Friday, November 19, 2010

A dialog of fools thrown to the thought police and more on the fashionista scandal, an interesting hybrid of a Latvian wiki-leaks and some borderline hatchet-job investigative journalism reports that the scandalous electronic  correspondence of Latvia's new foreign minister Ģirts Valdis Kristovskis and Latvian-American physician Aivars Slucis is being turned over to Latvia's post-independence zombie of the KGB thought police, the Latvian Security Police (Drošības Policija).
Kristovskis, corresponding about a year ago with Slucis, a financial supporter of radical nationalist causes in Latvia, wrote that he broadly and in principle agreed with a screed in which the US-based Mayo Clinic doctor said he would be hard pressed to treat Latvians and Russians equally were he practicing medicine in Latvia. The e-mail also referred to the possibility of starting a medical facility in Latvia that would only treat ethnic Latvians.
There was, of course, a major uproar when this correspondence was disclosed even before the ink was dry on whatever document was signed nominating Kristovskis as foreign minister. A vote of no-confidence against him requested in the new Saeima (where the newly-elected legislators had barely learned how to operate the electronic voting system) failed,  but the whole scandal set the tone for the generally shambolic way the new Dombrovskis government was put together.  But that is another story.
The free speech issue at stake is that neither Dr. Slucis anti-Russian remarks, nor the reply by Kristovskis should be the subject of a police investigation. What both sides wrote, however deranged or offensive it may look, is and should be protected free expression. Period.
I will repeat again -- free expression is not something that protects only nice expression, rational expression, polite expression etc. Free expression protects all forms of thought and opinion, starting with the most extreme views. Once we let police power start examining "extreme" expression -- where will they go next?
The almost black humor crackpot part of Slucis'  views is that as a physician, he would be bound to treat enemy combatants in a war. I don't know (I doubt it) if any injured Taliban have been flow to the US and "outsourced"  for treatment to the Mayo Clinic, but I think that Slucis would have to take them as patients. Certainly that would be his duty were he a military doctor,  or in the unlikely situation that foreign terrorists were wounded by police during an incident in Rochester, Minnesota and rushed to the Mayo Clinic as the nearest hospital.
However you analyze the complex tensions that sometimes exist between Latvians and Russians in Latvia, both ethnic groups are not engaged in armed conflict. Yet Slucis makes statements that would not apply even in an armed conflict (in World War II, American doctors treated Germans whose language they didn't understand and who had been killing  Americans minutes earlier. They may not have liked it, but they treated them).  Arguments, not police, should be used against crackpot opinions.

While on the subject of the bizarre, it is worth noting that my post on the expulsion of fashion blogger and magazine editor-in-chief Agnese Kleina from the Riga Fashion Week drew more than 2 000 hits in a single day to my blog. This was amazing, because to me this was a marginal matter, hardly a case of the government banning a public protest or arresting a journalist. It was actually my gut reaction to what seemed to me to be irrational mistreatment of a fellow journalist.  But nothing I have ever written on this blog has ever gotten the same level of attention, especially considering that most Latvians may find my slang-ridden American English prose a bit difficult to understand. I had no idea that the fashion industry (of which I know nothing) had so many followers
Anyway,  I got a couple of e-mails from  Jeļena Stahova, the president of the Baltic Fashion Federation, who explained her reasons for banning Kleina.
She sent  a longer e-mail in Latvian, but the salient points (here in an edited  Google translation) were as follows:

The decision on refusal of accreditation  for A. Kleina, by the Baltic fashion Federation and in particular by the Riga Fashion Week Autumn session was made  this year In the spring, when I got to publications of Latvian Style and Fashion Awards ceremony. The reason for this was Kleina in her unethical comments  in a  blog, where she mocked thje event for members, leaders and everything that happened on the runway, in a way that is inconsistent with the word"Journalist" and which  was inconsistent with any professional journalism general ethical standards.Her remarks on the RFW poster  had nothing to do with this case. 

My original post was a borderline rant, so I am glad that Jeļena didn't take offense, especially as I know about as much about the fashion business as a dog knows of the Catholic mass (translating, loosely, the Latvian expression  ko suns zin no dievkalpojuma) .  I don't know what Agnese Kleina wrote earlier to anger the Fashion Federation and Jeļena, but as far as ethics go, there is a difference between blogging and "straight" (no reference to sexual orientation)  journalism. Blogs are there to express opinion, and the ethical standards are much looser. In writing news, it is unethical to distort facts, etc.  so to say that 50 people watched XY's collection demonstration when there were clearly 200 people there, or to confuse colors, etc. would be bad journalism. But to express a strong opinion in a blog is another story. Perhaps it is foolish to offend members of a close-knit and sensitive community (the Latvian fashion scene) knowing that they may react strongly to being offended. But that is more a question of tact than journalistic ethics. 
So I hope I have made an effort to be fair to the other side :).  Do I get another 2000 page hits for this?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Boozehound (?) gets six month jail sentence for desecrating Latvian flag

A 28-year old man has been sentenced to six months in jail for desecrating the Latvian flag by hanging from the flagpole of the Smiltene town hall while boozed up. The flagpole snapped and the flag was torn. This according to media reports.
Normally, this would be a case of public drunkeness and property damage or vandalism. What is disturbing is the harsh application of a law that, essentially, "sanctifies" symbols of the state and nation, giving them protection above and beyond other items of public or private property. The reason for this in Latvia as in other states is to create a disincentive for using national symbols (the flag, coat of arms, whatever) in certain forms of protest -- burning, defacement and the like.
While I doubt that our Smiltene boozehound was making any kind of political statement by doing pull-ups (maybe just one :) ) on the town hall flagpole, it is nonetheless both ominous and bizarre that he was sentences under a political law. It would be worse, still, had his actions actually been politically motivated. Is this a hidden warning not to deface the Latvian flag as a protest against, say, budget cuts or some other matter. If so, our Smiltene boozehound is actually a mineshaft canary warning of a latent but very real threat to the full freedom of expression in Latvia.
I don't favor burning flags as a form of protest either here or in the United States, where I grew up. But I do support the First Amendment cases that defend the right to burn one's own property as a form of protest even if that property happens to be a national flag.
As a final note, it may be that the dude in Smiltene got the harsh sentence because he had a previous shortened or suspended sentence for another crime. Even that does not justify harsher sentencing under a law designed to repress free expression. Had the charge been simple drunkeness and vandalism, fine. Repressive laws --no.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

In Latvia, vindictive repression hits the "rag trade"

Normally, Riga Fashion Week would be way beyond my sphere of interest -- babes on the edge of anorexia strutting down runways in far-out outfits you never see on the street or in offices (although Latvian women generally dress well). Good for them and on to the next subject...
But wait, it now seems that the organizers of Riga Fashion Week have expelled Agnese Kleina, a fashion blogger, journalist and editor of the magazine Deko (which is all about fashion, design, style and all that stuff). Agnese, it seems, criticized the poster for the event. I mean, that is what fashion/design/style journalists do, isn't it? They tell the rest of us why they think something is well designed or in good or bad taste, sort of like film critics write about movies and food critics about restaurants. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and seldom is there just one viewpoint. Take the film Amaya (a film shot in Hong Kong by a Latvian director who works in Lithuania). Some critics thought it was great. I saw it and I would give it five WTF?s (I found myself thinking those words at least five times, starting with when the camera panned down to actress Kristīne Nevarauska's legs so as not to show that she was not voicing the accented English lines she was supposed to be saying).  So should I now be expelled from Latvian movie houses?
What makes the case of Agnese Kleina even stranger is that when she was declined accreditation by the organizers of the event, she went there as the personal guest of one of her favorite designers, just to see her show off her collection. Even so, she was escorted out of the event by security people. WTF? How about the right of a participant and exhibitor to invite whomever she wants?
While you could argue that private events do not have to follow rules and practices about the freedom of speech (this derives from the freedom of non-state actors to be total assholes if they so choose or are intellectually doomed to be just that), the fashion event did take place at Riga Airport, a public facility and with the moral support of the Riga City Council,  a public authority whose reputation can be tainted by being dragged into, excuse the sexist terminology -- bitch fights.

Agnese writes about the incident in the English-language portion of her fashion blog:

Riga Fashion week? Been there, done that. Although with no press accreditation whatsoever as my official application was denied for the first time (I guess, some post on some poster is to be blamed), but still. Some birdie told me that similar ‘reasons’ have put TV fashion journalist Gundega Skudrina in the same list of persona non grata. Well, shit happens. I hope, it won’t go further down and doors won’t be showed to theatre reviewers, fallen in the disgrace of some theatre directors.

Oh well, this is Latvia, what else can one expect.... or am I wrong?