Spot Report: Latvia’s Ban on Russian Channel TV Rain (Dozhd) by Emily Walton

On 06 December 2022, Latvia’s National Electronic Media Council (NEPLP) revoked the broadcasting license of independent Russian news channel TV Rain (Dozhd) over its coverage of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Latvia, a country of fewer than two million people, has a sizeable (around 20 percent according to some estimates) Russian and Russian-speaking population—an enduring legacy of the country’s occupation by the former Soviet Union. While TV Rain has a longstanding reputation as an independent Russian media outlet, several instances in its reporting on Russia’s war in Ukraine caught the attention of Latvia’s media watchdog.  After TV Rain reportedly mistakenly displayed an incorrect map showing Crimea as part of Russia, referred to the Russian army as “our army” and asked for support for the Russian army, Latvian authorities fined the channel and announced they were investigating it for possible breaches of Latvian media laws for showing content that supports Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. TV Rain called the allegations “unfair and absurd.” In its defense, Meduza, another Latvia-based Russian language independent media outlet, noted that TV Rain, as a media outlet in exile is composed of Russians and its content is typically focused on Russian problems, contributing to the channels view of the world, which “often confuses and sometimes enrages foreign audiences, especially during a war for which Russia bears full responsibility.” Ultimately, the Chairman of the NEPLP, Ivars Abolins, said the decision to revoke TV Rain’s broadcasting license was made in consideration of Latvia’s national security and public order. The broadcasting ban came into effect on 08 December 2022, however, TV Rain announced it would continue operating via its YouTube channel, though the NEPLP called for a block on TV Rain’s YouTube as well.

The decision to pull TV Rain’s broadcast license has been surrounded by controversy. Since it first aired in 2010, TV Rain has been known for its criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian government. It was blocked in Russia in March 2022 shortly after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The channel and several of its journalists subsequently fled abroad, moving TV Rain’s operations to Latvia, a country that welcomed the channel and many independent Russian journalists. In Latvia, they found safety outside of Russia and catered to a new audience: Latvia’s prominent Russian-speaking minority.

TV Rain’s journalist, Alexei Korestelev, said his statements were taken out of context and expressed that he “did not want anyone to die.” Independent Russian media and Russian opposition figures in Russia and abroad criticized the decision to ban TV Rain, especially since it was arguably the most popular source of independent (non-direct Russia-state-funded) information for Russian speakers about Russia’s war in Ukraine. Additionally, The Moscow Times, an English language independent media outlet, and one of the few remaining in Russia, defended Korestelev, calling his ask for supporting the Russian army a “mistake” and blaming it on TV Rain’s “editorial ethos” in its attempt to not be seen as “anti-Russian.” However, supporters of the ban on TV Rain in Latvia claimed that the channel did not understand the severity of its infractions, especially against the backdrop of Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine since 2014. Indeed, Latvia’s past under Soviet occupation and the residual trauma and pain of that period influenced the strict language, education, and media laws on minority languages in the country, including Russian. Notably, Latvia has a reputation for banning Russian language media content. In June 2022, Latvia’s NEPLP banned all of the country’s 80 remaining Russian TV channels until the end of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Similarly, Latvia was one of the first European states to ban Kremlin-backed Sputnik News in 2016 (much to the OSCE’s concern at the time) before the EU-wide ban in March 2022.

Following TV Rain’s ban in Latvia, neighboring Lithuania banned the channel from broadcasting in the country, and Estonia also suggested stopping broadcasting TV Rain. The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are arguably Ukraine’s most ardent supporters and have long condemned Russian aggression. The three states were among the first in Europe to label Russia a terrorist state, preceding the European Parliament’s November 2022 decision. Though Lithuania has a smaller Russian and Russian-speaking population (about five percent, compared to around 20+ percent in both Estonia and Latvia), the Baltic states’ have similar strict language, education, and media laws dictating minority language use. The impact of these policies on Russian and Russian-speaking minority populations has been a target of Kremlin propaganda for years, and the ban on TV Rain has already sparked condemnation from Russian state-backed media outlets as an additional example of suppressed minority rights. Latvia’s ban on Russian TV Rain reinvigorates the longstanding debate on minority language rights in Latvia and raises questions about the future of the dwindling Russian independent media landscape.

Author: Emily Walton is the Europe Team Lead at Navanti Group. She received a 2017 Boren Fellowship to Latvia.  

DisclaimerThe opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author(s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Navanti Group or its partners.