Thursday, July 16, 2009

Latvia seeks to upgrade thought police, increase the chill

The Latvian government is considering a proposal to increase the powers of the Security Police to question and issue warnings to persons whose behavior "shows signs of illegal activity that could harm state security" according to a recent report (in Latvian) in Diena.
If adopted, the expanded powers -- aimed clearly at speech and expression, not actions-- would increase the chilling effect of the Security Police on free expression and debate. It would allow Security Police officers to question persons (including a summons to police facilities) and demand "explanations" for their activity.
The Security Police have already shown that their threshold for intervention against expression is at times very low and inconsistent. Last fall, the Security Police detained Dmitrijs Smirnovs, a college economics lecturer, for saying in a public discussion that he though people should not keep money in Latvia's banks nor Latvian lats. The authorities also questioned a musician who joked about not running off to take money out the bank during a concert. These incidents brought international attention to violations of freedom of expression by the Latvian Security Police.
Since then, there have been hundreds of mentions and discussions of the possible devaluation of the lat, the soundness of the Latvian financial system, and the wisdom of Latvia's economic policies, ranging from Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman, The Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times (the former all being beyond the reach of the Security Police) to statements by local economists (Alf Vanags of BICEPS) and many bloggers and internet commentators. Except for Smirnovs, no one that I know of has been detained.
There have been cases of the Security Police acting against persons expressing radical political views, notably a neo-Nazi writing under the pen name Fenikss. His interrogation by the Security Police several weeks ago (the second in a year) indicates that the police of "prophylactic talks" dating back to the Soviet perestroika era KGB, was already being applied.
Before the late 1980s, the KGB would simply arrest dissidents, but it discovered (given its past as an all powerful institution of terror and repression) that it could silence or dampen dissent by the chilling effect alone. It was enough to have a talk with the KGB over coffee or tea to make one wonder whether expressing one's views was the smart thing to do.
Now the Security Police, looking more and more like the "liberal" era KGB (as it takes on the function of "overseeing" economic and political debate in society) is about to be handed more powers to exercise the "chilling effect" -- one of the most powerful arguments against any restrictions on free speech under at least US First Amendment practice. In other words, the mere threat of trouble will prevent people from speaking or writing who would otherwise do so.
Having, for the time being, abandoned its efforts to repress discussion of the economy and currency, the Security Police is now apparently being prepared to go after persons who discuss forms of resistance and disobedience to the current government's policies of extreme, sudden, and seemingly capricious cuts in public services and entitlements, effectively closing down the national health care system, reducing public education to a minimum and slashing pensions.
What the government fears is that there will be public discussion of such things as civil disobedience, tax resistance (why pay for nothing) and, of course, the harsher issue of street violence and rebellion as the fall draws closer and perhaps tens of thousands of Latvians will lose their unemployment benefits. While I believe violence will solve nothing, I think the possibility of new riots should be freely and openly discussed, without the Security Police interfering. If a person who has lost their job and unemployment benefit, who has seen one parent deprived of elective surgery and another retired but working relative (perhaps a surgeon) driven from their job by pension cuts, who sees their child's math teacher paid less than a street sweeper, that person understandably should be able to talk about the Latvian government and state in the words of the Bloodhound Gang: We don't need no water let the motherfucker burn!

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