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Friday 24.01.2020 | Name days: Krišs, Eglons, Ksenija

Ventas Balss – multi-million «trough» for Lembergs' reputation

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Baltic news, News from Latvia, BNN.LV, BNN-NEWS.COM, BNN-NEWS.RU

Elizabete Mežule and Simona Šjadīte for BNN

By «diverting» millions worth of investments to Ventas Balss it seems a certain myth has been created about Aivars Lembergs – «he steals but also shares». On top of that, certain schemes have come to be to help Ventspils City Council avoid responsibility and invest thousands of thousands into the regional media with «sponsored articles» about companies controlled by Lembergs.

BNN would like to outline the system that allows a company managed by the city council to «coordinate» content produced by Ventas Balss even before it is published.

Advertisements worth several millions

Ventspils city municipality has claimed multiple times that it does not finance media, and this includes Ventas Balss. However, data from the Procurement Monitoring Bureau allows for the conclusion that Ventas Balss has received more than EUR 1.7 million from the city council since 2008.

For example, one of Ventspils City Council’s contracts signed with Ventas Balss in 2017 and 2018 was worth EUR 369 066. This among was provided in a talks procedure without first organizing a tender.

Additionally, Ventspils County Council had assisted with «provision of informative services» in 2017. According to Procurement Monitoring Bureau, the total amount from media sales has reached EUR 413 596. The entire amount comes from taxes paid by residents.

Among the generous supporters is also the authority of Ventspils Freeport, which also receives its funds from the city council. This means Lembergs, who influences how the city council’s budget is divided and also works in the administration provides money to the media to promote his image.

In 2018, the freeport’s authority was promoted by the regional media very generously – for EUR 116 808.64. In 2017, the freeport’s authority had decided to pay the same amount for promotion – EUR 116 808.64.

This system has been in place for years. For example, in 2015 a promotional contract was signed for EUR 118 807. «To improve society’s general attitude and increase society’s support for Ventspils Freeport’s operations» and «to create a positive image for the Freeport’s authority,» as mentioned in Ventspils City Council first vice-chairman Jānis Vītoliņš’s signed procurement decree.

Although the document detailing budget allocation from Ventspils Freeport authority to Ventas Balss 2019 is not publicly accessible, the composition of the freeport’s board – Lembergs, Blumbergs and Vītoliņš – and the scheme that has been in place so far does make it possible that these men may be using Ventas Balss to promote their image using municipality’s finances.

Companies and institutions owned by Ventspils municipality and used as troughs

Information available on the website of Procurement Monitoring Bureau shows that SIA Ventas Balss signed a contract worth EUR 36 363 with municipal institution Ventspils Digital Centre in April 2019. The title of the contract – Publication of topical information in a local newspaper and its distribution in Ventspils City.

Aigo Gūtmanis, who is a member of Lembergs’ party For Latvia and Ventspils and foster son to the brother of Ventas Balss editor Gundega Mertena’s mother-in-law, is the chairman of the procurement committee that evaluates the division of the city council’s finances.

In the context of the procurement, it should be mentioned that the document’s section regarding work objectives mentions the following: «The Contender is to coordinate publications with the Client’s representative before publishing.»

This means Ventspils municipality’s institution Ventspils Digital Centre, which is managed by the city council, demands journalists to coordinate content prior to publishing, which is unacceptable from the perspective of professional journalism.

While in the past the city council allocated funding for Ventas Balss from the municipality’s budget, not it flows through capital association and the city council’s institutions. The possible reason – it allows the city council to avoid responsibility for what is published in the newspaper and how content is created, because funding comes from capital associations that have their own director and board. A capital association signs an advertisement contract with the media, and it has no obligation to explain to residents how funding – taxpayers’ money – is spent.

It should be added that the link between budgets of the company and the municipality’s budget is not that unclear as it may seem – the budget of the company is question is formed from funds allocated by the municipality. It is also important to keep in mind that the city council monitors operations of its owned companies very closely, which means all companies that provide Ventas Balss funding or sign advertisement agreements with it have people associated with Lembergs working in them.

Family ties and friendship

The «network» is really quite simple. Ventspils Digital Centre is an institution owned by Ventspils City Council. The institution signs a contract with Ventas Balss for the newspaper to report information about so-called current events in the city.

Similar contracts have been signed by the newspaper this year with four of the municipality’s companies – SIA Ventspils Olympic Centre for EUR 12 900, Ventspils City Council’s Komunālā pārvalde and Kurzeme Philharmonic, each contract worth EUR 14 005. Additionally, Ventas Balss has received funding from Ūdeka worth EUR 13 600.50 this year. It is worth mentioning here that Ventas Balss chief editor is Gundega Mertena, who is considered a supporter of the so-called Lembergs regime. Austris Mertens, her husband, is a board member in the company A.Mertena Birojs. The firm was responsible for sludge removal for Ventspils City Council company SIA Ūdeka.

Edgars Daugelis, manager of SIA Ūdeka, had donated LVL 2 000 (around EUR 2 800) to the Union of Greens and Farmers in 2011. This was approximately one and a hand years prior to Daugelis’ approval as the company’s manager.

It is also worth mentioning that Mertena’s son Atis Mertens’ wife Žanete Mertena is IT cluster manager in Ventspils Digital Centre. Guntis Blumbergs, is Lembergs right hand man and Ventspils City Council first vice-chairman for cooperation affairs. His wife is Adult Education Centre’s manager in Ventspils Digital Centre.

Contracts of this type – on «reporting topical information in Ventspils City» – have been signed with North Kurzeme Regional Hospital for EUR 13 999.99 and municipal institution Ventspils City Education Office for EUR 12 561.98.

According to information from Lursoft, Ventas Balss’ sole true beneficiary is the media’s owner Mihails Soifers, who was once one of the commercial directors in Lembergs’ owned Neatkarīgā Rīta Avīze newspaper.

Conversation with Mertena – «suspended» is nothing more than a nickname

BNN managed to contact Ventas Balss chief editor and director Gundega Mertena. When asked if Ventas Balss is supported from one of Ventspils City Council’s companies, Mertena said no.

When asked why the newspaper and portal mostly focuses on reporting Lembergs’ opinion and no variety of opinions is provided, which could be ensured by providing interviews with Ventspils City Council opposition, Mertena said that once upon a time Ventas Balss had a sufficient variety of opinions from opposition members.

BNN had also contacted opposition members. They claimed the opposite – neither the newspaper nor the portal has ever wanted to publish their opinions.

Also when asked why Ventas Balss does not ever mention that Lembergs is suspended from his post as mayor of Ventspils, Mertena said «this nickname was given to him by a small group of politicians to accomplish specific goals».

Lembergs was applied with a security measure by a court of justice in 2007 – he is not allowed to perform duties as mayor of Ventspils.

Meanwhile, Ventas Balss portal editor Pēteris Neimanis says the reason why the website lacks any opinions from opposition members because there aren’t enough employees to interview them.

However, the company’s account shows Ventspils Balss had 46 employees in 2017 and 42 in 2018. It seems odd that a regional media that focuses on content associated with developments in the city is unable to organize interviews with differently-minded people. For comparison – Latvia’s most popular portal had 92 employees in 2017 and 99 in 2018. In spite of this, manages to cover developments in Latvia and the world.

As for the claim that the media does not have the capacity to reflect opinions of members of the opposition, one needs a look at contents published by Ventas Balss during municipal elections of 2017. It is also worth mentioning that in 2017 the media had considerably more funding when compared to previous years. However, both before and after elections the newspaper mostly had people associated with Union of Greens and Farmers and Lembergs on the front pages. Information about people who oppose the reigning power in Ventspils was primarily negative and defamatory.

Baltic news, News from Latvia, BNN.LV, BNN-NEWS.COM, BNN-NEWS.RUBaltic news, News from Latvia, BNN.LV, BNN-NEWS.COM, BNN-NEWS.RUVision for the future

Latvia’s Environment Protection and Regional Development Minister Juris Pūce has submitted proposals for amendments to the Law on the Press and Other Mass Media, suggesting a ban for municipalities to found and release printed press and other mass media.

In a conversation with BNN, Culture Ministry’s Media Policy Department lead Aiga Grišāne said it is necessary to look at the legal side of funding being provided to Ventas Balss by companies. She adds that the municipality has an option to provide financing to different media, but the process needs to be transparent, open and have a public goal in mind – exactly what this supposed to achieve.

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  1. Justs says:

    And who, exactly, funds BNN? Probably Ari Levitz’ cousin in Tel Aviv.

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