Northern Light

Censorship at the highest level

I have spend the past two days in Latvia – I was invited to to take part in a public debate about free speech – and came across some disturbing news. December 5th the head of Latvian Public Television was forced to resign after taking responsibility for censoring a French documentary that is very criticial of Russian president Vladimir Putin and his regime.

The documentary Le Systéme Poutine (Putin’s System) is produced by Jean-Michel Carre, it was shot in Russia, the US and Europe and covers the life and career of Putin. It contains interviews with Putin’s supporters and his critics. The documentary has been shown on Canadian Public TV and France 2.

Putin’s System was scheduled to air on Latvian Public TV December 1, the day before national elections to a new parliament in Russia. International observers later said that the elections weren’t fair because Putin and his party Unified Russia were dominating the airwaves at the expense of the opposition.

Obviously the Kremlin also wanted to dominate the airwaves of the small Baltic republic of Latvia that was occupied by the Soviet Union from 1940 to 1991, when the country restored independence. Latvia has since then joined NATO and the European Union. According to Latvian media the Russian embassy in Latvia protested the showing of the documentary shortly before Russia’s elections. Moscow denounced the documentary as rude propaganda against Putin. The Latvian ministry of Foreign Affairs passed on the protest to the chairman of the National Radio and Television Council Abram Kleckins, and Kleckins put pressure on the general director of Latvian TV Janis Holsteins who decided to pull the documentary just a few hours before it was supposed to air.

The official excuse at the time was the need for double-checking the translation and technical problems with a broken casette. Later Mr. Kleckins told the parliamentary committee on education, culture and science that is was a mistake to schedule the documentary for airing, since Moscow might see is as an unfriendly act shortly before the two countries are going to sign a border agreement that Russian has been unwilling to join for the last 15 years. Mr. Kleckins added that the French documentary would brainwash Russian citizens of Latvia the day before they were to vote in Russia’s election. These comments caused an outcry.

Of Latvia’s population of 2,25 mio. an estimated 700.000 are ethnic Russians, of whom less than 3 pct. are citizens of Russia with a right to vote in the national elections.

Fortunately the Latvian media called foul, and the Latvian president Valdis Zatlers and Prime minister Aigars Kalvitis made it clear that the decision to pull the show was outright censorship, and the director of Latvian Public Television Janis Holsteins resigned on December 5th calling his own decision ”a stupid mistake”.

The documentary was broadcasted on Latvian TV December 4th.