© RIA / Sergey Melkonov
Russian diplomats have issued a stark warning over freedom of speech in Latvia after the Baltic nation, a member of the EU and NATO, banned one of the country's television news channels from broadcasting within its borders.
On Monday, Ivars Abolins, the chairman of Latvia's National Council for Electronic Media (NEPLP), issued a statement saying that retransmission of the Rossiya RTR channel would be banned from the airwaves for at least a year. "We have protected, are protecting, and will protect our information space," he said. Regulators have claimed that talk show guests incited hatred and called for war in Europe.
In a further message on Tuesday, he revealed that the move against media would go still further. "This morning, NEPLP decided to exclude 16 programs from the list of programs retransmitted in Latvia, including REN TV Baltic and NTV Mir Baltic," he said. "The decision was made because it has not been possible to obtain information that someone would represent these programs in Latvia at all."
The Russian Embassy in Riga reacted angrily to the ban. In a post to its Facebook page on Monday night, they said that the policy was "in the best traditions of dictatorship." "Violation of free speech? That's just the start of it," the diplomats added. "Apparently, in a free market environment, Latvian television channels cannot compete, even in the information space of their own country."Latvia has a large ethnic Russian minority, and more than 35 percent of those living in the country report they speak the language at home.
At the 2018 parliamentary elections, Harmony, a center-left party seeking closer links with Moscow, won the largest share of votes and seats in the national assembly. However, it did not form part of the ruling coalition.
A row has also broken out over Russian-language broadcasts in Ukraine in the past week. Kiev has brought into force a block on a total of eight news outlets, taking them offline in a move backed by the country's National Security and Defense Council.
"We must all work together to prevent disinformation from being deployed as a weapon in an info war against sovereign states," the missive concluded.
However, the claim of nefarious Russian influence was met with skepticism, given that the outlets are based in Ukraine, where they are operated and consumed by Ukrainians. The campaign against Russian-language media has drawn a mixed reaction from overseas, with the US saying it "supports efforts to counter Russia's malign influence."
It comes as part of a campaign against Russian-language media in the country which has been ongoing since 2014, as political tensions have worsened between Kiev and Moscow. More than a third of Ukrainians say they speak Russian natively at home, and many in the east of the country support political parties that have called for a resumption of warm relations with Russia.