Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Liepaja municipal police harass Saeima candidate

Municipal police in Liepāja, a port city in Western Latvia harassed and detained Ansis Dobelis, a candidate for the Latvian parliament, the Saeima, in the September 17 national elections because he was approaching people on the street. Dobelis, a candidate from the centrist Unity (Vienotība) party reported the incident in his Latvian-language blog
In the blog post, Dobelis writes that he decided to walk around in Liepāja and personally approach city dwellers to talk about his candidacy. This is exactly how candidates campaign -- "pressing flesh" (shaking hands) and talking one-on-one with citizens -- in free, civilized societies. Liepāja and, perhaps, Latvia as a whole, is apparently not, nor will soon be, a free and civilized society.
Dobelis was detained by the Liepāja municipal police, questioned, photographed and had some kind of document prepared, but not shown to him, concerning his actions. The police said he was violating a city ordinance about posting political bills and holding campaign meetings in the town center. While there can be considerations of esthetics (posting placards on municipal or third-party property) and public order -- holding large rallies, etc., this kind of ordinance, appears, on its face, to be a violation of fundamental rights of free speech and assembly. It is even more offensive when used to attack the basic democratic process of election campaigning.
Unfortunately, a climate of hostility toward public political displays is partially fed by public discussions of the alleged necessity of forbidding most, if not all paid political campaigning, of drastically restricting forms of expression by candidates and reducing the race for the national parliament to a 19th century level of meeting hall gatherings with no coverage by electronic media and draconian controls the print media. While no one has actually called for anything that extreme, certain imprecise formulations of the need to limit campaign spending and contributions can have a chilling effect on expression and media contacts by candidates, and "heating up" effect on those looking for any excuse to repress free expression. 

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