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Latvian Radio disruption prompts review of public broadcasting crisis plans

Rescuers responding after smoke was seen spreading in the Latvian Radio building in Riga's Dome Square. January 5, 2024.
Rescuers responding after smoke was seen spreading in the Latvian Radio building in Riga's Dome Square. January 5, 2024. Source: Latvian Television (LTV)

Scheduled Latvian Radio programming went off the air for several hours last Friday after the broadcaster's headquarters in Riga filled with smoke and its employees were evacuated. The episode sparked significant confusion in Latvia, prompting the president to convene the National Security Council (NDP) to review crisis plans for the uninterrupted broadcasting of the country's public channels.

Latvian Radio journalist Aidis Tomsons and his colleagues were live on the air in the middle of a current affairs program Friday when an emergency alarm went off in the broadcaster's headquarters building in Riga's Dome Square, the sound of which likewise reached radios across the country tuned in at the time.

Smoke had appeared in the Old Town building, and more and more rescue trucks had begun arriving at the scene as radio employees were evacuated outside. With the help of thermal imaging cameras, rescuers determined that the source of the smoke had been the smoldering of insulation in a second-floor wall, and thankfully, no major fire broke out.

Listeners, however, were unaware of all of this, as programming had simply cut out, leaving only music playing.

Latvian Radio news chief Ugis Libietis didn't make it on the air with an emergency announcement until an hour and 45 minutes later, and scheduled programming didn't resume until two and a half hours after the initial interruption – once people were allowed back in the building.

"Yes, as programming is interrupted, we also can't broadcast an announcement about what's going on here either," Libietis said.

Info about the fire was published on social media as well as on the public broadcasting channels' shared homepage, however not everyone constantly monitors either, and many people managed to start worrying and inquiring why the radio wasn't broadcasting any news and whether something serious had happened in Latvia.

"The decision to continue broadcasting outside of the radio building should have been made more promptly," acknowledged Janis Siksnis, chair of the Public Electronic Media Council (SEPLP).

"Of course we have internal procedures and a major action plan for how to continue producing alternative broadcasts in the event of major crises of national importance – whether someone attacks or there's a major catastrophe that renders the radio building unusable," Siksnis noted. "It's clear after Friday's incident, however, that we need to do a better job of working through the action plan in the case of smaller disruptions as well."

Latvian Radio executives have likewise explained that they do have a clear action plan in place, including for remaining on air in the event of a major crisis that would prevent them from broadcasting from the radio building, but that this plan wasn't implemented for such a minor event.

Over the past few days, President Edgars Rinkevics has repeated his call for public service broadcasting and for means of informing the public to be ensured at all times. At his meeting with the SEPLP on Monday, he announced his intent to raise the issue in the National Security Council.

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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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