as a whole, the most striking feature of Baltic media today is its linguistic and national diversity. As it was during the Soviet Union, print media market remains heavily fragmented with dozens of publications in local languages (Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian) as well as Russian. Foreign brand franchises dominate - from Playboy to Forbes, but a host of home-grown publications offer strong competition for almost every media segment. Television, especially cable market is on the other hand is rather consolidated with only a couple of major players in each of the Baltic markets. Again, the providers are very sensitive to customer tastes and preferences, and are agile in meeting them. With all three Baltic markets moving to LTE wireless standard, more than ever the customers will have access to unprecedented amount of media from all sources and languages.

One promising trend we have observed recently in Baltic media is an increased prevalence of on-line publications and social media news sources, such as blogs. With internet and broadband penetration well above EU averages, this is where most young (under 30) Baltic residents go for their daily news. This market is virtually impossible for the state to control and it is highly fluid as readers and viewers gravitate to whatever news media source viewed as “cool” based on peer preferences. The impact of internet based media was probably felt strongest in Russian language media with emergence of such news sites as Meduza setting a high bar for journalism. It drew largely from a talented pool of journalists from - an established Russian news site driven out of Russia by oppressive state policies and now call Riga its home.

In general, the Baltic media has achieved that which it aspired to in the early 1990’s – a private economic sector, competing in a free and liberalize market independent of state influence and guaranteed freedom of expression. The fragmented nature of the market has made it very competitive, and also dependent on a wide array of investors. The main criticism today facing the media industry is a lack of organizational transparency. It is not always clear who owns, manages, and funds the organizations providing news and entertainment. This raises questions over the political and economic agendas of the various stations and publications.

Russian influence in the Baltic media

The Baltic media market today faces a new threat - an increasingly hostile Kremlin foreign policy seeking to leverage support of large ethnic Russian residents in Baltic states to shape domestic and foreign policy. Russian media has played a key role in this effort. This type of activity has carried many names - “hybrid warfare”, “media warfare”, “systemic disinformation” - where an adversary seeks to weaken the national resistance and resolve using media, causing confusion and lack of social cohesion. It is a very low cost way to achieve a foreign policy objective, much popularized by Dr. Peter Pomerantsev’s thesis on “weaponized media”. There is a very good reason why Baltic people want to watch Russian content - it is of high quality, while local production lacks resources, experience and professional competence to compete with Russian media. And furthermore, Russian language content is only being watched or read by ethnic Russians; many ethnic Latvians, Estonians and Lithuanians watch it for the same reason - quality.

Television is a particularly useful weapon in the Russian arsenal. More than one million Russian-speakers in the Baltics receive Kremlin propaganda channels such as Channel One through their cable packages. Vladimir Putin has established state media companies that produce pro-Russian television programming for Baltic audiences. Some of these companies are First Baltic Channel, NTV Mir Baltic, REN TV Baltic, and REN TV Lithuania. They present to Baltic audiences a falsified, heavily pro-Kremlin and anti-Western version of world events, designed to stimulate sympathy for Moscow.6
The internet is the another major medium through which the Kremlin influences public perceptions and opinions. Russia employs a vast army of internet trolls, who roam news sites and social media, leaving comments that aim to change the common narrative on a given story to one that puts Russia in a more favorable light.7

Needless to say, these activities have not passed unnoticed by Baltic the intelligence community and many precautions have been implemented. In Lithuania, for example, parliament enacted a series of laws that limited the amount of Russian-language programming that could be broadcasted. The country also banned Russian station RTR Planeta. The government in Estonia recently launched a public Russian language station, ETV+, to serve as an alternative to Kremlin-backed channels. Latvia has banned television stations and set up workshops for journalists designed to counter Russian propaganda, as often happens in such cases, there is a danger of over-reaction. Across the region, publications, even those offering almost entirely entertainment content, have been scrutinized and faced many restrictions.8

Since the Russian aggression in Ukraine, the local governments had become increasingly involved in monitoring media in the Baltics as suspicions grew that some, especially Russian language media, was not acting in the best interests of the state and its citizens. However, this control was rather soft and no heavy handed action was taken, alleviating local media concerns over state “control” of media. The public reaction was muted as most people felt free to select their “news” rather than being dictated to. Customers gravitate toward a natural balance - access to quality media, with due vigilance against those seeking to upset a peaceful social order.
We at The Baltic Times, view the future of the Baltic media landscape with guarded optimism. The choices we make now, the regulation framework and the social dynamic must balance out with long term goals of freedom of the press and pan-Baltic national security agenda.

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