Thursday, September 30, 2010

Latvian news agency LETA hit by denial of service attack

The Latvian news agency LETA has been hit for several hours Thursday night by a denial of service (DOS) attack that blocked access to its main news website The business portal appeared to be working normally.
The attack came two days ahead of national elections October 2 to the Latvian parliament or Saeima. LETA  will be a major source of election news and returns and a threat at this late date creates uncertainty as to whether LETA or its
LETA editor-in-chief Pēteris Zirnis, citing the news agency's IT administrators, confirmed that a denial of service attack had been going on and efforts were made to stop it. DOS attacks, also called distributed DOS (DDOS) involve a large number of computers sending huge numbers of connection requests or specially-designed data packets to a target server, with the aim of overwhelming its capacity to respond.
While DDOS attacks are often launched for purposes of criminal mischief or extortion, it cannot be rule out that someone is testing their ability to disrupt the flow of news during the coming elections or at other critical times. In that case, there is a severe and ongoing threat to the free flow of information in Latvia.
As of 23:50 Thursday night, the main service was still down.

UPDATE: LETA service appeared to be restored at around 24:00 (midnight)

Monday, September 20, 2010

Dmitrijs Smirnovs, arrested for published opinion, sues the Latvian Security Police

Instead of writing, I have recorded this as a video. What do readers/viewers think?

Friday, September 17, 2010

Latvian police see no violation in campaigning by two political candidates

The Latvian National Police see no violations of any laws in campaigning activities by two candidates of the  Vienotība (Unity) alliance who had confrontations with security guards by the Riga Central Station and the Central Market, according to press reports.
Rasma Kārkliņa, a German born Latvian political scientist who worked extensively in the US, was told by security guards hired by the Norwegian-owned Linstow property management company to stop. Police were summoned after Kārkliņa objected and she went to a police station to make a statement.
Lolita Čigāne, another Vienotība candidate, was campaigning in the largely open-air Central Market where she got into a confrontation with security guards and firmly stood on her constitutional right to free speech,
A spokesperson for Linstow, which has stewardship over the public areas by the Central Station, where it manages the Origo shopping center, which is integrated with the train station, said that Kārkliņa should have obtained approval to campaign by signing an agreement with the company. However, such contracts apparently apply to semipermanent campaigning facilities, such as tents, sheds, or stand-alone signs (such as a large one erected to promote the candidacy of Ainars Šlesers, once associated with Linstow and Norwegian retailing interests). As Kārklinā said in an updated statement, she is "neither a tent nor a large banner".  The law cited by the Linstow spokesperson also speaks of "public institutions", which means there should be no political campaigning in closed spaces, such as municipal offices, police stations, City Hall and the like.
A reasonable approach would be to treat peaceful, free speech and assembly as a nearly inviolable right in all areas that are functionally public spaces (that is, open to all and generally allowing both transit by the public and the peaceful presence of members of the public). This means that the stewardship the Linstow can exercise over this area by contract or other legal right should be limited to strictly technical matters (cleaning and safety issues) and, to some extent, the placement of semi-permanent structures in the area, as well as some scheduling issues (hard to have two public gatherings in the same place at once).
What Linstow has chosen to do, instead, is to aggressively assert what amount to maximum property rights(like those of a private home, office and, to some extent, the enclosed areas of the Origo shopping facility) and the ability to dictate limits on the speech and behavior of persons in an area that is for all intents and purposes.
It may be a bit far-fetched to say that Linstow is acting on behalf of Šlesers, who helped set them up in Riga when he was a private businessman in the 1990s, it can be claimed on indisputable fact that the company has acted as a defacto private political police. Personally, I don't blame this so much on the Norwegians, who have always been Scandinavian-style democrats, but on the local Latvian mentality, to forbid and intimidate first, then ask questions about free speech and political rights later, when forced by a public scandal to do so. Unfortunately, the authoritarian reflex and the authoritarian personality are very much alive in Latvian political and corporate culture. In Norway, the spirit of the authoritarian Vidkun Quisling is dead, but in Latvia, the mentality of the distant authoritarian past, and of the not-so-distant totalitarian times, is still with us.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Two Latvian parliamentary candidates expelled from public areas

Two candidates in the upcoming Latvian parliamentary elections were prevented from campaigning in two public places -- the square by Riga's Central Station and the Central Market.
Rasma Kārkliņa, a candidate for the "Vienotiba" (Unity) alliance was told by Origo shopping center security guards to stop speaking to passers-by in front of the Central Railway Station, a place where campaigning has been conducted previously, where concerts and public gatherings have been held and where young people gather, loiter, talk and sometimes skateboard.
Kārkliņa, a political scientist who moved to Latvia from the US, was eventually taken to a police station to give an account of what happened. She says she was simply talking to bypassers, urging them to vote for Vienotības. She did not set up a table, stand, tent or other object that might have required permission from Norwegian-owned Linstow,  the property management company that runs the Origo shopping center inside the Central Station and charged with maintenance and care of the public area near the station.
A spokesperson for Linstow in Latvia, responding to a discussion on Twitter, said that Karkliņa had been asked to officially coordinate her campaigning with Linstow, but had not done so. She said political parties who got approval could conduct campaign activities.
In a press release, Kārkliņa said she believed her expulsion from the Central Station Square had to do with political opponent Ainārs Šlesers former business ties to Linstow and other Norwegian business interests. Before going into politics, Šlesers played a key role in bringing the then Norwegian Rimi supermarkets, the Dressman and BikBok clothing stores and other Norwegian retailers and real estate managers into Latvia in the late 1990s.  Šlesers spokespeople have denied these accusations.
Also challenged by private security guards at the Riga Central Market was Vienotiba candidate Lolita Čigāne, who was campaigning with two assistants. According to some reports, she aggressively verbally challenged those asking her to leave, citing her right as a citizen to free speech  The Central Market management said they had a right to restrict Čigānes activities under a law forbidding election campaigning on property that is more than 50 % owned by a municipality. The Central Market is owned by the City of Riga, as is the Central Station.
The Central Station area and the Central Market are two areas of downtown Riga with very high pedestrian traffic with commuters going to trains or shoppers at Origo and the Central Market. They are natural areas for meeting large numbers of "ordinary" citizens.
There has been some discussion on Twitter (in Latvian) of holding a protest "Tweetmob" in the Central Station Square in the next few days to peacefully protest the violation of freedom of speech and assembly.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Latvia's "Wikileaks Lite" closed, investigate journalist flees country

Lato Lapsa, a controversial Latvian investigative journalist with access to hundreds of pages of documents in a criminal investigation of politician and Ventspils mayor Aivars Lembergs, announced he was fleeing the country and shutting down his websites, including one that was a kind of Latvian "Wikileaks Lite".
Lapse told Latvian media that serious threats had been made against him and his sister and her chidren and he was leaving Latvia until at least October 3, the day after the national elections.  He indicated he had been in touch with the Latvian Security Police (Drošības Policija/DP), but it was not clear whether the agency had advised him to close his websites.
The website published copies of what it claimed were bank statements, witness affidavits and other documents from the criminal investigation files concerning Lembergs, who Lapsa says skimmed some LVL 1 billion (almost USD 2 billion) that would otherwise have gone to the state treasury through various schemes, offshore companies and the abuse of political office and influence. The website has now been taken down.
Lembergs, who spent several months in investigative detention, has denied these charges and told a panel of journalists on Latvian television recently that he had sown the seeds of his large fortune (estimated at over LVL 100 million) by selling hunting rights for stags in Latvian forests to "wealthy Germans"  during the last year of the Soviet occupation. After obtaining the local Soviet hunting trophy permits (Lembergs was a Communist Party official in Ventspils at the time), for a few tens of rubles (dollars), he sold them to the "millonaire"  Germans for DM 10 000 (around USD 5 000 at the time) apiece.  The politician, who has been in power in the port and, until several years ago, major petroleum transit city Ventspils since Latvia regained its independence.
Lapsa, often called a "notorious"  investigative journalist with dubious methods of presenting his evidence, published, among other documents, the bank statements of Lemberg's adult children showing then spending large amounts on clothing and restaurants in Latvia and in European capitals, as well as handling deposits of millions of LVL.  Lembergs says that, according to official income statements filed as a public official under Latvian law, he earned LVL 25 million in salaries, fees and dividends over the past three years, making him probably the most highly remunerated person in Latvia in any position,  public or private (by contrast, the head of Lattelecom would have made less than LVL 1 million over the same three year period). Lembergs has denied all charges leveled against him and won a court case in which he was accused of wrongly and obstructively refusing to register a well-lnown public official because the man was not identified by personal code in a document from the Minister of Economics at the time.
Lapsa also shut down other websites, including those promoting his latest book on the politician Ainars Šlesers. Lapsa's methods in this and other "expose" books have been criticized. In the latest book on Šlesers, still being sold despite the website closure, he discloses that the politician's and former businessman's father was a mentally disturbed, abusive murderer who played only a short, traumatic role in Šleser's upbringing. He alsi claims that Šlesers, now the vice-mayor of Riga, evaded taxes on fish imported from Norway in the early and mid-1990s, events now beyond the statute of limitations for such violations.
Nonetheless, the silencing and temporary exile of "Latvia's most scandalous"  journalist and the closing of his "Wikileaks Lite"  websites by threatening the health or life of Lapsa's sister and her children has darkened the already strange and murky pre-election political and journalistic scene in Latvia. It strongly suggests that powerful, criminal interests are involved in the struggle for political power, setting Latvia apart from other Northern European countries where dirty politics, while hardly non-existent, never reach such an intensity.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Turning up the repression in many ways

I haven't had the time or energy to post, although I should have. The country continues to ease toward a crypto police state. Just a few incidents as examples.
During Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov's visit to Riga, a number of deputies of the pro-Russian, left-leaning For Human Rights in a Unified Latvia (Latvian= PCTVL) picketed near the Riga City Council building, not against Luzhkov, but to demand that a street named after the deceased Chechen leader Dzhokar Dudajev be renamed. They were dispersed by the police, some taken home under compulsion.
You can have more than mixed feelings about the PCTVL, but they have a right to free speech and assembly like anyone else, and to use police force in a discretionary manner against a peaceful, "spontaneous" and technically "illegal" assembly just shows where the country is going.
Another sight, that would seem to have little to do with free speech, is the presence of joint police and Riga traffic wardens (the people who catch and fine fare jumpers) on the streets at night. These operations, to nab a few persons who have stolen 70 santims (or $ 1,40) worth of services look intimidating. The whole crew of burly police in bright green-yellow fluorescent vests and sometimes burly wardens standing around one or two people who have failed to pay or whose electronic tickets expired simply says " police state" to me and other passers-by.  Is this the most serious kind of crime in Riga at the moment? With bike thieves rampaging and other petty crimes with real victims (not the revenues of the Riga transport organization Rīgas Satiksme), is this what the police should be doing?
I do see a similarity with the dispersal of the spontaneous PCTVL protest, because the sometimes brutal and unfair actions of the traffic wardens have and will trigger spontaneous protests by other passengers. Children have been thrown off public transport at night,  tourists who misunderstood how to pay or use tickets have also been taken off the bus from the airport, their first contract with Latvia. There have been incidents of resistance -- verbal and otherwise -- to this behavior by some wardens. At the same time, there have been cases of unprovoked and disproportionate abusive behavior and even violence by fare jumpers, so there is sometimes reason to have the police nearby, but why these nightly shows of force and intimidation? Seems to me the message is -- if you see repression, brutality, unfairness - don't you dare protest, resist or rise up. 
Finally, there was a case of two men running a professional marijuana farm in the countryside getting 12 and 8 year jail sentences. I decided to Twitter in Latvian that this was outrageous, because such sentences are disproportionate for what is essentially a victimless crime. I was assailed on another news site, along with those who expressed sympathy for my views, as being an advocate of drug use, which I am not.  A few commentators suggested that even to debate such matters -- the scientific basis for calling marijuana growers "merchants of death" (a possible lethal dose starts at 10 kg of active ingredient THC in one sitting) and the folly of a hysteria-driven, repressive drug policy-- was something that should be repressed or punished.
Unfortunately, these commentators, as representatives of public sentiment, indicate that what a large part of the Latvian population wants is to be ignorant, scared, and to not only live in an increasingly repressive society, but to actually cheer it on.