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Latvia: Concerns Over the Future of the Largest Daily, Free Press

With the ownership of the largest daily newspaper, Diena [LV], in question, many journalists in Latvia fear business interests and political influence would rule the news coverage ahead of the October parliamentary elections.

“Who is behind Diena,” read last week’s front page headline of the newsweekly Ir. “One year after a change in ownership there appeared a shadow of the oligarchs and a question: Does Latvia still have a free press?”

“The situation is very, very sad, because elections are coming,” a former Diena journalist Gunta Sloga told Swedish radio (SWE). “Many people will not be able to get objective information before the vote, and especially problematic it becomes for those who live in the countryside and do not have an access to the Internet.”

Sloga and a few others had quit the newspaper in 2009 over lack of transparency in the sale from the Swedish company Bonnier. The new owners installed a new manager, who lasted there almost a year. Meanwhile, the owners said the newspaper would maintain its professional integrity. Tralmaks unexpectedly quit in July, bringing the issue of integrity back into the light. The owners appointed Sergejs Ancupovs, the former press secretary for the former prime minister, Valdis Birkavs, as well as a leader of a think-tank connected to certain political parties, to run the newspaper.

On July 20, journalist Kārlis Streips wrote [LV] on his Politika.lv blog:

I'm in deep mourning for Diena. When the first professional journalists departed, I wrote that Diena would still be my newspaper. Now, I don't have a newspaper in Latvia any more. For professional reasons, I'll continue to subscribe, but it'll be all.

In a video [LV] posted on the Diena newspaper’s web site, Ancupovs declined to answer questions about who approached him for this job.

“You know, we won’t be doing that kind of investigation,” he said, after explaining that the Diena newspaper will continue to maintain its objectivity and will not be a subject to political influence.

“Let’s assume that I have fallen from Mars,” he said, calling two journalists who interviewed him, “girls.”

Ancupovs said in a radio interview that the newspaper has always had a political influence. And it will continue to do so.

Jānis Buholcs writes [LV] that the recent change in Diena leadership means it is no longer necessary to hide under the pretense of being above the political influence. Buholcs responds to Ancupovs:

Media controlled by politicians is not the same as media that have their own political sympathies, which those openly espouse. The system of Putin and Berlusconi is not the same as an op-ed in a newspaper.

Pods.lv wonders [LV] if the newspaper's purchase was “the most expensive election campaign”:

If we are to believe information that Diena and Dienas Bizness were paid for 7 million lats (US$13 million), then that's a very expensive toy.

Let's assume that the goal is to influence the election results with the help from these two media outlets and after that liquidate them both. I think it would be too expensive for an election campaign.

On the other hand, considering the amounts of money the plotters could get in many different public bids and purchase requests, then 7 million is nothing but small change.

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