The weeks before Midsummer have seen some of Latvia’s journalists—as well as some of the politicians covered by them—lapse into a spate of silliness and stupidity. About the only thing to emerge from the mess is the sense that when it comes to ethics, these journalists and politicians have much to learn.
Earlier this month, popular television journalists Jānis Domburs and Iveta Elksne came under fire by the daily newspaper Diena for having participated in training sessions where company officials are taught how to deal with the media.
Domburs, who leads the public affairs show Kas notiek Latvijā?, and Elksne, a presenter for Latvian State Television’s 100.pants, were blasted in a June 11 commentary by Guntis Bojārs, head of the investigative team at Diena. Under a headline that compared them to dolls that can be bought, Bojārs wrote that the pair had stepped over an ethical line, damaging their credibility. How can they train the same people they might have to interview about issues of the day?
It’s a fair question. But I doubt that Domburs or Elksne gave away any secrets, because journalism really doesn’t have any. Training sessions such as the ones in which Domburs and Elksne participated usually are focused on letting officials understand what kinds of questions journalists ask and how to be prepared to respond to them. A common message is not to try to hide the truth, because it will eventually come out anyway. As Domburs himself wrote in a response published in Neatkarīgā Rīta Avīze, his participation in these training sessions may actually help officials who are reluctant to speak publicly.
Perhaps it was improper for Domburs and Elksne to participate in the sessions. But it was just as silly for Diena to scramble to the ethical high ground. I, for one, was shocked to see Pauls Raudseps, editorial page editor for Diena, take the stage during November’s “umbrella revolution” demonstration in the Dome Square. Yes, the paper had supported the protest movement, but it’s quite a different thing for a journalist to take an active role in a protest. That, too, is crossing a line that may damage a journalist’s credibility. Pot, meet kettle.
Another silly and verging on stupid thing was done by Interior Minister Mareks Segliņš. He was angered by journalist Baiba Rulle’s story in Diena suggesting that a theft of funds from the Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau (Korupcijas novēršanas un apkarošanas birojs) may have been orchestrated by the People’s Party (Tautas partija), to which Segliņš belongs. The government is now investigating the head of the bureau. Segliņš’ response was to send a threatening text message to Rulle, an action that of course turned into front page news the next day.
Now comes the really stupid thing. Oskars Kastēns, the special assignments minister for social integration affairs, has got himself into hot water with his party—and no doubt his wife. On June 19, Diena published the results of a two-month investigation into rumors that the minister’s behavior isn’t always in line with the “family values” espoused by the conservative First Party of Latvia (Latvijas Pirmā partija), to which he belongs. Young journalist Aleksandra Jolkina exchanged romantic text messages with Kastēns, they met in person, his hands wandered… Gotcha! The newspaper and Kastēns—a former journalist—don’t disagree about what happened, but the minister maintains he was just playing along to see how far Jolkina would go. I’m sure that reasoning went over real well with Mrs. Kastēns.
Whether Kastēns was really just testing the journalist or whether he was thinking with his dumb stick is immaterial. It doesn’t look good for the minister. If nothing else, as a married man and as a well-known politician, he should have known better than to respond to the romantic advances, real or not. Hey, maybe that’s something Domburs and Elksne can teach at their next media training seminar.
Diena is taking its share of hits on the Kastēns story—as well it should. The journalistic method employed to get the story was stupid. Rival NRA and others in the media have questioned the paper’s ethics, arguing that what Diena did was not investigative reporting, but tabloid journalism. A couple of commentators even compared it to prostitution. Europeans generally are more mature than Americans when it comes to the private lives of their public officials, but it seems Diena had it in for Kastēns. Some critics say the impetus for the story was Kastēns’ reluctance to appear at the May 31 “March for Equality” in support of Latvia’s sexual minorities, even though his secretariat is devoted to the integration of all members of society.
Kārlis Streips, blogging on diena.lv, defended the newspaper’s investigation by comparing its newsgathering method to the famous 1977 Chicago Sun-Times sting operation led by reporter Pamela Zekman. The newspaper set up a bar called the Mirage to entrap city inspectors willing to take bribes in return for turning a blind eye to problems in the tavern. Streips’ comparison is weak. Zekman and company uncovered systemic problems in Chicago’s political machine and exposed criminal activity. Kastēns did nothing illegal. And the legend of the Sun-Times investigation, now a classic in journalism textbooks, endures as much for its innovative reporting as for the ethical questions it raises about the use of deception in gathering information.
If Streips and Diena want to point to Western journalistic practice for support, they might consider the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics. The code states, in part, “Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public. Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story.” Jolkina’s story falls far short of this principle. With perseverence, she could have gotten the story using open methods. While her story explains how she went about baiting the trap for Kastēns, it does not explain why this method was necessary. Whether the story was vital to the public also is debatable.
At the same time, it is silly and ironic that the paper’s main rival, NRA, has been among the most vocal in pointing out the ethical shortcomings over at Diena. Along with its parent company, Mediju nams, Neatkarīgā Rīta Avīze is not exactly known for taking the ethical high road. For one, their frequent homophobic attacks against the openly gay Streips and others go against the Code of Ethics of the Latvian Journalists Union, now headed by NRA commentator Juris Paiders. The code states in part that journalists should respect a person’s private life, nationality, way of thinking and religious conviction.
For another: three days before the Kastēns scandal broke, Mediju nams announced that Elita Veidemane has been named assistant editor of NRA. Veidemane established her legend during the late 1980s as editor of the pro-independence Atmoda. But since 2007 until getting her new job this month, she served as editor-in-chief of NRA’s sister publication, Vakara Ziņas—the best-known example of tabloid journalism in Latvia today.
© 1995-2023 Latvians Online
Please contact us for editorial queries, or for permission to republish material. Disclaimer: The content of Web sites to which Latvians Online provides links does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Latvians Online, its staff or its sponsors.