K.S., Eastern Approaches, Economist.com
Media freedom in the Baltic States, and in Latvia in particular, has not looked so gloomy for years. The lively and often good-quality press of the post-Soviet period is shrivelling as a result of structural shifts in the industry, the economic cycle and—some fear—manipulation by powerful outside interests.
Take, for example, the fate of the Latvian daily "Telegraf", one of the best Russian-language news outlets in the region. Previously owned by a local businessman, Telegraph's ownership is now unclear. "I know that the old owners have sold their business, but I do not know who bought it," said the chairman of the company, Jānis Jurkāns. The ownership trail now ends with an anonymous company in Cyprus, Kinonon Holdings Limited. But it seems [this and most other links in Latvian] that the ultimate beneficial owner may be Snoro Media Investicijos, a subsidiary of the Lithuanian-based Bankas Snoras which also owns 88.92 % of Latvijas Krājbanka. Snoras's biggest shareholder is Vladimir Antonov, a businessman with good ties to the Russian authorities. His representative denies he has any links with "Telegraf".
Mr Antonov is no stranger to controversy. Earlier this year he complained after Sweden and USA blocked his bid [link in English] to buy the carmaker Saab. According to Mr Antonov, this was due to "a misplaced fear of Russian money". Mr Antonov's father Aleksandr has been in the news too. He controls Russia’s Convers group and survived an assassination attempt last year in Moscow.
When Bankas Snoras established its media subsidiary last summer it made no secret of its plans to buy Baltic media [link in Russian]. Many titles are going cheap because of falling revenues caused by the recession.
Controversy erupted last week when "Telegraph's" editor-in-chief, Aleksandr Krasnitsky, was sacked, after the paper published a story about a nine-year-old schoolboy threatened with expulsion for insulting Nils Ušakovs, mayor of Riga and a leading figure in the opposition (and supposedly pro-Russian) Harmony Centre party. The mayor was said to be so furious with the story that he ripped the paper to pieces.
The story quickly disappeared from the "Telegraf” website (though it can still be found elsewhere) and the paper announced that Mr Krasnitsky had stepped down. Mr Ušakovs, once the paper's news editor, denies any involvement. But two influential journalists also quit the paper in solidarity with their former boss, and complained of censorship [link in English]. Others said they would do the same once they had found new jobs. The local journalists association accuses the paper's new owners of violating the constitution.
The row has echoes of another upheaval in 2009, following the murky sale of the most popular Latvian newspaper, “Diena” [link in English]. Some of its leading editors and reporters left the newspaper in protest and founded weekly “Ir”, which is now one of very few independent media outlets in Latvia.
Snoro Media Investicijos, the bank's media subsidiary, and related entities, already control a radio station and seem to be shopping for more acquisitions. Mr Antonov has been in Riga this week for meetings. Some think he is sounding out potential purchases. The business daily "Biznes&Baltija" and the daily "Chas” have been mentioned.
"Telegraf" writers looking for new jobs in profitable and independent media organisations may find the search a long one. As this blog has already noted tycoons own some papers and TV channels; others appear little more than Kremlin mouthpieces. Public TV and radio are indirectly controlled by political parties.
Worries are growing in Lithuania too. Snoro Media Investicijos is officially the biggest shareholder of the Lietuvos rytas group which owns the most popular daily paper, television, a news portal, several magazines and two large printing houses.
In Estonia, which is recovering fastest from the recession, nothing has happened so far. But some sources say that Mr Antonov is eager to buy Delfi, the region's leading, quadrilingual, news portal. It belongs to Estonian Ekspress Grupp. Estonia's Security Police raised concern over growing Russian influence over the Baltic media earlier this year.
Buying depressed assets to make money is a blameless business tactic. But in the Baltic states, Russian investment is often seen as having political overtones . A report of a leaked document about Russian foreign policy, published on the Russian government's website (an odd reversal of the WikiLeaks approach) speaks of the "economic reconquest of the Baltic states". That sort of talk makes people understandably twitchy. Transparent ownership and a hands-off approach to editorial policy by new investors in the Baltic media would help calm such fears. So far, Mr Antonov has done nothing to dispel them.
Press under pressure