Latvia: Public media entered into content sharing agreement with private media

22nd July 2022
The government of Latvia recently signed a content sharing agreement between Latvia’s public media and commercial or private media, free of charge, until June 2023.
Latvijas Radio
Latvian Broadcasting Radio Company (Latvijas Radio) near Dome Square (Doma laukums), Riga. Credit: VitalyEdush/iStock

The public service media organisations of Latvia have been entered into a content sharing agreement by the government. The media organisations have been told to share news content and informative analytical broadcasts with private or commercial media outlets. The decision was made on 16 June when the Saeima (Latvia’s parliament) unanimously approved a law amendment, without the support of public media management.

Politicians argued that the move is necessary during the Russian invasion of Ukraine to strengthen the security of the information space, and thought it the best way to reach Russian-speaking audiences living in Latvia. “This is intended to provide the people of Ukraine fleeing the war with reliable information and to promote the learning of the official language”, LSM – the collaborative web portal for Latvian Television and Latvian Radio, which caters for Latvian, Russian, and English speakers – reported.

The amendment to the Ukrainian Civil Peoples Support Law was implemented on 17 June and will be in force until 30 June 2023. Public media content shared with other media outlets will be “unaltered”: content will have to be dubbed or subbed in minority languages, but the logos of the PSM organisations and the references they use will be kept the same.

The media organisations have been given an extra €700,000 by the government to help them create extra content, specifically around the war in Ukraine, which will then be passed onto private partners.

But while the proposed amendment was still being deliberated in parliament, there were concerns among stakeholders about how long the agreement would last, how it would actually reach new audiences, and the fact that the discussions were taking place without the involvement of experts.

LTV and Latvian Radio management shared concerns that the move would reduce their audiences if people were to consume their content via other sources. Ivars Priede, Chairman of the Board of LTV, argued, “The diversity of content will be at exactly the same level, nothing more will arise, the diversity of opinions will not be more and more diverse. We are only strengthening the ambitions of profit and financial well-being of individual commercial media, that’s all.”

Jānis Siksnis, leader of the Council of Public Electronic Media (SEPLP) – the recently established body that oversees public media in Latvia – emphasised that the Council also does not support the arrangement. “We can’t rely on it in the long term just because it’s beneficial or cheaper for someone, that we’re just now going to share public media content to a virtually unlimited range of potentially commercial media.”

The European Broadcasting Union (EBU) expressed its own reservations about the announcement, including a potential conflict with membership rules if public media materials were distributed to organisations outside of its membership. In an interview with Latvian Television a day before the agreement was confirmed, the EBU’s Deputy Director General, Jean Philip De Tender, described the discussions as “unprecedented”. He said that “such practices do not exist anywhere in Europe. If it is implemented, it will certainly weaken Latvian Television.” He argued, “This should be discussed, not rush[ed] to conclusions about sharing content.”

The first and only time a content-sharing agreement of this nature was made between Latvian public and commercial media was temporarily in spring 2020 as a way for citizens to access trusted news and information about the emergency outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic across multiple sources.

“The diversity of content will be at exactly the same level … We are only strengthening the ambitions of profit and financial well-being of individual commercial media, that’s all” – Ivars Priede, Chairman of the Board of LTV

Mr De Tender also referred to the other challenges that public media organisations are facing, from competing with big tech companies, to reaching younger audiences in new ways.

As of 2021, Latvia’s public media is solely funded by the government. As with any decision to hand content funded by the public purse to private media outlets, there are financial and ethical concerns.

The relationship between public and private or commercial media outlets has been increasingly tense in recent years. In some instances, some commercial media outlets have questioned the role of public media, and argued that public media have an unfair advantage within the media market. But at a time when many public media organisations are under considerable financial pressures, sharing their content free of charge with commercial competitors is a huge risk for them to take.

That said, Swedish Radio made the editorial decision to offer its daily news podcast about the Russia-Ukraine war, produced in Russian, for free for all media to re-publish via an open application programme interface (API). The thinking behind this was to make trusted news content available “to a country where objectivity and impartiality are not available”, and that if this is distributed widely, it “makes it more difficult to block or stop the content”, Björn Löfdahl, Swedish Radio’s Programming Director, explained.

Read more: Ukraine war: Public media podcasts with unique takes

Meanwhile, others adopted more collaborative approaches with commercial media outlets to provide trusted news and content for citizens and to dispel disinformation.

Norway’s public broadcaster, NRK, entered a collaborative fact-checking project with Norwegian commercial media to verify video content being shared from on the ground. The Investigation Team of Lithuania’s public broadcaster, LRT, teamed up with to analyse the disinformation network disseminating pro-Russian narratives in Lithuania about the war.

Even beside the war, there have been many other opportunities for public-private collaborations. The Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS), launched by the BBC in 2017 to support public interest journalism in local newsrooms, has presented an interesting model for public broadcasters. Radio New Zealand (RNZ) adopted this model with private media outlets in New Zealand in 2019. Now, written in the draft charter agreement for New Zealand’s new public media entity is an obligation to collaborate with private media.

Such collaborations are hoped to help create a more viable, sustainable media eco-system. Public media can lead the way in providing trusted content, and thus encouraging a more informed public and healthier democracies. But to do this, public media need their own financial protections. While the Latvian government’s cash injection is a much-needed contribution to assist them produce extra content, there are certain questions which need to be raised when public media is forced into sharing content, rather than doing it of their own accord. The impact on the public media organisations needs to be discussed, and how it will affect reach, visibility, public awareness, or sustainability. Ultimately, these decisions must not affect the health of, and the public trust, in the media organisation.