Leonid Raihman

Research Proposal

Minority Languages, Media Legislation, and the Integration of Minorities: Lessons for Latvia

1. Summary

The objective of this project is to formulate recommendations to Latvian policy-makers in the area of electronic media law, with a view to guarantee the rights of minority members to non-discrimination and enjoyment of their culture. The project is motivated by the fact that Latvia’s accession to the European Union provides a possibility to identify and implement higher standards in language rights and media regulation.

2. Background: how is this project meeting a public need?

At present, Latvian law and policy are based on the principle of promoting the Latvian language as the only official language. Restrictions on the use of other languages in the public and private electronic media are a part of this policy. In a society in which approximately 40 percent of the population constitute a linguistic minority with Russian as their native tongue, the electronic media are an important factor that can be made to work either for or against societal integration, cohesion and stability. Whether the electronic media will be driving sections of society apart and alienating the Russian speakers from Latvian public life, or help construct a common public space for all in Latvia, critically depends on public policy in the area of language rights and media regulation. The challenge for Latvian policy-makers is to devise media and language usage strategies that would pursue several seemingly diverging but interdependent goals, including:
(a) To promote the development of the Latvian language that had been eclipsed by the universality of Russian in the Soviet era;
(b) To counteract the danger of further segregation and alienation of the vast Russian-speaking minority by enhancing a shared informational space;
(c) To guarantee genuine equality of all in the enjoyment of their rights, without discrimination on the basis of ethnicity or language;
(d) To guarantee security and hold ethnic conflict at bay.

3. Purpose/Results

In the framework of this project, policy recommendations will be formulated on the basis of a comparative legal research concerning the language regulations of the electronic media in several countries with substantial linguistically distinct groups. Additionally, examination of relevant international law and case law will be undertaken. The relationship between electronic media regulation and ethnic integration will be explored and lessons for Latvia will be drawn in the form of a policy recommendation paper.

4. Project Description

4.1. The problem field. Latvia has one of the highest proportions of minorities in Central and Eastern Europe. Ethnic non-Latvians constitute over 42% of the population, dominated by Russians (29.61%), and including Belarussians (4.1%), Ukrainians (2.68%), and smaller groups of Poles, Lithuanians, Jews, and Roma. However, group identities are defined along linguistic, rather than ethnic lines: approximately 60% are Latvian-speakers and close to 40% speak Russian as their native language.

According to the Constitution (Art. 4), Latvian is the only official language. Any other language, spoken by citizens or residents of Latvia as their first language, including Russian, are defined as ‘foreign’ in Article 5 of the amended Law on the State Language (September 2000) and their usage in a number of spheres is subject to restrictive regulation.

The Law on Radio and Television, adopted in 1995, requires one of the two public TV-channels and one of the two public radios to broadcast only in the state language, while the second TV channel and the second public radio can allocate up to 20% of their airtime to programs in other languages.

Private electronic media are also subject to language restrictions: the airtime for broadcasting in ‘foreign’ languages cannot exceed 25% of the total broadcasting time (as of 29 October 1998, when the Saeima - the Latvian parliament, amended the law to reduce the maximum share of non-Latvian languages in private electronic media from 30% to 25%). The implementation body, the National Council on Radio and Television Broadcasting, whose mandate is provided in the 1995 Law on Radio and Television, develops governmental strategies related to electronic media, issues licenses, monitors compliance of private broadcasters with the law and imposes sanctions. No member of the Russian-speaking minority has ever been sitting on this Council. TV Riga, for example, a private company whose Russian language programs had exceeded the permitted time, was temporarily suspended four times in 1998-1999, sued and ordered by the court, in October 2000, to observe the 25% limitation. Other victims of the restrictive legislation include LNT (Latvijas Neatkariga Televizija), Radio Pik, and Radio Bizness & Baltija.

On the other hand, in certain areas of Latvia where Russians are an overwhelming majority, such as the district of Latgale in the East, violations of the language norms seem to be tacitly tolerated, and strict enforcement of the law is deemed unrealistic, absent strong competitive pressures on behalf of business groupings.

Language restrictions in the media, aimed at the promotion of the official language as a factor of ethnic integration, do not seem to contribute to reducing the cultural and political gap between the main national groups. In effect, Russian-speakers embrace the modestly priced cable channels originating in Russia (ORT, RTR, etc.), and feel increasingly cut off from the Latvian mainstream.

Existing restrictions of language rights are compounded by related problems in the enjoyment of the rights of minority members to freedom from discrimination, notably indirect discrimination on the basis of race suffered by members of language minorities. Language proficiency requirements, for example, neutral on their face as to racial or ethnic origin, result in a disparate treatment of Russians, Jews, and other ethnic minority members, in violation of the Latvian Constitution and international non-discrimination norms. The issue of media regulation should be seen in the context of discrimination in a number of areas, such as citizenship, choice of identity, education, employment, and access to public services, and in relation to other human rights issues, such as freedom of expression and association, privacy, and political representation rights.

The linguistically segregated media space is a potential source of further social and political division, and may eventually lead to ethnic conflict. Members of one ethnic or linguistic entity obtain insufficient information on the ‘other’ and are not stimulated to participate in a common space of public debate on issues of public interest. Latvian speakers develop defensive attitudes towards what they see as the aggressiveness of the ex-imperial Russian language. Russian speakers feel oppressed and urged to protect their fundamental rights with a reference to international minority rights standards. While ‘integration’ is a keyword of the Latvian political class, and a National Program on the Integration of Society has been adopted in December 1999, ‘integration’ remains to date a floating ideological label, attached to a variety of platforms. There is little substantive discussion of the different possible integration options that are available to Latvian society.

 The National Program on the Integration of Society has been criticized by minority activists for its inconsistent notions of ‘integration’ across its different chapters and with respect to the broad range of issues it covers, including naturalization of non-citizens, development of the NGO sector, measures to promote employment, reduce poverty, facilitate regional integration, etc. The chapter devoted to the mass media doesn’t contain any substantive and concrete ideas on how to enhance the integrative potential of the media. Given the current legislation, institutions, and practices, the Program rings hollow.

The Department on National Minority Affairs, a part of the Naturalization Board, has extensive responsibilities in formulating state policy towards minorities in Latvia. In particular, it is expected to analyze the legal acts relating to the protection of minority rights, to draft proposals for improvement of existing norms and policies, and to facilitate accession of the Republic of Latvia to the international instruments in the sphere of human and minority rights.
However, no comprehensive research has been conducted to date by this body, or by legal and media scholars in general, comparing Latvian legislation on radio and television with other countries’ laws and practices from a human rights perspective.

4.2. Project methodology. The proposed project is to be implemented within twelve months. The research will be based on the assumption that the absence of ethnically and/or linguistically based discrimination and the full enjoyment of one’s culture are prerequisites of social integration, security and peace in democratic society.

The project’s preliminary plan is roughly as follows:

(a) First, comparative legal analysis will be employed to examine the strengths and weaknesses of existing domestic media and language laws from the perspective of social integration and conflict prevention. Countries whose legislation and case law will be reviewed will be selected in such a way as to allow application of lessons to Latvia. As a rule, these will be countries with substantial linguistic minorities and a developed private electronic media sector. I will look at laws in countries including but not limited to some of the following: Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Estonia, Finland, Israel, Lithuania, Macedonia, Moldova, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, the USA, and Yugoslavia.

(b) Additionally, I will study relevant international law and case law in the project field, including the case law of the International Court of Human Rights, and the case law of the European Union. I will consider the option of litigation at the ECHR as a strategy of affecting domestic legislation, and try to identify possible actionable cases of public interest.

(c) Apart from legal research, I will devote part of the project time to examining political science literature that can provide insights into the relationship between ethnic conflict and media policies, with a view to draw lessons for Latvia. Apparently, while some of the countries under study have achieved a considerable degree of balance and cohesion between different ethno-linguistic groups (Belgium, Switzerland), others have slipped into a spiral of conflict (Macedonia, Turkey). It would be interesting to explore the co-relation (if any) between ethnic conflict and media policy.

(d) I will then conduct interviews with Latvian law- and policy-makers, with a purpose to evaluate and weigh my own research findings against the expectations and agendas of key players. These will include experts who have participated in the elaboration of the National Programme on the Integration of Society, and other persons who define the terms of the ‘integration’ discourse in Latvia. I will attempt to carry out at least 20 in-depth interviews. The rationale of the interviews is to minimise the danger of producing a policy paper drafted in abstract terms, and to bring the lessons of research as close to realistic political solutions as possible.

(e) Following the foregoing, I will formulate a set of comprehensive policy recommendations and defend them in a policy paper. The paper will be made available to the National Council on Radio and Television, the National Human Rights Office, the Naturalisation Board and others involved in the implementation of the National Program for the Integration of Society in Latvia, as well as to relevant parliamentary commissions, government bodies, the electronic media community, lawyers, human rights and legal NGOs, and selected opinion makers.

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