People who regularly cross the Russian border are more vulnerable to the risk of recruitment. As opposed to officials who work with state secrets and have been warned about the methods of foreign intelligence services, the average person is less informed. A friendly question by Russian border guards, such as whether a bribe should be given to anyone on the Latvian side and to whom, may seem innocent but allows the other side to mark potential recruits.
Investigative journalism is not an expensive hobby. It is a trade: often lonely, sometimes brave, full-time job which requires both time and money. It is expensive and thus become the first victim when traditional media face crisis. But without it we cannot understand the world around us and held the powers responsible.
We do it as a non-profit organisation which raises money itself and gives investigations to traditional media and publishes them online for free access.
We as editors are the only ones who decide what we are going to investigate because we - and not the advertisers or owners - think it is important topic for the Baltic societies. Thus we can investigate social inequality, corruption, abuses of power or money laundering.
We look for grants and earn ourselves via teaching, moderating events and researching scripts for films. But it takes away time we need for doing journalism.
Therefore we need you to donate and become part of Re:Baltica's community!
This is a copy of Re:Baltica’s English newsletter, sent on Sept 26, 2018. If you want to receive newsletters like this via e-mail, sign up!
1. As pro-Russian Harmony, who has been in power in the capital Riga for eight years, is rapidly approaching its election spending limit, having spent 91% of the allowed EUR 533 347, we analyze who the main donors to the party are:
At least five of them are under contract as consultants to the municipal public transport company Rīgas satiksme. These gentlemen in the last year together earned around EUR 80 000 and contributed around EUR 37 000 to the party. Read the story in Russian here.
Rīgas satiksme declined to tell us what exactly the Harmony deputies were doing for the company.
This spring we discovered a similar practice at another municipal enterprise the Riga Central Market. Read in English here.
Why it matters: When we asked the deputies themselves for what they were getting generous salaries, Riga mayor Nils Ušakovs arrived to “help”. This video is the essence of Ušakov’s arrogant attitude toward journalists who ask critical questions.
Ušakovs has filed a criminal complaint against us with the police, asking that criminal investigation is started for defamation. He did not like our investigation, which revealed that the mayor, in recent years, has spent around EUR 8 million of taxpayer money for his own publicity. Read here in English.
2. A virtual battle has started between the pro-Russian Harmony and the pro-Kremlin Latvian Union of Russians (LKS) with both fighting for the votes of Russian-speakers:
Together with Kremlin-owned media (Sputnik, Baltnews un Regnum), LKS has published promoted posts on Facebook criticising Nils Ušakovs for insufficiently defending Russian schools in Latvia.
Meanwhile Harmony is aided by the leading Russian channel in the Baltic, the First Baltic Channel (PBK) with its satirical program Behind the Scenes. The program host in recent broadcasts has attacked the LKS but also defended the populistWho Owns The State (KPV LV) party, the only one of the “Latvian” parties that has not said it would not cooperate with Harmony. It also gives airtime to the Harmonycandidate for Prime Minister Vjačeslavs Dombrovskis to express his promise to raise pensions to EUR 600 in six months’ time.
Between the lines: The support campaign has also been joined by the largest newspaper in Latvia published in Russian – MK-Latvija, part of the PBK group. It has reprinted an article from the business newspaper Dienas Bizness exposing conspiracy theories about sorosites (the alleged agents of billionaire philanthropist George Soros). Dienas Bizness is linked to one of Latvia’s oligarchs doing transit business with Russia. After Re:Baltica wrote about the oligarch’s possible support for Harmony and the populist party KPV LV, the latter has filed a complaint with the Latvian police asking to launch a criminal case for defamation. The story in Russian here.
Why it matters: So far the biggest intrigue has been a question if Harmony and Trump-style populist KPV LV theoretically could form a coalition if they get a majority. That would mean the first pro-Russian party in the government for the first time ever.
According to the recent opinion polls, the biggest support – as usual – in enjoyed by Harmony (14,9%), followed by PM’s Greens and Farmers (9,8%) and populist KPVLV (9,3%). Meantime, 38% of respondents still haven’t decided whom to vote for.
3. Facebook and Google hold press conferences, but are slow or still just promising to provide data to campaign spending watchdogs:
Last week representatives of both Facebook and Google met with journalists in Riga on the same day.
The Facebook representatives started their presentation by distributing several pages long (translated into Latvian) “announcement from Mark” (Zuckerberg) while failed to provide answers to the relevant questions.
It turned out that FB closes down fake profiles, but does not erase fake news, because everyone has the right to say whatever they please. When a colleague asked whether FB would remove fake news that Tina Turner had died, the FBrepresentative answered “no”, unless Tina Turner herself reported the fake news.
When I asked why the fake profiles that Riga’s mayor Nils Ušakovs used to ask himself questions in his YouTube broadcast still exist (I have sent three emails to FBabout them), the spokesman apologised. It turned out that there are only two press officers who cover 20 countries, so e-mails can easily go unanswered.
It also turned out that there is no organisation that looks for fake news in the Latvian language on FB, while there is a person or persons (the number was never mentioned) who monitor hate speech in Latvian.
Illustration: Raivis Vilūns
FB was unable to say to what extent they provide information to Latvia’s anti-corruption agency KNAB about political party spending on social media. According to information published by KNAB, political parties have hitherto declared that they would spend around EUR 138 500 on FB and Instagram.
KNAB told Re:Baltica that it is slowly getting information from FB, but not all that it needs. According to Latvian law, all platforms that publish political advertisements must provide information about spending by political parties and closely-related sides.
KNAB still hasn’t received any information from Google (YouTube). Correspondence is taking place, but is very slow.
When Google representative Tomas Gulbinas was asked at a seminar he organised as to why cooperation (with Latvian authorities) was so slow, he did not answer the question. He and his colleague also ignored several e-mails over the summer about “news” aimed at stirring hatred on specific internet sites. A specific reaction – taking down Google ads – followed only when a strategic communications group at the Latvian State Chancellery got involved in the matter. When asked why this was so, Gulbinas said all questions should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. I am still waiting for a reply.
What does it mean: Latvia is too small for FB and Google to take it seriously. Especially requests and information from journalists. They react if there is pressure from public officials.
This is a copy of Re:Baltica’s English newsletter, sent on Sept 12, 2018. If you want to receive newsletters like this via e-mail, sign up!
Good Wednesday morning!
The big thing…
1. Spending by parties on social media rises, but keeping track is impossible.
According to the anti-corruption agency KNAB’s latest figures, some parties are spending in excess of tens of thousands of euro. Pro-Russian Harmony has spent or plans to spend EUR 25 000 on social media plus EUR 15 000 for ads on the internet. In terms of amounts, they are exceeded by the populist Who Owns The State (KPVLV), who have planned to spend almost EUR 46 000.
These figures are confusing, because the volume of ads placed on Facebook by Harmony in the past month is five times greater – some 300 items – compared to 40 for KPVLV. We cannot keep track of the amount of ads on YouTube, but we get reports from the public that Harmony is dominant there as well, with ads popping up between music videos, films and children’s cartoons in Russian.
The sad thing is that KNAB has no way to oversee or audit party spending on Facebook and Google. KNAB has said hitherto that it has the tools to do so, but decline to disclose. According to the off the record information, KNAB had hoped for cooperation from Facebook, but so far nothing has happened.
Possibly there will be more clarity next week, when representatives of Google and Facebook will meet with journalists in Riga. I will keep you informed.
Expenses of the election campaign declared to the KNAB by political parties (source):
2. Pre-election tango on Kremlin TV channels.
As usual, before these Saeima elections, the pro-Kremlin Latvian Union of Russians (LKS) is being helped by the Kremlin’s TV channels and the “news portals” Sputnik and Baltnews.
Re:Baltica‘s analysis shows that LKS, which wants mandatory teaching of Russian in all schools in Latvia and calls Latvians fascists, is working in symbiosis with Russian print and written media.
One example is Aleksandrs Gapoņenko, a pro-Kremlin activist arrested for anti-state activities in April. He wrote on Facebook that an “anonymous American friend” had told him that NATO soldiers would create riots in Riga that would later be ascribed to Russia. As a result a concentration camp for Russians would be installed in the Skonto Stadium in the center of Riga.
The pro-Kremlin media and LKS made the whole Gapoņenko saga part of their pre-election rhetoric, portraying Gapoņenko as a martyr persecuted by Latvian law enforcement. LKS organized picketing in support of Gapoņenko, these were reported on Sputnik and Baltnews, with LKS then linking and commenting the stories on Facebook. Read the story in Russian here.
3. And fresh news from our partner @DFRLab.
Read here on how Influencers on Facebook pivot to support a Latvian populist party.
The populists fell into their own trap. A public service TV investigative program obtained and published a four-year old telephone conversation between the current leaders of KPV LV. In the call, lawyer Aldis Gobzems is instructing the actor and newly-elected Saeima deputy Artuss Kaimiņš (elected from the Latvian Regional Alliance, which he later quit) about who to cooperate with in a coalition. When Kaimiņš expresses doubts that his electorate may not understand what he does, Gobzems says that for most of them it suffices “to get drunk and to have a hamburger (kotlete in Latvian). Now “kotlete” has become a hot phrase in Latvian politics.
Meanwhile, pro-Russian Harmony has turned to the National Electronic Mass Media Council, which oversees public service broadcasting, asking to examine the actions of journalists in publishing the phone conversations. This action lends credence to speculation that Kaimiņš party may be a Trojan horse for getting Harmony into a government coalition. Rumor has it that Kaimiņš recorded his own phone calls.
Strictly Necessary Cookies
Strictly Necessary Cookie should be enabled at all times so that we can save your preferences for cookie settings.
If you disable this cookie, we will not be able to save your preferences. This means that every time you visit this website you will need to enable or disable cookies again.