Latvian Journalists Talk Sourcing and Safety While Reporting Back Home
|ISSUE #10 | Apr 19, 2022
From Sara Solovitch, Executive Director and Editor
It used to happen a lot that foreign journalists would come calling. Escorted by the Santa Fe Council on International Relations (and funded by the U.S. State Department), reporters from China, Africa and Eastern Europe used to drop by for meet-and-greets three or four times a year.
We’d tell them about Searchlight and what it was like working at a barebones American startup. They’d tell us what it was like working for a barebones news organization in their country.
The coronavirus put an end to all that — right up until last week when a contingent of Latvian journalists and translators visited Searchlight’s offices. There was so much to discuss.
With Ukrainian refugees pouring into Latvia to escape the war, I started off by asking if there was an appetite to cover anything beyond “the situation,” as they called it. It was a stupid question. “We have many problems,” said Loreta Jargane, almost wincing. She’s an editor and reporter from Alūksne, a town on the eastern border with Russia.
One of those problems is the disinformation campaign waged by Russia on Latvia, a Baltic country located about 600 miles northwest of Kiev. Its population is nearly equal to New Mexico’s, and about 25 percent of its 1.9 million people are native Russians. Many of them prefer to get their news direct from Russia, she said. What they’re hearing, in other words, is Putin’s propaganda.
Latvian society is deeply divided, the journalists agreed, describing stories that sounded all too familiar: Some Latvians don’t believe COVID-19 exists and shun vaccines. Accusations of fake news, verbal assaults and government stonewalling are the commonalities of our profession. I picked up repeated references to Trump and Putin around the table, in a language that was otherwise impenetrable. Everyone in the group wanted to jump in.
Anda Pūce, an editor who works for a regional newspaper called Kurzemes Vārds, said government officials were very difficult to pin down. And when they finally agreed to talk to reporters, “It’s just bla-bla-bla” — meaningless things that don’t address the real issues.
Have you ever been threatened because of your work? I asked. Everyone nodded.
Anda went further. When she was just starting out in journalism, one of the senior reporters at her paper was fatally assaulted while investigating a criminal ring. Her newspaper now offers an annual journalism award in his honor, and she was profoundly touched when she herself won it, she added.
All of the visitors had something to say about how difficult it was to get information from the government and the public.
“How do you get people to talk?” a reporter from a town near Riga asked Amy Linn, our managing editor.
“It’s not always easy,” Amy had to say.
What followed was a lively conversation about the reluctance of “ordinary people” — teachers, social workers, nurses, oil riggers, ranchers — to speak on the record, something that we at Searchlight have been increasingly struck by over the past year.
Many New Mexicans demand anonymity for innocuous comments, and their reason is almost always the same: They are afraid of retaliation. If they are quoted by name, they say, they may lose their jobs. Even some public information officers have asked to remain anonymous, something that’s, frankly, preposterous.
The trend has become so pronounced that five months ago, Searchlight editors decided to spell out a new policy. We told our reporters that going forward we would avoid using anonymous sources except in unusual and specific circumstances.
Sources are the lifeblood of journalism, the Latvian reporters agreed. Democracy depends on people speaking out, telling their stories and feeling free to express their views. Many, many people today are willing to stand up and do this, said the journalists, who at the end of an hour seemed like colleagues. Despite the need for translators, we were speaking the same language.
Thank you for your support,
Executive Director and Editor
Searchlight New Mexico