State funding for the public media in Latvia is significantly lower than in its two Baltic neighbours, Estonia and Lithuania, representing only 0.1% of GDP as against a European average of 0.17%. This low level dates back to 2008 when, in response to the international financial crisis, Latvia’s government slashed funding for public radio and TV by 25%.
Many employees have left the public radio service during the succeeding years because of the inadequate funding. A third, including 56 journalists, have left in the past three years and eight have left in the past few months.
The journalists complain that they are not being paid enough while, as the same time, their workload has increased as a result of the employee exodus. An audit by the government accounting office in October 2018 said, “budgetary resources are being used ineffectively and do not meet the radio service’s real needs.”
Other Latvian public broadcasting services suffer from similar funding shortages. The technical and financial resources available to public television are so inadequate that it has had to stop broadcasting several programmes and lay off many employees, some of whom have not been paid.
“All the budgetary pressure poses a disturbing threat to the quality of news and information produced by the Latvian public broadcasting group, which has been subjected to drastic financial constraints for too long,” said Pauline Adès-Mével, the head of RSF’s European Union and Balkans desk. “We urge the authorities to pay the utmost attention to the demands of the public radio service’s personnel and to devise a strategy to solve the crisis as quickly as possible.”
The journalists say mismanagement, the hiring of unessential personnel and excessive expenses by the board of governors are compounding the funding shortages. They fear that the recent appointment of a person with close ties to the conservative National Alliance party to the board will lead to political meddling. And their 10 July letter even mentions the targeting of employees via the creation of ethics commissions.
The public broadcast media regulator, the National Electronic Media Council (NEPLP), is also blamed. It duties are supposed to include protecting the public broadcast media’s journalists and other employees, but nowadays it is often accused of lacking neutrality. The Latvian Association of Journalists (LDA) has asked the parliament to include an evaluation of the work of members of the NEPLP and has invited its members to select a new media watchdog.
On 17 July, the board of governors appointed a mediator with the task of resolving the crisis but the initiative collapsed on 23 July when the journalists announced that they were breaking off negotiations with the mediator and all other representatives of the board.
The solution now lies with the culture minister and Media Council, who need to ensure that the government’s 2020 budget takes better account of public radio’s needs. The outcome could affect Latvia’s currently very favourable ranking in RSF's World Press Freedom Index – 24th out of 180 countries.