Unlike Christopher Walsh, who wrote movingly in “Latvia in Review” recently about his love for choral music and his resulting decision to move from the United States to Latvia, I grew up in a Latvian family. Both sets of grandparents emigrated from Latvia toward the end of World War II, settling first in Germany, then in America, where my parents met and were married. It is a story that is shared by countless Latvian (and other) families.
For me, Latvian was my first language. We only ever spoke Latvian at home, and when I fetched up at kindergarten at age five, the teacher was rather horrified to find before her a child who not only did not speak English, but spoke a language that she had probably never heard of. She firmly chastised my mother, saying that the child is an American and thus should be speaking English at all times. My mother smiled politely, and we went right on speaking Latvian at home. Children absorb languages easily, and I quickly learned English in kindergarten. I was my mother’s firstborn, and she had grown up in a family of all girls. Not knowing quite what to do with her small son, she taught me. When I started kindergarten, I already knew how to read and write, and when I did learn English, I looked around at the other children and thought to myself, “goodness, these other kids are rather stupid, aren’t they?” Of course, I didn’t say that out loud, but when I moved from kindergarten to first grade, it was decided that I was too far ahead in my schoolwork, so I was plucked out of first grade and put into second grade. Skipping classes was not uncommon back then, it is not widespread now because of the acknowledgement that taking a child out of his or her accustomed milieu and tossing him or her into a new one is not conducive to socialization.
That said, the fact that I grew up speaking Latvian meant that in February 1989, when I was working as a journalist for a television station in Kansas, I could get a phone call from my mother in which she said that she had been invited to teach English at the University of Latvia – the first year that the Soviet Union allowed foreigners to become instructors in higher education – but she had things to do in America and so could not, and I could reply to her, “Well, then you stay here, and I’ll go in your place.” Thinking back, I’m sure I don’t know what made me say that, but the upshot was that in September 1989 I came to Latvia and stayed for a whole year, teaching English not just at the university, but at lots of other places, helping with the work of the People’s Front of Latvia (the umbrella organization for the pro-independence movement), and staying very, very busy, indeed. On May 4, 1990, I was in the building of the Supreme Council for the vote on declaring independence. I was in a room alongside the plenary hall, and my job was to translate the proceedings for the great number of foreign journalists who were there for the event. As the vote approached the necessary number, I remember staring hard at the carpet, for I know that if I met anyone else’s eyes, I would start to weep for the triumph of it all.
A few months after the declaration, I moved back to America, feeling that I had served my tour of duty much as a soldier does do in the military. I entered grad school, thinking about becoming an academic, but I also had a part-time job at the American Latvian Association that turned into a full-time job in January 1991, when the collapse of the Soviet Union began to approach more and more quickly. In August of that year, a few days after the coup in Moscow that led to the actual collapse of the USSR, I came to newly and truly independent Latvia to open an office for the World Federation of Free Latvians, thinking that I would be here for about six weeks. Now it’s been 25 years. My plan was to return to the States and to grad school and to get a part-time job at the Latvian Embassy in Washington. I went to the Foreign Ministry with this hope, and the minister told me that that would be fine, but I would first have to spend a few months at the ministry to learn diplomacy. No sooner had I agreed to do so, people at the ministry started telling me that I must stay in Latvia, absolutely must stay in Latvia, such important work to be done here! I became chief of staff to the foreign minister, and that Christmas, after a trip to Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea and Japan that was financed for the minister, myself and a member of Parliament by the Taiwanese government in hope of getting diplomatic recognition (which it did for a few years until China put its foot down), I went back to America to pack my belongings into a container and returned to Latvia for good.
In February 1992, two young men came to see me at the ministry to say that they were putting together a private television station – the first, as it happened, it the whole ex-Soviet Union – and would I be interested in heading up the news department? I am a television journalist by profession, so I said yes. The station was called NTV-5, I hired and trained a staff, and off we went. It was a very small station, not widely seen, but we did a nightly news programme, after which I did a ten-minute summary of the news in English for the country’s growing expat community. Of all the things that I have done here in Latvia, the one that I am most proud of is to have introduced the principles of professional broadcast journalism in a country where nothing other than propaganda had gone before. Some of the people whom I trained back then are still visible media figures in Latvia today.
When NTV-5 went broke, the whole news department moved to another start-up, RBS TV. When it went broke, the department’s employees scattered. I took my journalism roundtable programme to Latvian Public Television, where it remained on air for the next 18 seasons. I have also spent many years hosting programmes on Radio Latvia, and I have taught journalism at the University of Latvia for 25 years. In short, I am both a participant in the media world and an instructor of future members therein.
As noted, there was really no such thing as journalism in the Soviet Union, media outlets were nothing other than propaganda shills for the regime. When the USSR began to collapse, many journalists in Latvia simply turned their coats inside-out and became equally propagandistic shills for the pro-independence movement (others remained faithful to Moscow until the Soviet Union disintegrated completely; this refers in particular to the print mouthpiece of the Soviet Latvian Communist Party). The People’s Front of Latvia, for instance, published a newsletter, Atmoda (Awakening), which made no bones about being pro-independence and anti-Soviet.
In the wake of the restoration of independence, Soviet-era newspapers rebranded themselves. The newspaper of the Soviet youth organisation, the Komsomol, was known as Soviet Youth before and as Latvian Youth after independence. The aforementioned Communist Party newspaper, Battle, became Independent Battle. The former is long gone, the latter is still plugging along.
Separately, the Latvian government financed the establishment of a new newspaper, Diena (Day), which was supposed to be a publication based on Western principles of journalism. Of importance in its early days was an American Latvian called Pauls Raudseps, who in fact is a political scientist, but very much helped to steer Diena in the right direction. I myself provided consultations for its journalists. The newspaper did not remain state-owned for long at all. The Swedish Bonnier company bought it, and for the next two decades it really was a flagship of quality journalism in Latvia, with very talented investigative reporters and a skilled team of commentators.
That all changed in 2010, when something of a coup happened at Diena. Bonnier sold its shares to a shadowy group of businesspeople, with great suspicions that standing behind them were Latvia’s so-called oligarchs. Many of the newspaper’s employees quit and went on to establish the weekly magazine Ir (Is), which today is one of the few truly professional print media outlets in the country. If the oligarchs had been hoping to use the newspaper to boost their own fortunes, they failed; in the parliamentary election that was held in the autumn of 2010, the primary party that was linked to some of the oligarchs lost all of its seats.
I emphasise Ir because apart from it, the scene in Latvia’s print media industry is rather sad. When it comes to daily newspapers, Diena has all but lost its investigatory capacities, instead being a sort of chatty newspaper that is meant for everyone – sections about senior citizens one day, sections about gastronomy another day, etc. Neatkarīgā (the heir to the Soviet-era Battle) is unquestionably a mouthpiece for the Western Latvian town of Ventspils. Latvijas Avīze (Latvian Newspaper) has a questionable ownership structure and views the whole world through the prism of Latvian nationalism. Dienas Bizness (Daily Business) is the sole exception. It is a professional business newspaper and views the world through the prism of business interests.
In writing about the travails of the newspapers, I do not mean to suggest that they only employ hacks. There are plenty of professional journalists and commentators at all of the aforementioned newspapers, though in the case of most of them, I do find it hard to understand how they can look at themselves in the mirror, given all of the aforementioned problems.
There is a panoply of magazines in Latvia, particularly, as is the case in many parts of the world, in terms of women’s magazines. A few men’s magazines. Some specialised ones. Many of them are well-written and edited. There are also scandal magazines of the yellow “journalism” variety. My experience has been that when they interview me, what appears on their pages has only a fairly remote relationship to what I actually said.
In the field of broadcast journalism, Latvian Television has been racked by financial problems and poor management for a long time. It has a fairly professional news operation, but comparatively few investigative journalism programmes. Independent television stations are often rather more nimble in following issues. Radio Latvia has a very professional news department and lots of interesting programmes (I myself host a weekly programme that focuses on European Union issues), commercial stations by and large contribute little in terms of news and information.
Tabloidization has been a problem for the news media all around the world, not just in Latvia. Of course, the Internet has a role in this, because that is a milieu in which no one ever edits anything. There are a few serious news portals and an important Internet-based investigative operation, but by and large the Internet is the same sparkling diversion in Latvia as it is anywhere else in the world.
Kārlis Streips is an American-Latvian journalist. He has lived in Latvia since 1991.