I’ve spent most of my life living and working as a journalist in Pakistan.
My family runs a news agency there that has fought off the efforts of successive dictators and governments to limit press freedom. It was routine to see politicians and the Taliban threaten my colleagues with death threats and hired assassins in hopes of furthering their own agenda. Just last month the Taliban declared Pakistani journalists to be siding with “disbelievers” and created a media hit list.
Now as a graduate student studying journalism at the University of Maryland in the United States, I’ve been intrigued by the differences in press freedom throughout the world, and the innovative steps journalists take to maintain their rights to a free press.
So in January, I joined 16 fellow University of Maryland student journalists and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Deborah Nelson on a three-week trip to research press freedom in Latvia.
Like most other post-Soviet countries, Latvia had practically no press freedom and journalism was used primarily for propaganda during the Soviet era. The press published no news critical of the regime, and citizens were led to believe everything was perfect in the Soviet Union.
Although the free press has evolved since Latvia gained independence in 1991, some of the leading news outlets have close ties to the country’s oligarchs — wealthy businessmen who wield influence over the country’s economy and politics.
“There’s self-censorship there every single day and they stay away from a very specific topic. Why? Because they get paid to do so and the owners insist that they do so,” said Kārlis Streips, an American-Latvian journalist who hosts his own TV show in Latvia.
A new report also raises concerns about the Russian government’s influence over the news media serving the large Russian-speaking population in Latvia. The report was written for the Center for International Media Assistance by former Financial Times Moscow correspondent David Satter. He studied the media environment in former Soviet countries, and found evidence that Russia was trying to exert influence in Latvia through ownership of news media that cater to its large ethnic Russian population.
Despite those and other obstacles, we found examples of independent, investigative journalism being carried out through the determination and entrepreneurial spirit of individual journalists.
We conducted interviews with seven journalists about press freedom in Latvia and the challenges they personally faced. Among them were two journalists who gave up their jobs rather than their independence — and moved forward to create their own publications.
After the country’s leading daily newspaper, Diena, was sold in 2009 by a Swedish media company to owners believed to have close relations with oligarchs, Editor-in-chief Nellija Ločmele and senior reporter Inga Springe quit.
Ločmele created the weekly magazine Ir and serves as editor-in-chief. Ir is a weekly public affairs magazine and cited by many of the journalists we interviewed as being one the few sources of objective investigative journalism in Latvia. The magazine, which has a readership of between 40,000 and 60,000, a high number for a country of only 2 million people, is owned by an independent group of shareholders including the editorial staff.
“Four years ago, our team was a part of the biggest national daily [Diena], but then the biggest national daily changed its owners in a very unclear and suspicious way. And we thought that our editorial independence was in danger, so we left,” Ločmele said.
One of the biggest scandals brought to the surface in the past year was an investigative series that looked at how weak government regulation allowed companies that went bankrupt, to avoid repaying loans. Although threatened with lawsuits, Ir went ahead and published the article, which has led to a government attention and proposed reforms by the Ministry of Justice.
Springe set out to create a nonprofit investigative reporting center. In 2010 she won a Humphrey Fellowship to spend a year at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland researching similar centers in the United States. When she returned to Latvia, she founded the Baltic Center for Investigative Journalism with start-up grants from the U.S. Baltic Foundation, U.S. State Department and the Soros Foundation.
Known as re:baltica, the center produces projects on social, economic and political issues that are given free to print and broadcast outlets throughout the Baltics.
One of re:baltica’s first big projects investigated the growing gap between rich and poor as Latvia recovered from the global economic crisis. The project received nationwide attention, and was a major reason the prime minister made social inequality a priority in 2013 and the finance ministry proposed tax changes that would reduce the income gap.
Under Springe’s guidance, we worked side-by-side with Latvian journalism students to create video profiles and info graphics on Latvians that we interviewed at soup kitchens in Riga, the country’s capital and largest city. The stories appeared on re:baltica as part of its ongoing coverage of poverty programs and policies.
Springe and Ločmele can choose their topics now without worrying about an owner’s political or financial alliances. But they face other challenges. Powerful officials and businessmen are filing libel lawsuit to intimidate journalists, they said.
“Sometimes, journalists, even good journalists, independent journalists, honest journalists, they just don’t report in some maybe submissions because they know that the people behind might sue them,” Springe said of the pressure that a lawsuit can bring.
While ultimately unsuccessful, the lawsuits are costly to defend and take away from the limited time journalists have to work on stories. A recent report noted that Ir was facing four lawsuits, including one by the mayor of Riga because of an opinion piece that was critical of the city council. Other journalists we interviewed also said fear of being sued has influenced what and how they report.
Journalists also have been criminally prosecuted and subjected to searches by national security forces for their reporting. Re:baltica published a report in January that documented six recent cases. A blog, Free Speech Emergency in Latvia, has been keeping tabs on reports of harassment of reporters, educators and other citizens since 2008.
By far the biggest threat journalists say they face is financial. Just as in the United States, lack of money is closing or shrinking newsrooms.
“All the media are working with losses, financial losses,” said Ločmele. “This of course places a big threat to media independence.”
As a Pakistani journalist whose family continues to fight for a free press in the country, this trip has made me realize that something as simple as suspicious ownership can trample on a journalist’s press freedom. What’s important however, and what Latvian journalists proved, is that a strong commitment to free and independent journalism can overcome many obstacles when combined with the courage to create new and innovative ways to raise their voices.