Is PBK a pro-Russian propaganda network as politicians have claimed and should Tallinn be procuring programming there using taxpayer money, Huko Aaspõllu inquires in "Aktuaalne kaamera. Nädal"
The Pervyi Baltiskyi Kanal (PBK) is a television network aired by the Baltijas Mediju Alianse or the BMA. Its material largely comes from the Russian Pervyi Kanal, with local programming and news added in.
"I believe it is a rather old-fashioned propaganda channel trying to affect people's mentality through entertainment, which is something people liked very much around 10 years ago, and all manner of talk shows and news programs in between that also sport a retro style," said Reform Party member, media expert Rein Lang.
PBK is just one of BMA's Baltic networks. The media distribution company is owned in equal parts by Latvian citizen Oleg Solodov and Russian citizen Aleksei Plyasunov, while the latter is not involved in the day-to-day management of the company according to the media.
According to official data, BMA made a profit of over €3 million at a turnover of €14 million in the Baltic region in 2018. Fear of losing this profit is the reason that outright propaganda is not aired, according to Latvian investigative journalist Inga Springe.
"I would be very cautious claiming that PBK airs propaganda. They are very careful in terms of what they air and have always said it's just business for them. That it's not politics but business. And they don't want to lose that business. They know local media regulators are watching them like hawks. They cut out things that might come off too crazy and could be used to shut down the network," the founder of the Re:Baltica center of journalism said.
Springe also does not believe BMA or PBK are controlled from Moscow. For similar reasons.
"I agree that Solodov has friendly ties and friends in Moscow. You cannot secure a network license for being a nice person. You need to know how to do business in Russia. But having someone dictate how to do business and what to air would be too risky as his networks would be shut down if they showed garish or Kremlin propaganda," Springe said.
BMA is happy to take money from the city of Riga for the purpose of allegedly keeping citizens informed. Tallinn city government is doing the exact same thing in Estonia. The sum came to €715,000 this year. According to Mayor Mihhail Kõlvart (Center), it is mainly due to the fact the network has a lot of viewers. Kõlvart does not see a problem with PBK's potentially pro-Russian sentiment.
"PBK affords us the opportunity to reach people with news and messages more cheaply and effectively as it has the highest rating. We cannot nor do we deem it necessary to try and regulate the network's programming. They operate based on a valid license in Estonia and Europe. And that is what the public sector should proceed from," Kõlvart said.
This favorable price is also the reason why 176 Estonian companies bought advertising on PBK last year. The network lost a large part of this revenue when it hiked its prices recently.
"It all boils down to price per contact. Certain target groups are easier to reach through PBK," said Meelis Järvela, head of media agency Inspired Universal McCann.
Järvela finds that as long as the network is allowed to operate in Estonia, those who buy advertising there should not be criticized. He added, however, that the public sector has largely stopped buying advertising on PBK.
"Many public procurements ban the use of PBK for advertising," he pointed out.
Minister of Culture Tõnis Lukas (Isamaa) was not quick to regulate the network's activities.
"I'm not up to speed on their programming, while I am confident I will be notified should something anti-Estonian appear there," the minister said.
At the same time, Lukas said the public sector should not pay PBK. "The procurement process allows for a competition between invited bidders, and since Estonia only has one Russian-language television channel, it is entirely proper to only invite ETV+."
PBK's rating has been falling for years, from over 12 percent in 2008 to around 4 percent this year.
"Of course, it's fading away. One cannot go far on this kind of programming. Time will do its work, and we should not keep it on life support using Tallinners' money. Rather, we might speed up the process by not financing the network," Rein Lang said.
Lang is not in favor of the idea of restricting the network. "To start repressing it… would give our friendly eastern neighbor ammunition. Everything we do that is aimed against their propaganda channels will be done to our journalistic ones one day. I would leave them alone and look on smiling as they try to go after modern viewers with tricks that are 20 years old," he said.
Editor: Marcus Turovski