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Latvia: Analysis From Washington--When Bad News Is Good News

Riga, 31 October 1997(RFE/RL) - One of the hardest lessons that peoples, governments and journalists have to learn in post-communist countries is that reporting bad news can be good news after all.

The willingness of a society to face up to its problems in public and thus to be able to deal with them in an open and honest way is a major milestone on the road from a totalitarian past to a free and democratic future.

But as recent events in Latvia show, accepting this particular aspect of the democratic transformation is seldom easy for many of those most directly involved.

Following the decision of the European Commission to recommend that Estonia, but not her Baltic neighbors Latvia and Lithuania, be invited to begin accession talks, many in Latvia began to blame the Latvian media for this setback.

Some parliamentarians said that journalists had "blackened" Latvia's reputation simply by reporting on problems in that Baltic country.

And some politicians even demanded that journalists demonstrate their patriotism by publishing more upbeat stories and thus advance the Latvian cause.

Such attitudes have their roots both in human nature and in some specific features of communist societies. No one likes bad news, and many -- perhaps politicians especially -- are inclined to blame the bearer of bad tidings rather than seek to deal with the problems that the bearer brings.

These attitudes were intensified by the communist system. During Soviet times journalists in Latvia and elsewhere were required to put a positive spin on all things the Party leadership approved. They were required to ignore most negative phenomena. And when that was impossible, the journalists were expected to treat anything negative as an exception.

Any population, and even more any political elite, used to that kind of media inevitably find it difficult to cope with a negative kind. And as a result, both are tempted to lash out at the press and make it a scapegoat for their problems.

A survey of the media scene in Latvia shows that few journalists or their editors have been cowed. Instead, as many of them indicated at an RFE/RL-organized conference in Riga earlier this week, they are becoming bolder still.

This won't make their critics any happier. But ultimately is likely to help them, both by improving Latvian society and by serving notice to the world that Latvia has made a difficult, but necessary, transition.