Latvia’s decision last week to take away independent Russian TV channel Dozhd’s permission to broadcast in much of Europe started with a slip of the tongue and quickly escalated into this year’s biggest media scandal. It led to the “cancellation” of a major anti-war Russian media source based outside of the country.
Latvia’s National Electronic Media Council (NEPLP) stripped Dozhd on Tuesday of the local broadcasting license it received in June. Dozhd relocated to Latvia after halting its operations in Russia due to the threat to its journalists from wartime censorship laws.
The Latvian license gave the channel the right to broadcast in all countries signed up to the European Convention on Cross-border Television (most European Union countries and the U.K.). Dozhd had to stop broadcasts Thursday on the cable networks of European operators. Dozhd founder Natalia Sindeyeva had previously said that cable broadcasts generated 20% of the channel’s revenue.
Although the Latvian authorities expressed formal concerns about Dozhd in September, the reason for revoking the license was an incident earlier this month. It all stemmed from a catastrophic mistake by Alexei Korostelev, one of the channel’s presenters. Promoting an email address to which Dozhd encouraged viewers to share information about illegal conscription and inadequate provisions for soldiers at the front, he said: “we hope that we were able to help many soldiers, for example with equipment and basic amenities.”
It was an obvious error. Since the start of the war, Dozhd has held a strongly anti-war position — and has never organized anything in support of the Russian army.
Immediately after the broadcast, Dozhd editor-in-chief Tikhon Dzyadko apologized and deleted the recording of Korostelev’s comments. The following day, the channel announced it had dismissed the presenter, who had worked for Dozhd for eight years (this, in turn, sparked its own conflict among editorial staff and management). But this was too little, too late. Within a few days, Dozhd lost its license, and Korostelev was banned from Latvia.
Korostelev’s words, and their consequences, sparked intense criticism. Some Ukrainians and others — mostly from Eastern Europe — were joined by Russia’s “old emigres” in accusing a new generation of exiles of Russian imperialism. The Latvian Association of Journalists and the European Journalists’ Organization came out in defense of Dozhd, as did prominent Russia expert Sam Greene of King’s College, London.
What is Dozhd accused of?
The NEPLP revoked the license citing the Latvian State Security Service, which said that the channel was jeopardizing national security. All of the regulator’s grievances against Dozhd are detailed in the full text of the decision to remove the license. Three of these violations has already led to administrative cases against Dozhd in Latvia:
- Failure to broadcast in Latvia. As a condition of its license, Dozhd was required to broadcast programs in Latvia. The verdict states that this was a matter of national security: in the event of an emergency, TV channels should halt their programming and alert the population of what’s going on. Latvian-speaking viewers of Dozhd would not get that warning. Dzyadko responded that the channel had promised to launch Latvian subtitles from Sep. 1 (and did so, albeit a day late). And, next year it was planning to introduce a Latvian overdub. All this is expensive and technically complex, especially for a channel with limited resources.
- Describing the Russian army as “our army” and broadcasting a map showing Crimea as part of Russia. In early October, a Dozhd presenter described Russia’s army as “ours” on air. At the same time, Dozhd broadcast a map showing Moscow-annexed Crimea as part of Russia. The NEPLP judged this to be “disinformation,” suggesting the map might imply Latvia recognized Crimea as part of Russia — and that the phrase “our army” could give the impression Latvia’s military was part of the Russian Armed Forces. As a result, Dozhd was fined €10,000. Dzyadko said the map was a technical error and added that many European channels had made similar mistakes. As for “our army,” Dzyadko said this was a “rhetorical device” intended to convey to viewers that the war concerns all Russians.
- Korostelev’s comment. The report concludes that the presenter’s ill-advised words could be interpreted as an indirect appeal to the audience to provide material support to Russian forces threatening the security of Ukraine, Latvia and other European countries. Dzyadko said at the end of last week that Korostelev would not be returning to his role (the day before, Sindeeva suggested the opposite).
Why the world should care
On the one hand, a scandal of this scale involving Russian-language media could only have happened in a Baltic state. The region has a unique mix of proximity to Russia (and the associated history of violence and imperialism), a significant Russian-speaking population and a large number of independent Russian journalists who have fled their home country.
Of course, Russian propagandists were quick to take advantage of the situation.
On the other hand, the whole saga is a reminder that the “canceling” of Russians — fair or not — is a real phenomenon. It is similar to blanket bans on issuing Schengen visas to Russian citizens, or blocks on the funds of Russian citizens in European banks.
It’s not appropriate to get bogged down in the rights and wrongs of these processes while the war continues. However, as expert Greene points out in his article, the Latvian decision is unhelpful to anybody who is opposed to the war. Dozhd is the only mainstream TV channel in Russia that holds a strong anti-war position, telling Russians every day about the horrors of that war and retaining some ability to influence public opinion.