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Latvia: Analysis From Washington -- When The Press Is The Problem

Washington, 31 July 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The new free press in many post-communist countries may be contributing to social and political problems there rather than helping to resolve them.

Nowhere is that danger greater than in countries where the reading public is split along linguistic lines, where individual publications both reflect these divisions and may even deepen them. That is the disturbing conclusion of a detailed study of how newspapers in Latvia, both Latvian language and Russian language, covered issues of citizenship and naturalization in that Baltic country during 1997.

Prepared by two local scholars and summarized in the current issue of the Riga weekly "Diena-Dosug," one of the few publications issued in both languages in Latvia, this study found that the post-Soviet press as a whole was marked by sensationalism, tendentiousness, and an uncritical handling of sources.

As a result, the study concluded not only that the press as a whole has failed to serve as the "watchdog of democracy" that many had hoped for, but that it is now "one of the problems of post-communist society rather than one of the solutions."

But its authors, Ilza Shuman and Sergei Kruk, devoted most of their attention to the specific problems arising from the simultaneous existence of a Latvian-language and a Russian-language media in one country.

They suggest that the differences between the newspapers in these two languages are now so great that in Latvia "there now exist two weakly connected information spaces" and that has the effect of further dividing the two communities who read them.

During the struggle for the recovery of Latvian independence, the authors note, newspapers typically discussed the same issues and in the same way. Because of that, the two communities were drawn together by papers that engaged in an active dialogue across language lines.

But now there is little or no dialogue across language lines. Instead, the study found, newspapers in the Latvian language focus on one set of issues while Russian-language newspapers focus on a very different one.

A content analysis of 879 articles in ten different papers showed just how deep this divide has become.

On questions of citizenship and naturalization the study examined, Latvian papers focused primarily on passports and the rights citizenship provides, while Russian papers focused far more on the questions about the status of non-citizenship and the impact of citizenship on links with Russia.

At one level, this difference in coverage reflects differences in interest of the readers of the newspapers in each language. But at another level and as polling data the authors supply show, the story is much more complicated and problematic.

On the one hand, the Latvian-language press tends to respond to the interests of ethnic Latvians who are Latvian citizens while the Russian-language press tends to reflect the interests of ethnic Russians who are not Latvian citizens.

That leaves the many ethnic Russians who are citizens in Latvia without an obvious place to get the kind of news that is of greatest interest to them.

And on the other hand, the study's authors concluded, the dramatic difference in focus often means that newspapers published in one language cannot engage newspapers published in another, a situation that promotes both isolation and suspicion.

Even more, the Latvian-language newspapers and the Russian-language newspapers divide according to what the authors suggest are specific national styles of journalism.

Some of this is inevitable: as the authors point out, "the expression of one and the same thought in different languages will come out differently." But the existing differences are both more fundamental and more a matter of choice. As Shuman and Kruk point out, the Russian-language press has traditionally defined itself as a medium for the expression of the opinions of authors rather than the communication of hard news and to be more critical, when possible, than supportive of the existing political order.

The Latvian-language press is very different. It focuses more on information than on opinion, a trend that can help produce what the authors call a "quality" medium. But is also sometimes means it is significantly less critical in its use of sources than the Russian-language media.

Shuman and Kruk end their study on a pessimistic note. They suggest that there is no easy way out of the current situation and that the closing of one or another paper will not allow the press to assume its proper function in a free society.

But if the authors are pessimistic, the appearance of their study gives grounds for optimism because only a press fully aware of its problems will be able to overcome them and only a press fully conscious of its enormous responsibilities will try to do so.