Kremlin thrilled by Latvia’s decision to ban Dozhd TV

Natalia Antelava

 

On Tuesday, authorities in Latvia banned Dozhd (TV Rain), Russia’s only opposition television station, from operating in the country. 

Dozhd has been working in exile ever since Vladimir Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February and effectively banished all journalism in Russia by imposing a blanket ban on the use of the word “war.” Dozhd, already classified in Russia as a “foreign agent” was ordered to shut down. Its team, like many other Russian journalists, moved to the Latvian capital Riga, where they were initially welcomed by the government. 

The honeymoon was short. Soon after re-launching from Latvia, Dozhd was fined over $10,000 for using a map of Russia that included Crimea, annexed from Ukraine. Then, last week, a presenter referred to the Russian armed forces as “our army.”

The presenter, Aleksy Korostelev was asking viewers, and particularly those who are part of the Russian army, to pass on information about conditions in the armed forces. A legitimate request, except for the kicker that he blurted out at the end: “We hope we also helped many military personnel, namely by assisting with equipment and bare essentials on the front line.”

It caused an uproar. The presenter was immediately sacked. The channel’s management issued an apology. 

But the Latvian authorities took the nuclear option and banned the channel. 

CONTEXT: Latvia is a small and nervous nation, its right to exist constantly tested by its aggressive neighbor Russia. It is also home to a large Russian-speaking population that the Kremlin has historically manipulated

After the invasion of Ukraine,  international broadcasters, like the BBC and Radio Free Europe set up their Russia operations in Latvia. It made sense for Dozhd to pick Riga, too.  

But, says one global media executive, “choosing Latvia as a base for Russian-speaking media was a mistake that both Russian and international media companies made.”  He says that it was always clear that playing host to a large number of journalists from a hostile country was an imposition on small Latvia that would, inevitably, backfire. “They should have gone to Western Europe,” he told me. 

Latvia was clearly unprepared for the reality of hosting Russian journalists. Officials grew increasingly nervous about possible infiltration of agents under journalistic cover. And they overreacted.

“Dozhd made a horrendous mistake, but the ban is unacceptable and counterproductive,” says the executive I spoke to.

The channel, he argues, has made itself an easy target. Dozhd has a significant audience inside Russia who watch it to get an alternative to the poisonous hatred that is beamed at them from the screens of Russian state TV. 

But Dozhd’s popularity in Russia also means that the channel has been trying to walk an incredibly thin, near-impossible line between being completely opposed to the war in Ukraine and being able to appeal to the average Russian who supports it. 

And then there is the constant stream of complaints about their arrogance. The latest came from the head of Latvia’s regulation authority, who imposed the ban on Dozhd and who is, according to local reports, annoyed that the station’s representatives turned up for their court hearing without an interpreter, “assuming that the hearing would be in Russian.” It had to be postponed. 

REACTIONS TO THE BAN could not have been more polarized:

  • Many Ukrainians, who scrutinize all Russian media very closely, are pleased. “Dozhd has always been imperial in its attitudes, they always reflected opinions of the Russian establishment. They did not oppose annexation of Crimea, for example,” a senior Ukrainian media executive in Kyiv told me. 
  • Most Russian liberal journalists I speak to, though, are both angry and worried. Unable to practice journalism in Russia, they now find themselves in an extremely vulnerable position, relying almost entirely on the goodwill of the very few countries that are willing to host them. The suspension sets a dangerous precedent. “It makes us wonder who is next, but it also pushes us into self-censorship,” one told me.
  • Many Latvians do not agree with the ban and feel it undermines the democratic values they have been working hard to build. “We will not be quiet, we will fight for the rights of journalists and independent media,” one senior Latvian journalist wrote in a chat that was shared with me privately. 
  • The Kremlin officials are… thrilled. “They think they are better off there than at home. And they think there is no freedom here but there is freedom there. This is a shiny example of their mistaken illusions,” said (link in Russian) Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.  “No one likes traitors,” posted (link in Russian) Vladimir Solovyov, one of the Kremlin’s chief propagandists, on his Telegram.  

WHY IT MATTERS: This is a huge propaganda win for Russia in the war against Ukraine. And it massively undermines Western attempts to counter the Russian narrative.

“They are an asset,” says a source in a global newsroom devoted to countering Russian propaganda. “Most of their coverage is critical of Putin’s regime and his war. And they have an audience that follows them. Pushing them away means pushing away the audience whom you desperately need to convince that what Putin is doing in Ukraine is criminal. By undermining their operation you are undermining yourself.” 

Banning Dozhd also undermines Russian independent journalism. Today, almost all of it is produced entirely in exile. While its impact on Vladimir Putin and his decisions might be negligible right now, reporters working to tell real stories of what is happening in Ukraine to audiences inside Russia are laying the bricks for the conversation that will have to happen once the war is over. 

IN OTHER GLOBAL NEWS: 

No one is immune from mistakes. “Iran has abolished its morality police,” read a New York Times headline. “No more arrests for flouting dress code,” reported the Associated Press. Both were wrong. Iran hasn’t abolished its notorious morality police. The stories in these and other major outlets were based on the vague remarks of a single official in Tehran, as explained here. Iranian activists are outraged, especially because only recently the media picked up a fake story about alleged death sentences being handed to thousands of activists. Why is Western media falling for disinformation peddled by the Iranian regime, some are asking. Human error and sloppy reporting are likely explanations but not an excuse. A story that sows doubt and distrust adds to the head-spinning disinformation crisis. The result of an accidental lie can be just as damaging as that of an intentional one.  

One billion. That’s how many people have watched TikTok Videos that promote Russian mercenaries, the Wagner Group. Newsguard found that despite platform rules TikTok hosts hundreds of videos that use violence and music that celebrate the Wagner group. 

We’re looking beyond fake news to examine how manipulation of narratives, rewriting of history and altering our memories is reshaping our world.

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