Baltics mull joint TV channel to counter Kremlin's line
View of Riga, seen from the tower of St. Peter's Church, on May 11, 2006 - by Ilmars Znotins
Numerous Russian-language media outlets already exist in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania but most emanate from Russia and toe its line on politics and history -- sensitive issues in a region that endured half a century of Soviet occupation.
This month, Latvia and Lithuania each suspended the television channel Russia RTR for "inciting ethnic hatred". Vilnius had already taken two other stations off the air.
The Ukraine conflict, the worst East-West standoff since the Cold War, is at the heart of the idea for a joint Russian channel, giving the talks a sense of urgency.
"The Russian-Ukrainian conflict has led to a situation where waiting any longer is unacceptable given the number of Russian channels being retransmitted in the Baltic states," said Ivars Belte, head of Latvian state broadcaster LTV.
"The Russian-speaking audience needs a channel in a language it understands and which objectively reflects developments in the Baltic countries," he told AFP.
Latvia's prime minister and top diplomat have both held talks on the matter in recent weeks, with Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics taking to Twitter to voice his support for what he called "an effective tool to counter Russian official propaganda".
But the idea is still at a theoretical stage, according to Audrius Siaurusevicius, head of Lithuanian national broadcaster LRT: "We've only had an initial discussion".
- Europe-wide Russian channel? -
Ethnic Russians make up only six percent of Lithuania's population, compared with a quarter in Estonia and Latvia, but Vilnius has led the way in denouncing Moscow's disinformation campaigns.
Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite has described the actions of Moscow-backed channels as "open information warfare".
She even alleged last year that Moscow was preparing a mudslinging campaign shortly before the Vilnius summit where Ukraine's decision to step away from an EU deal plunged the country into chaos.
"Constant disinformation, provocations and hostile propaganda have become a threat to national security," she warned late last month.
In October 2013, Lithuanian regulators suspended the Russian-language First Baltic Channel after it aired a controversial documentary blaming Lithuania for a deadly Soviet-era crackdown while it was struggling to regain independence.
More recently Vilnius imposed three-month bans on two Moscow-based Russian-language television channels: NTV Mir in March and RTR earlier this month.
Estonians have also debated blocking Russian channels in past, particularly after the notorious "Bronze Soldier" riots in the capital Tallinn in 2007.
The riots erupted when ethnic Russian residents protested against the government's plan to move a Soviet-era war memorial, which Russian media later falsely claimed had been demolished.
But Estonian politicians are wary of the free speech implications of broadcast bans and so far none have been introduced.
"Fighting propaganda with propaganda will lead to cold war and will only increase the danger," said Yana Toom, a member of Estonia's Centre Party, which is the most popular with the Russian-speaking minority.
Others are sceptical about the viability of the joint channel proposal.
"It's a nice idea but after a hard day in the Riga shipyards, a Russian worker wants to come home and watch something entertaining," said Latvian lawmaker Ainars Latkovskis, a former social integration minister.
"Russian shows have huge budgets that even a joint Baltic channel could not compete with. The amount of money that would be available wouldn't even buy a tank let alone an entertaining show," he told AFP.
Enter Anvar Samost, a former Estonian journalist and current politician, with the proposal of a Europe-wide Russian-language channel funded by the European Union.
"It is too big of a challenge for one country to set up a Russian TV channel that is good enough to compete but it will certainly not be too big of a challenge for the EU," Samost wrote in the daily Postimees.
Estonian Prime Minister Taavi Roivas told reporters he thought the EU channel was "seriously worth considering and I plan to discuss this with colleagues from other states".
"I think its a good idea to have a TV channel that is objective and works within normal standards of free media."