Early this month, Latvia found itself under fire from free press advocates after the country’s regulators annulled the broadcast license of TV Rain, a Russian-language channel.
Known in Russian as Dozhd TV, the independent station had fled Russia in February because of Kremlin censorship, including laws that criminalize calling the war on Ukraine a “war.”
Moscow had blocked the channel for spreading “content containing false information about the nature of the special military operation in Ukraine.”
Last week, it was Latvia’s turn. After the country’s security service investigated some of TV Rain’s content, regulators pulled its license and pledged to block its YouTube channel to boot.
Press advocates attacked the decision as overreach. For one thing, TV Rain was known to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin and regarded as a liberal voice.
All that makes Vyacheslav Volodin, chairman of the State Duma, the lower house of Russia’s parliament, a most unlikely voice of criticism.
Posting about Latvia’s move December 7 on Telegram, he said:
“It will not be possible to walk between the raindrops. This is important to know for all the 'mavericks' and traitors who are surprised today that human rights and freedoms are just decorations for the United States and Europe.”
Coming from a country that ranks 155th out of 180 countries in press freedom, and which has criminalized honest journalism under Putin’s reign, that is misleading.
Reporters Without Borders, the Paris-based group that compiles press freedom rankings by country every year, sums up the media environment under Russian ruler Vladimir Putin this way:
“Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, almost all independent media have been banned, blocked and/or declared ’foreign agents.’ All others are subject to military censorship.”
Whatever Volodin thinks, that’s not happening in the West, where most countries sit at the top of the press freedom rankings. (Latvia is 22nd.) It should be noted that Volodin is a former Putin aide who is considered a potential successor.
What’s all the hubbub about TV Rain?
Latvia cited three incidents as the basis for calling the station a security threat.
In early December, Latvia’s regulator fined the station 10,000 euros for publishing a map showing the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia illegally annexed from Ukraine, as part of Russia. It also cited a report referring to Russian troops fighting against Ukraine as “our army.”
This did not go over big in a NATO-member country, despite Latvia’s sizeable Russian-speaking population. Latvian President Egils Levit is a hard-line backer of Ukraine, and the country has spent roughly 1% of its GDP on aid to Ukraine, Foreign Policy reported.
On December 2, the country’s State Security Service (VDD) announced it would investigate statements made a day earlier on the TV Rain broadcast “Here and Now,” which solicits viewer information about the conditions of Russians at the front lines.
The service cited suspicions the show might be aiding Russian troops, VDD said:
“VDD warns that, taking into account the crimes committed by the Russian occupation forces against Ukraine and its people, providing any kind of support to the aggressor Russia is not permissible…”
“[C]onnections to Russia’s intelligence and security services of some media or their representatives that have launched their activity in Latvia cannot be excluded.”
During a live Dozhd TV broadcast on December 1, program host Alexey Korostelev made the following appeal to Russian viewers:
“If you have information about how the mobilization is going, about how the mobilized are serving at the front … and you want to talk about it, about problems in the Russian army, send us messages…”
“Many of the stories written to our mail and telegram bot have been published. We hope that we were able to help many soldiers – including, for example, with equipment and with, simply, basic amenities at the front.”
The next day, Dozhd editor-in-chief Tikhon Dzyadko apologized for Korostelev’s comments, saying he had incorrectly expressed himself. Dzyadko said that Dozhd TV was not assisting the Russian army, but later that day Korostelev was fired.
Latvian officials backed the decision to shutter TV Rain. Foreign Minister Edgar Rinkevich said any support for Russian aggression is unacceptable and must be condemned.
“Ukraine and we (Latvia) are on the same front,” added Didzis Smits, head of the human rights commission of the Saeima, Latvia’s parliament. “We cannot have a channel that says ‘our army’ about the Russian one.”
But media and journalism groups decried the move, with some saying it played into the Kremlin’s hands.
“TV Rain has made a serious mistake, without realizing that Latvia is clearly on Ukraine’s side, and there are no calls to support the Russian army here, neither acceptable nor permissible, but by depriving the channel of a license, we are pushing them back into the Russian world defined by the Kremlin,” the Latvian Journalists Association said in a statement.
“This censorship of an independent Russian media outlet undermines efforts to combat Kremlin propaganda, which is one of the Latvian government’s goals,” said Jeanne Cavelier, head of Reporters Without Borders’ Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.
Dozhd TV called the Latvian accusations against the channel “unfair and absurd” and said it may try to get a license elsewhere. On December 8, however, Latvia’s Baltic neighbors Estonia and Lithuania said they also would block TV Rain’s broadcasts.
Dozhd TV was created in early 2010, according to Forbes Russia, with the money of the family of Natalia Sindeyeva and Alexander Vinokurov. According to official financial statements, during the 11 years since, the channel racked up millions of rubles in losses.
In 2013, Forbes Russia estimated the fortune of Vinokurov, who founded the KIT Finance investment bank, at $230 million.
On April 25, 2011, then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited Dozhd TV, and the channel broadcast the visit live. For about 25 minutes, Dozhd's journalists asked Medvedev questions, none of which was especially sharp or critical.
More recently, though, TV Rain did not resist criticism of Putin as the war got under way, according to an account by writer Masha Gessen in The New Yorker.
Gessen visited the channel’s studio before Russia shut it down and observed:
“Mikhail Fishman, who hosts a Friday-night news-analysis program, was in the studio with TV Rain’s editor-in-chief, Tikhon Dzyadko. Fishman had decided to help host the newscast because his colleagues had been working long shifts since last Thursday, when Russia invaded Ukraine. Fishman was offering some observations on the state of the war. ‘Vladimir Putin didn’t believe that the Ukrainian state and the Ukrainian nation exist. … He started a war against Ukraine to prove his point, and he has proved the opposite.’
“Fishman then directed viewers to a quote from a Guardian column by the historian Yuval Noah Harari, who enumerated the stories of heroism and resolve that Ukrainians had racked up in just a few days: ‘The president who refused to flee the capital, telling the US that he needs ammunition, not a ride; the soldiers from Snake Island who told a Russian warship to ‘go [expletive] yourself’; the civilians who tried to stop Russian tanks by sitting in their path. This is the stuff nations are built from. In the long run, these stories count for more than tanks.’
“While the quote was on the screen, Fishman looked at the news feed on a laptop in front of him. It said that the Russian prosecutor general’s office was demanding that the Web sites of TV Rain and the radio station Echo of Moscow be blocked. Both media outlets were guilty of violating a ban on calling the war a war, the invasion an invasion, and the aggression aggression.
“No sooner had Fishman and Dzyadko read out the news item than another item showed up: the editor-in-chief of Echo of Moscow, Alexei Venediktov, had announced that the station had been taken off the air.”
Two days after Gessen’s report published on March 2, Putin signed the law making it a crime to broadcast or publish information about the war that the Kremlin didn’t like. Journalists faced up to 15 years in jail for calling the war a “war” instead of Putin’s preferred “special operation.”
At a news conference in the capital, Riga, on December 9, editor-in-chief Dzyadko struck a note of reconciliation, thanking both the Latvian government for its help when TV Rain arrived, and journalists who stood by the channel, the Baltic Times reported.
"I am sure that TV Rain does not pose a threat to national security and public order to Latvia, and its individual employees do not pose a threat to Latvia either,” Dzyadko said.
“I think that TV Rain and Latvia are on the same side in this war. TV Rain will never doubt, who is the victim and who is the aggressor in this war,” he said. “Russia is the aggressor."