Media experts and journalists in Latvia are concerned about freedom of expression in that country in the wake of the fining of an online news portal over its use of the word "deportation" in an interview with a politician, ETV news show 'Aktuaalne kaamera' reported from Latvia.
The comments came in the context of a language law enacted in Latvia which will in theory require Russian citizens resident there, a group numbering around 13,000, to leave the country if they do not pass a Latvian language exam. The law does not affect Latvian citizens whose first language is Russian.
The news portal, Tvnet.lv was hit by an €8,500 fine following the use of "deportation" in the course of a Russian-language interview with the politician; media experts and political scientists find that a 30-page explanation on the decision, revolving around the use of the term "deportation", constitutes a blatant restriction on freedom of expression.
The fine was issued by state e-media regulatory body the NEPLP.
Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, AK reported, the Saeima, the Latvian parliament, has via several decisions attempted to make the country "more Latvian", while the language law is an example of this.
Toms Ostrovskis, editor-in-chief of Tvnet.lv , told AK's Latvia correspondent Ragnar Kond that: "I find it bizarre and unacceptable that we, as a media organization – which is because commercial media, not public law – have to explain to media oversight what freedom of expression and the independence of the media means. I find this completely inappropriate. The question of possible mistakes or not-so-thorough explanations of a journalist is a question of ethics, not an area governed by fines."
Members of the NEPLP's board were unavailable for comment when contacted by AK Wednesday, though the chair, Ivars Abolins, wrote on social media Tuesday evening that he did not feel the decision represented a case of just banning or interpreting in a specific way a single term, and suggested that the board's decision should be read more thoroughly.
Tvnet.lv is contesting the fine decision, on the grounds of its setting an unhealthy precedent for the free media in Latvia.
Iveta Kažoka, head of the research firm Providus, said that the language law had not been thought through properly, and was likely done with votes in mind ahead of last fall's election, but without considering the impact on the country's Russian-speaking populace.
"On the whole, I think that the decision concerning Russian citizens was not thought through by our parliament, especially in the run-up to the elections. After all, the goal was to strengthen Latvian society, but at the same time, the impact on our Russian-speaking community was not taken into account."
The term had been used by Saeima MP Aleksejs Roslikovs on a webcast carried by TVNet.lv, in which he referenced a nationalist party in the Latvian government as trying to inaugurate "the first wave of deportations in the history of the re-independent Latvia."
Latvian journalist Inga Springe, who is resident in Estonia, told ERR in an interview that a media "witch hunt" was in progress in her home country, in part due to the inclusion in the ruling coalition of the nationalist National alliance "All for Latvia!"-"For Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK" (or "NA" for short).
Legislation had initially also required Russian citizens resident in Latvia have a monthly take-home income of at least €650, which may sound like a comparatively meager sum, but many of those affected by the law are pensioners.
This was subsequently ditched, while the deadline for having to pass the language exam, set at the Common European Framework A2 level, has had to be put back in any case, due to a lack of resources for accommodating all those who applied to take the exam, Springe said.
In other words, the government called for people to take an exam or leave the country, then when they applied to take said exam, there were not sufficient spaces for them to do so by the deadline.
Latvia lies in 16th place in the most recent Reporters Without Borders (RSF) press freedom index. Estonia ranks 8th, though this is down from the 4th place attained in 2022. Lithuania finished 7th, Finland 5th.
Editor: Andrew Whyte, Merili Nael
Source: 'Aktuaalne kaamera'