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06.01.2016

Latvia: Discussions about Municipal Newsletters and Media Independence

Ieva Andersone, LL.M

Within the last year, in Latvia there have been numerous debates on the rights of local governments to publish their newsletters with editorial content and paid advertisements. The local governments are referring to their duty to provide information to their municipalities, but journalists and media are worried about the potential impact to free competition and media independence. The response from public and legal authorities so far has been contradictory.

According to the Law on Local Governments, the municipalities have a general duty to inform the inhabitants of the respective municipality on the decisions and binding regulations adopted. The information may be provided either in the municipal webpage, or a printed newsletter, or by acquiring space in a local newspaper. Many municipalities have chosen to have a printed newsletter.

In practice many of these newsletters provide information not only on the news and official decisions of the local government, but also editorial content: interviews (both with officials of municipalities and otherwise noteworthy local people); articles and reports on events within the municipalities; even travel stories and reports on local sports events. Thus, in fact, these municipal newsletters may look the same as local independent newspapers and offer largely the same content. Some of the municipalities have taken this even further and established a local newspaper, registered in the Registry of Mass Media (maintained under the Ministry of Justice and the Company Register). In these cases the respective local government is registered as the publisher in the Registry, and the editors and contributors to the content of the newspaper are usually employees of the local government. Such local newspapers established by the municipalities may also sell advertising space, and offer paid subscriptions as any other newspaper. In practice the subscription prices and advertising prices are much lower than those offered by local competing independent newspapers.

 

Independent journalists, privately owned media and their associations have expressed concerns on the above practice of the local governments. They argue that local newspapers established and published by local governments run contrary to the core principle of media freedom – the independence of media. If the newspaper is established and published by the local government, and the editors are employees of the local government, they may be bound by instructions and directions of the local government. It is also explicitly stated in some of the rules of operation of such local newspapers that the editors are bound by the instructions of the mayor and executive director of the local newspaper. In practice, it can also be observed that these newspapers tend to be positively inclined to the activities of local government: there has been research that they often portray the activities of local governors, include flattering interviews, and are not active in expressing critique of municipal decisions or activities.

 

It should be noted though that the Latvian Law on Press and Other Media is quite vague on this issue. There is a general principle which stipulates that the editor of the mass medium must be editorially independent. On the other hand, the law also provides that any natural or legal entity may be the publisher of a newspaper. Thus, at least formally, the local governments are not violating the law when establishing their own newspapers. So far the Registry of Mass Media has also accepted such registrations. The local governments are referring to their freedom of speech and are arguing that they have rights to publish their own newspapers just as any other person.

 

Some of Latvian public authorities have joined the concerns of independent journalists, most notably, the head of the Latvian Competition Council. He has publicly stated that the municipal newspapers provide unfair competition to the private local newspapers. According to the Competition Council, the municipal newspapers receive funding from the local government, and thus, are able to provide subscription and advertising prices below the market level. As a consequence, they are endangering the existence of independent local newspapers. Enforcement of the prohibition of unfair competition is a private action in Latvia, which means that the party who considers itself to be affected by unfair competition may raise a claim against the infringing party at the general jurisdiction court.

 

In addition, the Competition Council had indicated that the publishing of a local newspaper is in fact a commercial activity, and the State Administration Structure Law provides restrictions on such activities. Actions of governments, including local governments, which violate any law and provide harm to individuals, may be challenged in the Administrative Court. However, up to now nobody has legally challenged these practices of local governments, thus there is no judicial assessment of the situation available yet.

 

In September 2015, also the Ministry of Culture has stated that certain restrictions should be introduced, at least with respect to the rights to publishing advertising. The Ministry has offered to develop such proposals within the Guidelines for Latvia Media Policy for the years 2016 to 2020, which is still in development, thus any definite solutions are not yet visible.

Ieva Andersone, LL.M (Cantab.), SORAINEN, Latvia. 

SORAINEN is advising the Latvian Association of Journalists on the potential legal actions to address the situation.


Read more

Law on Local Governments (Pašvaldību likums) is available in Latvian language (with English translation) here

Law On the Press and Other Mass Media (Par presi un citiem masu informācijas līdzekļiem) is available in Latvian language (with English translation) here

State Administration Structure Law (Valsts pārvaldes iekārtas likums) is available in Latvian language (with English translation) here



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