Saeima to consider law on pre-election debate language

On Thursday, May 23, the Saeima referred to the committees a proposal by opposition MPs to determine by law that pre-election debates are held only in the official language – Latvian. The draft law still needs to be considered in three readings.

46 MPs voted in favor of referring the amendments to the Pre-election Campaign Law to the State Administration and Local Government Committee, 25 voted against and 10 abstained. 

The draft law stipulates that pre-election debates are to be considered as pre-election campaigning, and can therefore only be held in the national language (including the written language of Latgale or the Liv language).

Andris Šuvajevs, head of the Progressives faction, criticized the draft law and drew parallels with restrictions on media freedom in Poland. He stressed that this bill is not about whether or not debates should be held in Russian, nor is it about whether debates should be defined as electioneering. 

"This bill is about the political principle of whether it is acceptable to change the law on campaigning before elections, whether [politicians] have the right to change media decisions. This is a very dangerous signal that threatens democracy and creates a dangerous potential for restricting media freedom," Šuvajevs stressed. 

If debates are defined as pre-election campaigning, according to Progressives' representative, democracy in Latvia will be undermined. This will "open a new chapter in the history of Latvian politics", when the boundaries between parties and media freedom will start to blur, Šuvajevs said.

Meanwhile, Ināra Mūrniece, a member of the National Alliance, said that those who support bilingualism and Russification are worried about such a draft law. She stressed that the amendments aim to say that debates should be held in the national language. And the amendments to the law are still relevant, as Latvian Television made the decision not to hold the pre-election debate in Russia before the European Parliament elections after long public pressure. Mūrniece also added that such amendments, if approved by the Saeima, would enter into force with the next elections, which are local elections in 2025. 

The authors of the draft law point out that "holding pre-election debates in Russian is fundamentally contradictory to the status of the state language enshrined in the Constitution and its role in the integration of society. Thus, Russian is unjustifiably singled out among other foreign languages spoken in Latvia, weakening the status of the state language and narrowing its use in public communication".

The State Language Center has also said that "the use of Russian in pre-election campaigning before the European Parliament elections is a clear promotion of bilingualism and a division of the public information space".

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