Media freedom doubts as daily’s founding editor gets fired

Voldemārs Krustiņš, who founded and led the Latvijas Avīze daily newspaper for almost three decades, was released suddenly from his position Wednesday by the publication’s owners, prompting public uproar over suspected political pressure being applied against the press in the lead-up to presidential elections.

The 28-year veteran journalist told newswire BNS that the board of media group Lauku avīze, which publishes the paper, informed him his services were no longer required.

Krustiņš said he assumed there were political reasons behind the owners’ decision to send him home.

“I don’t see it as a personal attack, but a move against the newspaper as a whole. The paper declares on its front page that it is a national-conservative publication. This means the editorial activity is not geared toward benefiting the parties Unity, the National Alliance or any other of the current political organizations represented in Saeima. Apparently this bothers someone,” he said.

Because the media group is about to consolidate its various branches, Ventbunkers (which owns Lauku avīze) board chairman Olafs Berķis told Latvian Radio that Latvijas Avīze was no longer just a daily newspaper but also an internet portal and magazine publisher, all aspects of which need development. He denied the board had ever attempted to influence its editorial policy.

“The newspaper and the joint-stock company are not changing their (editorial) course,” he claimed. “The newspaper will remain national-conservative.”

He went on to call any talk of censure “complete foolishness” and “rumors”. Berķis denied the release of Krustiņš had anything whatsoever to do with the upcoming presidential elections by Saeima next week on June 3.

“I’ve never even met face to face with the journalists to keep my distance from their editorial policy,” he said.

Yet the paper’s chief editor Linda Rasa was not so sure about the owners’ position. While she confirmed Berķis had never given guidelines on how to work, she saw no reason for letting Krustiņš go just because of the media group’s expanded online profile.

Political analyst and media observer Ojārs Skudra on his part called Krustiņš a “key figure” at the paper, pointing out that he was keen supporter of the candidacy of European Court of Justice judge and constitutional scholar Egīls Levits.

Also chiming in to express its concern was the Latvian Journalists’ Association, which released a statement saying this was another example of how some owners perceive the media and journalists – only as their political mouthpieces and promoters.

“It’s unacceptable that media owners limit the editorial independence of their writers, which should be guaranteed in the Law on the Press and other Mass Media. Just as it’s unacceptable that the owners use the media in their fight for political influence or economic interests behind the scenes out of the public eye,” read the statement.

The Journalists’ Association urged the editors of Latvijas Avīze not to stay silent and let the public know whether and how the owners’ pressure on editorial policy was being applied.

Earlier Wednesday Saeima Speaker Ināra Mūrniece (National Alliance) also told BNS that the presidential selection process in Latvia had been “darkened by a threat to freedom of expression and the basic principles of journalism that hasn’t been seen in a long time.”

 

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