On 5 October 2017, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) initiated case No. 56997/17 SIA Bauskas Dzîve vs Latvia based on a complaint by a regional newspaper publisher against action taken by Latvia allowing municipalities to issue their own newspapers that imitate the independent press.

The complaint is based on Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which imposes an obligation on states not to interfere in the exercise of freedom of expression. This means that the state must refrain from downplaying the media role in a democratic society and from decreasing media pluralism.

As noted earlier, the local newspaper Bauskas Dzîve brought a claim in the Latvian administrative court requiring the Council of Iecava region to stop issuing its own local newspaper Iecavas Ziòas and publishing advertisements funded by the municipality, as well as to compensate losses. According to the statement of claim, although Iecavas Ziòas resembles an independent newspaper stylistically, editor-wise it is not independent formally or in reality and is completely subordinate to the Council of Iecava region. Basically, it is funded by the municipal budget, thus giving the Council an unfair advantage in terms of attracting advertisements below the market price.

The administrative district court refused to initiate a year ago. Bauskas Dzîve challenged the decision in the Supreme Court (SC), which decided that Bauskas Dzîve is entitled to demand prohibition of advertisements and claim compensation for losses. To this extent, the administrative district court initiated a case and has reviewed it; judgment will be announced on 2 November 2017.

With regard to the remaining part of the claim, the SC indicated that Bauskas Dzîve had no right to ask a court to prohibit publication of municipal newspapers. The SC decision was based on a finding that the municipality’s rights to publish its own newspaper result from rights set in the Constitution as to freedom of expression.

As the SC decision was final in this part, Bauskas Dzîve filed a complaint with the ECHR earlier this year challenging the issues rejected by the SC.

The complaint was filed because Bauskas Dzîve found no justification for the SC’s conclusion as to the municipality’s rights to issue its own newspaper. The state administration, including municipalities, does not enjoy human rights. This means that the principle of press freedom also cannot refer to a municipality’s rights. On the basis of the public law principle “everything that is not allowed is prohibited”, municipalities do not have the right to issue paid publications with content that does not relate to performance of municipal functions.

Initiating a case over this issue has already largely succeeded in improving the media environment in Latvia in general. Moreover, we hope that the court will agree with the arguments in the complaint about violation of the European Convention of Human Rights by allowing distortion of the media environment and creating and funding municipal media. In this case, Bauskas Dzîve is represented by law firm Sorainen, providing pro bono legal assistance. The client is advised by senior associate Andris Tauriòš.