media punk

Situation within Latvian public service television and radio is not very bright, to say the least. Government has never really cared about developing them, and during the crisis their budget has been cut dramatically. One of those who still keeps high quality journalism alive and kicking is Janis Domburs. He has been working as a journalist for 20 years. And his weekly TV show, which is a kind of public debate, has gained and maintained popularity among Latvian Television (public service) viewers while not diminishing serious and up to date content. Still, Domburs has always been a kind of contrarian, always keeping a critical edge not just with regards to politicians, but also against his own chiefs at the television. There have been attempts to close down his show before. Recently Latvian Television’s chief Edgars Kots claimed in media that something has to be changed in Domburs’ show, because it has become a kind of public relations forum for some of the guests. Just a few weeks later he apologized about his comments. But the tension is still in the air.

I invited Janis Domburs to talk about this situation in particular and within Latvian media in general. Below you can read the first part of it. Others are soon to follow.

In what stage is your conflict with Latvian Television’s chief Kots now? He did apologize publicly, but your contract still ends in June. What is the situation at the present moment?


Besides the public performances of Kots the situation has not changed. Nobody has started negotiations with me about the future, and neither have any talks been continued. All these games were just as a test for the public or they were meant to boost certain opinions.


But what was the real aim of such comments from Kots’ side?


We can only guess here. I have repeatedly said that stupidity and strategic calculation sometimes show the same symptoms. And it is really hard to figure out if this man (whose activities as a chief of Latvian Television are unfortunately marked with scandals about “horizontal timecodes” [1] and low quality pre-election debates, in which I refused to take part because our opinions differed) has all of a sudden got a kind of absolutely unreasoned enlightenment, and he tries to imagine that he knows and understands everything about the work as a journalist… Or this is again one of those sophisticated ways – we have seen many cases before – how they try to step by step gain administrative control over the process of creative and free journalism.


Should we perhaps look at it as a possible beginning of the end for your show and your work at Latvian Television?


I think the rumors about my death are probably premature. I used t answer this question by saying that I don’t want to end my participation in this project because I don’t want to please those numerous individuals who would be happy if I did so. And they are, of course, not a majority of Latvian society.


But the reality is as follows. This spring we will celebrate 10 year anniversary of this TV show. Of course, we all have opinions about it, just as everybody has an opinion about how the hockey team Riga Dinamo should play, how doctors should treat their patients and how politicians should perform their duties. I can account for all those over 400 TV shows, all those over 1300 guests, for all the journalistic quality, what was said there and what we found out. I have got all kinds of prizes in all competitions, and I stopped participating, because it was not exciting anymore. At the same time we should also note that the idea of this show doesn’t come from Latvian Television. There was a group of intelligentsia who urged Radio and Television Council [2] and Latvian Television to create such program. And then they invited me. But the reality is that there are attempts [to exercise control] on a regular basis.


But why? And it has indeed happened many times…


These are subtle moves. They do like this – we will cut your administrative resources, we will cut your financial resources, we will do other things… And they have excuses for their stories. Why? Here again we can look for the most direct explanation – if there is an administrative leadership, they might want to control the whole process. And then there can be different versions. Either they want to control this process because of their personal ambitions, because they cannot imagine that somebody can be free under their management. Or some deals have been made behind the scenes that would allow to force development towards… well, if not a situation exactly as in Russia, then we might think of halfway versions – where all the different things are sort of discussed on a live broadcast, they are in a way mentioned, and there supposedly are even various opinions. But through a creeping process all this is kept under a low roof, behind certain borders, below a certain level.


Is there any substance at all in the criticism against your show that you would agree to? That something has to be changed and modified for example?


I cannot start agreeing or disagreeing in substance if somebody comes without a single argument, without any analytical facts, without any grounds at all. What has he said? In a similar fashion I could come and say that I don’t like Kots’ hair color just because I don’t like it. Or that he is in my opinion not suited for his job as the television chief because of his pronunciation. I guess people would ask me then: “Janis, but what does it have to do with this matter?” Now the situation is similar. He comes and starts talking in a really vague way that something should be changed. Why? And what exactly should be changed? Based on what criteria, concerning which topics? It was never clarified what it was that has not been satisfactory.


So I think that this is a subtle way to drag me into discussion about the substance before we even agree on the order of things – what is public service television, which functions are for the administration, which is the part for the creative staff, and where these functions are to be separated. I agree that according to our contracts I have to reach certain public ratings, and I have surpassed them long time ago. There can be no arguments about it. I agree that I have to work in accordance with professional and ethical journalism parameters, such as plurality of opinions and so on. In this regard I can account for any of my TV shows. But there have not been any questions about certain shows or certain topics or anything. So I don’t see a possibility to discuss this “something” or “nothing”.


Another point here in my mind is as follows. Well, humbleness is of course a virtue, so this will be regarded as inconsiderate posing. Anyway, if we look at it.. we maybe do not like some songs of Raimonds Pauls [3]. But we do not say: “Raimonds, you should compose it differently! You should change something!” Come on, you are as you are. You listen to it or you don’t, you can switch it on or you can switch it off. If Kots thinks that he can generate, create or produce something better, he has the whole airtime of the television. What is impeding him from doing that? I think that I have showed during my 20 years in journalism what I do and how I do it. And it is just like in theater, opera, sports or anywhere else – if you want to sign a contract with this author, then you are free to do it.


[1] In 2007 Latvian Television was supposed to broadcast “The Putin System”, a critical documentary about Vladimir Putin, just before State Duma elections. However, it never happened. Superiors of the television claimed first that it was a kind of technical failure and referred to “horizontal timecode”. Later it was found out that there was no technical failure and suspicions of possible censorship grew. Chief of the Latvian Television at that time was forced to resign, but the matter was never duly investigated. Since then it is called “the horizontal timecode scandal”.


[2] National Radio and Television Council, now reformed and renamed National Electronic Mass Media Council, monitors functioning of radio and television outlets in Latvia, especially public service radio and television.


[3] Raimonds Pauls is a well known and highly admired Latvian composer.


Didzis Melbiksis

Multilingual citizen. Europe, Sweden, media, politics.

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