Saturday, November 24, 2012

Another needless flag-burning uproar

I am no fan of flag desecration, but however one may feel about it, it is a form of symbolic expression and is not punished as a crime in countries with a high degree of democracy and individual freedom, although there are Western countries that have laws on flag and national symbol desecration. They are not a good idea.
There has been another case in Latvia that has, yet again, caused a needless uproar. Someone was caught on a mobile phone camera attempting to burn or scorch a paper Latvian flag (not a protected flag under the law, if I am not mistaken). The incident happened on independence day, November 18. This triggered a frenzy of outrage, especially as the perpetrator appeared to be Russian. A girl responsible for filming and posting the incident was also reportedly threatened.
Now the Latvian Security Police – the same guys and girls who were arresting university lecturers just a few years ago for expressing opinions about the national currency – responding, apparently, to the outcry, have found the suspect and have launched a criminal investigation. As all that time and effort was being spent, I can imagine the members of some terrorist sleeper cell using Riga as a hideout laughing all the way to their safe house. This is the sort of thing, if anything, that the Security Police should be looking out for.
Can you imagine that, because they were looking for one fuckwit who should not be punished for what he did, the Security Police missed clues that the sleeper cell was using Latvia to prepare for an attack on an airport or city in western Europe? Sorry, missed that because we were hunting for a teenager who burned a red-white-red paper pennant.
Also disturbing, but perhaps not that different from a redneck response in the US, was the torrent of foaming at the mouth commentary asking that the flag scorcher (you don't really see it completely burn in the video) be deported, imprisoned, whipped, lynched, even summarily excuted (though that may have been black humor irony). It reinforces the evidence from polls and surveys that Latvian society is deeply authoritarian. That is dangerous. If for no other reason, flag and national symbol desecration laws, it is to stop what amounts to the legal and enforcable “sanctification” of property and symbolic objects to make it clear that the state stands above and can repress individuals for disrespecting it.

At least the US Supreme Court still understands the essence of the problem:
The Government may not prohibit the verbal or nonverbal expression of an idea merely because society finds the idea offensive or disagreeable, even where our flag is involved. Nor may a State foster its own view of the flag by prohibiting expressive conduct relating to it, since the Government may not permit designated symbols to be used to communicate a limited set of messages. Moreover, this Court will not create an exception to these principles protected by the First Amendment for the American flag alone.

From Texas v. Johnson - 491 U.S. 397 (1989)

Perhaps the Latvian courts and the courts of a few other countries claiming to be democratic could look to this example?

Monday, October 29, 2012

Bad, stupid moves on free speech in Latvia

It has been a bad couple of days for free expression in Latvia. I will rank the cases starting with the one I consider the most brutal (and brutishly dumb) – the nursing home Gauja in the town of Garkalne that expelled Anita Arikāne, a 41-year old woman patient suffering from severe cerebral palsy for a blog she typed by holding a toothbrush or other object in her mouth.
The management of the nursing home said that the blog, published on the Latvian social network was offensive to the staff and management of Gauja. After a cursory look at Anita's blog (it is rather chaotically organized and difficult to follow) I found nothing directly insulting to the nursing home. That does not mean there was no criticism, I just did not see anything that could be considered libelous – no untrue allegations of physical abuse, negligence or neglect. To be sure, Anita appears profoundly disabled and in need of constant care, something that would be extremely frustrating for even a few weeks, never mind a lifetime. Moreover, caregivers in Latvian nursing homes are underpaid and overworked – or, at least, that is a reasonable assumption. So some friction between the staff and a patient seen as privileged (Anita got her own room and an internet connection) could well have occurred. But to evict a disabled patient effective November 1, with apparently no process of adjudication, appeal or mediation seems the height of brutish cruelty and an abuse of Anita Arikāne's inalienable right to free expression. 
While we are on the subject of dumb behavior by country bumpkin municipalities (that may not be the right term for a coastal town in Latvia), it brings us to a refusal by the town of Salacgriva (which hosts the Positivus music festival in the summer) to allow a group of Latvian atheists to put up a poster that said “ You don't believe in God? You are not alone!” . The refusal was based on the argument that asking people to contact the Latvian Atheist Society was not a commercial advertisement for goods or services covered by municipal regulations pertaining to permits to post commercial bills on public property (lighting poles). As the Atheist Society points out, this was a contrived excuse to refuse to display an “anti-religious” message.
Not to be outdone by their opponents in Salacgriva (in terms of doing something off-the-wall), the atheists whose right to free expression was violated are now asking the Riga municipal building department (seems the municipal agencies that hand out building permits also give permits to put up posters) to remove a religious poster “Life without God, Life without meaning” that has been put up in Riga. Asking for symmetric violation of free expression probably is not the best tactic for resolving this matter,
Back in the big city, Riga mayor Nils Ušakovs (Harmony Center/SC) has decided to file suit against the independent magazine Ir and its commentator Aivars Ozoliņš for libel for a commentary in which he referred to the Riga municipal government as a “kleptocracy”. Ušakovs joins a not so short list of thin-skinned Latvian politicians who have reacted to harsh criticism by taking an axe to freedom of speech. And they have picked the wrong guy. Ozoliņš has been sued by politicians before – successfully as far as the post-Soviet mentality Latvian courts go, but he won a free speech case in the European Court of Human Rights in 2007 (for a case back in the 1990s), getting a judgement for some EUR 10 000 plus court costs. So here we go again...
Finally, I don't know what to make of the Latvian President Andris Bērziņš initiative to amend Latvian laws to impose harsher punishments on “disrespecting” Latvia's coat of arms and the coats of arms of Latvia's traditional districts – Kurzeme, Vidzeme, Zemgale and Latgale. Bērzīņš has proposed that fines for “disrespecting” these symbols should be as high as LVL 500. However, part of the problem here could be murky journalism – reading the LETA agency report more closely, it seems that the President was not addressing the issue of using the coats of arms “disrespectfully” in political expression, but rather what he considers their misuse for commercial purposes. This may well be a different story of setting rules for the use of national heraldic symbols on T-shirts and coffee cups (assuming that the government holds some kind of copyright in these coats of arms). Then again, it is a gray area as to whether using Latvia's coat of arms in a protest T-shirt or poster could be considered a violation of these laws. Any laws aimed at protecting the national and regional coats of arms from ending up on cheap vodka bottles should be written very carefully to ensure that they cannot be abused or used to chill free expression.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Latvian Security Police backs away from being a NeoKGB

The Latvian Security Police seems to have backed off from being the "neo -KGB" that it was in 2008, when it arrested an economics lecturer and questioned a musician for making remarks about the banking system and the Latvian currency, the lat. That incident inspired me to start this blog.
Now it seems that the Security Police (Drošibas policija/DP) have refused to act on a request by National Alliance Saeima deputy Raivis Dzintars that the DP investigate statements by a teacher of Russian language and literature that he was " disloyal to Latvia, because the regime (meaning the government) was causing problems for his family."

The DP refused to act on Dzintars request saying that:  " A person's subjective attitude toward the state, including one that is negative, cannot be the basis for evaluating whether a criminal investigation should be started."

Let's hope this has killed any plans for using the DP as an unofficial "loyalty police" by the sometimes disturbingly authoritarian Nationalist Alliance.
While I don't believe the Security Police are yet a hotbed of libertarians, it will be difficult for them to back off from this stance and go back to acting as a chilling effect on political expression. Good stuff does happen here from time to time.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Will one outspoken teacher bring down a "loyalty police" on Latvian educators?

The worrisome case of a “disloyal” teacher of Russian language and literature, Vladislavs Rafalskis, has dominated some of the Latvian media in recent days. A teacher at a Riga school he made the “disloyal” statement on a radio show. Rafaļskis, a member of the For Human Rights In A United Latvia party (PCTVL), told a radio program recently: "I can honestly say that I am disloyal to this country. I simply despise this regime. It alienates my children too, and creates problems for them."
I am willing to believe that Rafalskis may be motived by some wacko ideas about the Latvian state and what he believes the government should have done for the Russian population etc. These may be heartfelt views, even if one could disagree with them or even strongly oppose them. In any case, Rafalskis has not expressed his disgust with Latvia as dramatically as some 300 000 people, who have left and are probably not coming back – aren’t they more “disloyal”?? And somehow I don’t believe that his political views affect his teaching, or that he will tell children that in Russian a dog is a frog or teach other wrong vocabulary. What disturbs me about this case is that it has started a push for some kind of loyalty policing at schools and other state-financed institutions. This will inevitably have a chilling effect on teachers who may want to provoke political debate among their (older) students by expressing “radical” views. Already, there are dozens of comments on news portals and social media demanding that Rafalskis be fired, deported, etc.
Any ideas of a formal or informal  “loyalty police” should be nipped in the bud in a democratic country, because full democracy and freedom of expression includes criticizing the state, even declaring one’s opposition to its legitimacy and existence. After all, didn’t most Latvians consider as heroes  the dissidents who rejected the legitimacy of the Soviet Union and did they not consider it unjust that people who didn’t join the Communist Party (another badge of loyalty) were denied career advancement? Was a Communist doctor better than a non-party member?
The other thing that is scary about “loyalty”, besides the fact that it is a relative, “rubber” concept, is that it elevates the state above the individual and creates an enforceable duty for free individuals to express respect and fealty for what is, in the final analysis, an abstraction and a social construct. It grants the state and parts of society (those calling for measures against “the disloyal”) the right to officially or unofficially punish a person’s convictions or attitude. That is hardly the same thing as punishing an act that may be motivated by “disloyalty” to a particular state or political system, but even acts of symbolic protest involving state property should be treated with the greatest care for the element of free expression and political protest that this may involve.
One should also somewhat of an uproar when some members of the National Alliance showed up at a day care center to teach Latvian patriotism by displaying German-made World II weapons.  Was this “good loyalty” as opposed to Rafaļskis “bad disloyalty” speaking to an adult audience on the radio (and speaking of the political regime, not the abstract nation-state). Teaching should follow guidelines for political debate at appropriate levels – the older the pupils and the closer to voting age, the more it should be encouraged. For older classes, political diversity among teachers must be supported and protected, because children, when they become young adults in the “real world”, will be confronted with different, sometimes harsh viewpoints no matter what their schools tried to teach. Above all, the schools should produce free, critical thinking individuals, not “loyal subjects”.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Latvia - A police state ultra-lite?

Is Latvia turning into a police state lite with a creeping chilling effect on free expression and, perhaps, on free behavior in general?  There are some disturbing signs. On August 20, private security guards detained, according to one version, six persons who tried to collect signatures against the punishment handed down to the Russian performance artists (for lack of a better word) Pussy Riot. Three women dressed similarly to the Pussy Riot members  and three men were detained outside the Skonto Arena, where a concert was taken place. They were then turned over to the “regular” policemen, who, after a while, told all those detained that they had committed no violation and were free to go. Before that, some placards carried by the women were taken away and, it seems, given back only when the detainees left after the concert.
That, it seems, would have been the end of it, but now the young women have been summoned by the police again, to be officially informed that no charges will be brought against them. A strange formality to say the least, and with an undertone of – we are in control here, we tell you what to do.  Nicely, of course, with even the official police spokesperson saying that calling the girls to the police station was a courteous gesture that shouldn’t be misunderstood.
There was more before that. Activist Didzis Melbiksis, who has also been a radio journalist, organized a parody march just ahead of the Riga Pride in June, in which he and several other persons (all of them, by the way, supporters of gay rights) carried a large symbolic phallus from near the Freedom Monument to a nearby club. The march had been announced and permitted by the authorities. Nonetheless, the Riga Municipal Police chose to question Melbiksis and other participants, ask them for identification and the like.
Last fall, just after the extraordinary elections to the parliament or Saeima, Three persons spontaneously protesting against the actions of a political party and three bystanders were detained by Latvian police in the capital Riga on October 5 and taken to a police station for "identification". There they had a sign written on a sheet and a t-shirt with a slogan on it confiscated. According to media reports, the police gave no reason for confiscating the items, one of which was a sheet with a slogan labeling former Latvian president Valdis Zatlers "a traitor" and the t-shirt with a handwritten slogan "Zatlers, have you no shame?" in Latvian.
So-called administrative charges were filed against all six persons detained in connection with the protest and they could have faced jail term of up to 15 days and fines of up to LVL 25. To be honest, I don’t know how this case ended, but it was yet another case of police repression against spontaneous, non-violent political expression. The same as what the private security guards, perhaps with a tad more basis in law (a “private” public space) for restricting the behavior of people near a large event, did to the Pussy Riot petitioners.
What this is beginning to add up to is that Latvia is, and perhaps always has been, a kind of police state lite  or even ultralite , but just heavy enough to have the chilling effect on spontaneous expression protest that, at least back in the day, the US Supreme Court, would use as an argument for knocking down laws, ordinances and police actions that had precisely that kind of chilling effect on free speech that the actions of Latvian police have had.
Given the general undercurrent of indifference toward or even agreement with the way Pussy Riot has been treated in Russia, it is no surprise that certain forms of repression are accepted as normal in Latvia. Indeed, given the widespread mentality of if I don’t like it, I don’t care if it is repressed it is surprising that the police don’t take more advantage of the latitude that society gives them.  Perhaps some of the police – the younger, better educated ones – have acquired the skills of modern, Western-style policing. That would be a good sign. But it would be still better if society actually cared about these issues, or if, at least, there was a militant pro-free expression movement. But both of these developments are highly unlikely in the foreseeable future.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Free speech outrage in Britain

One can expect occasional outrages against free speech in lingeringly post-Soviet and post-Communist Eastern Europe (sorry, Ed Lucas) because these people -- the ones running the police and legal systems -- simply have not learned in 20 years. That is why this blog was started in late 2008-- because neo-KGB goons in Latvia arrested a slightly wacky college economics lecturer for remarks he made at a public discussion about banks and the national currency, the lat.  There have been more incidents since then, but after all, this country and places immensely deeper in the not-even-post-Soviet mentality morass (hilariously barbarian Belarus and its Teddy Bear arrest) were never considered cradles of democratic liberties, the rights of free men and all that. That is where both Britain and the US have, at least historically, been beacons of freedom in a world with two, three many Eastern Europes and worse.
But now this from The Guardian:

Lawyers for the BBC are considering making a formal appeal against a court order that has banned the corporation from showing a dramatised film about the experiences of rioters who took part in last summer's disorder.

The ruling from a judge prevented the docu-drama, which had been due to be broadcast on BBC2 at 9pm on Monday, from being broadcast "by any media until further order".

The channel's executives were forced to pull the film, which is based on the testimony of interviews conducted for the Guardian and London School of Economics research into the disorder.

A second BBC film in the two-part series, which is based on personal interviews with police officers and was scheduled for broadcast on Wednesday, is also banned under the order.

For legal reasons*, the Guardian cannot name the judge who made the ruling, the court in which he is sitting or the case he is presiding over. However, it is understood that lawyers for the BBC strongly object to his ruling, the nature of which is believed to be highly unusual.

Hours before Monday's programme was due to be aired, the BBC tried and failed to appeal the order over the telephone. The corporation's lawyers are now working on legal arguments for a second potential appeal, which may be lodged tomorrow.

The programme, part of a two-part series, features actors who play anonymous rioters speaking about their experiences of the riots last August. The BBC said in a statement on Monday: "A court order has been made that has prevented the BBC from broadcasting the programme The Riots: In their own Words tonight. We will put it out at a later date."

The script from the programme, written by the award-winning playwright Alecky Blythe, was produced from verbatim transcripts of interviews conducted as part of the Reading the Riots study, which conducted confidential interviews with 270 rioters.

The ban on the film has created a major headache for BBC executives, who are being forced to reorganise a packed schedule, which includes Olympic coverage and journalism based around next month's anniversary of the riots.

The BBC did not give details about the nature or contents of the court order. However a copy seen by the Guardian states: "It is ordered that the BBC programme 'The Riots: In their Own Words' due for broadcast on BBC 2 tonight is not broadcast by any media by any means until further order." Another part of the ruling states: "Further the clip currently available for viewing on the BBC website be removed forthwith."

The clip referred to by the judge appeared on a blog posted last Friday, in which a BBC producer on the project said that using the "important and illuminating" interviews in the drama would provide insight into "why and how the riots had happened". The clip, a short preview of the actors playing rioters speaking about their experiences, has now been removed from the site - although the blog remains.

Kirsty Hughes, chief executive of Index on Censorship, said: "This is a disturbing move. The Reading the Riots project gives a valuable insight into the events of last summer in England. As we approach the anniversary of the riots, it is important that broadcasts and discussion about the events are allowed to take place. Censoring television programmes is not in any way helpful to our understanding of the important issues and factors underlying the disturbances."

*WTF??! Great Britain?? Are we going back to the Star Chamber? Secret trials? Anonymous "judges" who need give no reason or argument for their decisions?  Where is Anonymous when we need them? The film V is Vendetta was about a future dystopian Britain, but it seems that future is arriving.
Curiously, Index on Censorship simply ignored a couple of cases in Latvia that I reported to them, but I am not going to return the "favor". I will express my solidarity with the BBC reporters trying to do their job and tell a story.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Uldis Freimanis, a nationalist radical "goal post" for free speech, is found dead

Uldis Freimanis, a Latvian nationalist with radical public views on many issues, was found dead near his home in Riga. Freimanis, born in 1943, bore no signs of foul play and by some reports, had been suffering from a heart condition. A regular, placard-bearing participant at anti-gay and radical nationalist demonstrations, Freimanis was last seen organizing a commemoration of the end of the first Soviet occupation of Latvia when German troops entered Riga on July 1, 1941. Historically, Latvians' joy at seeing the Red Army driven out vanished quickly as it become apparent that occupation by Nazi Germany simply mean a change of shooters of Latvian citizens and their specific targets. This seemed lost on the organizers of the most recent event.
For me, Freimanis, no matter how strange and repugnant his publicly expressed views, which included strident anti-Semitism and homophobia, was a kind of litmus test of free speech in Latvia. He was a goal post for tolerance (non-censorship) of radical and offensive expression. Free speech is not for "nice" opinions, "moderate and balanced view", political correctness, etc. Freedom of expression is to protect the views that most of us may hate and be shocked by. If we both defend the right to peacefully express such views, at the same time as we express our own rejection of their substance and our arguments as to why they are wrong, we are doing the work of citizens defending both freedom and a democratic society.
I had a slight acquaintance with Freimanis, and he lacked some of the cold hostility and hatefulness I have felt from other, younger Latvian right-wing radicals. In fact, I sent him some digital photos of his son, who is a soldier with the Latvian army honor guard at the Freedom Monument and was hoping to send him a photo of his participation at the latest July 1 commemoration, which gathered a few dozen supporters. He was a cordial man in the few encounters I have had with him, and can only express my condolences to his family and my regrets that he will not have a chance to re-examine his views and convictions, which I see as being outrageous, but which he had every right to express,

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Latvia is not defending freedom for the the thought it hates

Freedom of expression – what is it good for? For your neighbor to say that despite the clouds, it is a nice day? For your workmate to say she prefers mayonnaise to ketchup on her french fries? For some dude on the street to shout that he loves a sports team you absolutely despise? This is everyday stuff.
The real test of freedom of speech is how an allegedly free society treats its really extreme, repulsive, provocative and offensive crackpots. Can we truly grant freedom to the thought we hate? Latvia may be failing that test again in the case of Aleksandrs Giļmans, a member of For Human Rights in a Unified Latvia (PCTVL), a pro-Russian party that was voted out of the Latvian parliament or Saeima.
An article Giļmans said he wrote some six years ago was republished. In it, (according to press reports) he downplayed the deportation of some 15 000 Latvian citizens, saying it was not the tragedy that it is made out to be, and adding that Latvians themselves were involved in the deportation of their countrymen. There is probably some truth to the latter, or it is at least worth researching how the Soviet occupation authorities came over lists of whom to arrest and deport and where to to find them.
What has happened now is that the Latvian Security Police, no friends of free expression in the past, have started a criminal investigation of Giļmans for the “crime” of glorifying and justifying genocide,crimes against humanity, crimes against peace and denying that such crimes had occurred. It is the equivalent of a Holocaust denial case in countries where that is forbidden.
While extreme sensitivity to Holocaust issues may be understandable in Germany and Israel, to forbid the peaceful advocacy of a false and offensive viewpoint is, nonetheless, a serious restriction on speech. I am convinced that granting the state the power to punish any speech is more dangerous than the substance of what a private person without police, prosecutors and jails behind them, may say or publish. Giļmans assertions were answered by Latvian historians, who called them nonsense. In a free, democratic society, as a means of dealing with offensive opinion, that is enough. Call off the Security Police. 

Sunday, June 3, 2012

A post-Pride diagnosis of Latvian society?

The diagnostic instrument of Baltic Pride 2012 in Riga can be put away until 2015 and the results examined. Such events reveal societal and official attitudes toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LBGT) persons and the broader issues of free speech, free assembly and tolerance of diverse views. They also give some insights into the level of education and ability to reason critically of Latvian society as a whole.
My reading of the diagnostic results – the acute phase of the syndrome of homophobic mass hysteria in the streets is waning. Official response to the undeniably controversial event has shifted from hostility (former politician Ainārs Šlesers) to avoidance (except for a statement to a Pride event in 2008/?/ by then President Valdis Zatlers) to cautious expressions of sympathy and support this year. Defense Minister Artis Pabriks expressed his support for equal rights and Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs even dropped by the Baltic Pride rally in Vērmanes Park in downtown Riga. Riga mayor Nils Ušakovs reportedly briefly stopped in at a reception held by the LGBT organization “Mozaika” ahead of the June 2 event. He is also said to have sent an SMS to Kristīne Garina congratulating her on the success of the march.
The reaction of society at large has also changed somewhat. There were a couple of hundred people lining the route of the Baltic Pride march, most watched with curiosity or indifference. A small group of neo-Nazis, led by Igors Šiškins, blew whistles and waved placards equating “pederasty” with pedophilia. That was it, as far as public expressions of hostility, except for a drunk who was arrested for tossing an egg toward the marchers.
Reaction on internet portals was another story. One could almost say that the screaming mobs of 2008 and 2009 have gone virtual, moving from the streets to the internet.

Here are some representative samples:

Rotten thinking, views, norms, it is repulsive to see these people doing it and being proud of it. Homosexuality IS a societal illness, it is not put into people by nature, it is simply crippled thinking, an error of the brain, such people should be sent for therapy!!!

Should have brought in Russians from Russia to take care of that lot and that ambassador (meaning US ambassador Judy Garber, who spoke at the Pride event.) Our men are softies, they let those stink in downtown Riga, whose place is with the Danish pigs (there have been complaints about the stench from large Danish owned piggeries in the Latvian countryside).

Children are not born in the US because homosexual relations are widespread and recognized, and these childless couples travel around the post-Soviet countries, including Latvia, looking for whiye children for adoption. The home page of the US Embassy explains how to adopt Latvian children. That is the result of massive homosexual propaganda.

Because of the queers, the human right of free movement of free movement in public places is violated in Riga. They must die off just like the mammoths!!! If only they could all croak from their diseases!!! Ass fuckers!!! Supporters of pedophilia!!!

The quotes run the gamut from violent hatred to theories based on a bizarre understanding of reality both outside and inside Latvia. They reflect ignorance, knee-jerk negative gut reactions to all that is different, strange or foreign and an almost total lack of critical thinking based on reason and evidence. They show a primitive, ignorance, fear and inferiority-complex based way of “thinking” that could have been greatly reduced in 20 years of independence, but was not.
Maybe there is some hope in the younger generation, the “alternative”, open-minded, happy-faced young people joining in the pride march and visible here and there elsewhere (such as at the one-year anniversary of the radical Latvian website, or earlier this year, at the protests against ACTA). But that, too, may be illusory, as these young people also know that the world (or at least Europe) is open to them and welcoming. Most of them would, after a little adjustment, fit quickly into the cosmopolitan youth culture of London, Berlin, Copenhagen or Stockholm, and probably feel less and less welcome in Latvia.
Still, maybe there has been a small step forward and Latvia may be advancing out of the long post-Soviet mental shadow that still cloaks much of the population.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Wanting a hard rain to fall? Why go to Baltic Pride.

It is the eve of the Baltic Pride march on Saturday, and the weather is lousy, periods of torrential rain, chilly temperatures. Among the hard-core haters of free speech and of those who are different, but especially those of different sexual orientation, even the weather is invoked on “their side”. It illustrates the almost primal, primitive hostility toward a  once every few years event to highlight the issues facing the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and “ shooby-doo whatever” - as I say when this phrase ties my tongue – community in Latvia.  The LGBTs (did I  get them all?). In many other countries, in civilized societies, this would cause little or no controversy. The kind of chorus of ignorant, blind, foaming at the the mouth in writing that dominates the internet news portals here is (unless I am wrong) unthinkable (at least on the scale experienced in Latvia) in normal, democratic societies.
OK, 20 years ago, maybe even 10 years ago, this could be written off as some after-effect of the decades long Soviet mindfuck of Latvian society, but there comes a time when you stop coddling the “victim” and realize that you are dealing with a society that should have reached post-independence adulthood and really needs nothing more than to be smashed “upside the head” to get its attention to what matters.
What matters is not to lash out with outrage at groups in society that, by scientific definition, cannot “recruit” other members of society to be like them, any more than the tall can “convert” the short. The nation's real problems are corruption, official stupidity (latest example - fuckwits in various educational bureaucracies screwed up the grading of ninth grade exams and the presentation of a final written English exam for the twelfth grade), unemployment and the emigration it creates. Solving these, some of which it may be too late to solve, will take effort and probably considerable financial resources.
On the other hand, creating a more open, tolerant, less hateful society costs almost nothing. Just stop! It takes no money to cease and desist hating those who are different by race, ethnicity, appearance, religion, sexual orientation or whatever. However, it appears that some kind of almost socio-genetic (where social and cultural factors pass on social traits and attitudes the way DNA passes on physical traits) is working to keep the much of population of Latvia (both ethnic Latvians and Russians) ignorant and hateful. Perhaps it is the educational system or the bleeding vent of emigration, where people simply give up for a complex, predominantly economic reasons, but also because of hopelessness with regard to any meaningful change in the future. Other, better organized, better run, more tolerant and democratic (but far from perfect) societies where the future has already arrived are attracting bright, young, open minded Latvians (as well as lowlife, to be sure).
Rain or shine, unless some unexpected duties arise, I will attend Gay Pride 2012 to show that I, as a straight libertarian person, am not, hopefully, part of the problem, that I stand for free speech and, derived from the principle of self-ownership, the right of people to consensually live and do as they please.  

Monday, May 28, 2012

Some good free speech developments, but keep off the grass!

Some good things seem to be happening in the free speech/free assembly area in Latvia. The Riga City Council has decided that the planned Baltic Pride 2012 march is not a threat to public order and should be permitted. So on Saturday, June 2, members of the LGBT community in Latvia, along with visitors from the other two Baltic countries and supporters from other countries in Europe, will be able to exercise their right to free speech and assembly. There will probably be a hateful, screaming crowd of counterdemonstrators – Latvia is probably one of the most homophobic countries in Europe, at least judging by the kinds of comments on internet portals.
Several diplomats will also take part in Baltic Pride, including the US Ambassador to Latvia Judy Garber and American ambassadors from the other Baltic States. Representatives of the Latvian government will take part in some pride-related events in the days ahead of the march.
It is important for “ straight” or mainstream people to take part in Baltic Pride to show that they, at least, are not part of the problem, not part of the anti-free speech, homophobic and possibly religious fanatic “majority against Baltic Pride” claimed by opponents of the march. For this reason, but mainly because I am a libertarian believer in free speech, I will attend Baltic Pride assuming nothing else gets in the way (I have driving commitments on weekends to resupply my mother-in-law at our summer house).
A slightly disconcerting incident I witnessed was the Riga Municipal Police asking people to leave the banks of the Riga Canal. It was done, I assume, with firm courtesy, but if the city is reneging on its commitment to open up the grass on Riga parks, then it should have explained why. The grass on the slopes, as far as I know, is not a different species than that in some other parks, where careful sitting or picnicking on the grass is not forbidden, or at least tolerated. One of the most absurdly SOVIET things about Riga was the ban on sitting on the grass in all public parks. The only thing the public could enjoy was walking on the sidewalks and sitting on the benches – compared to the openness of park grass areas in most civilized countries.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Defending free speech in a debate on banning Baltic Pride in Riga

The debating society of the University of Latvia has asked me to participate in a debate on whether the Baltic Pride March planned for Riga on June 2 should be banned. I, of course, will be taking the side of free speech and assembly with other debaters and will be opposed by Jānis Rožkalns, a former Soviet-era dissident and anti-pride activist of late, as well as Jānis Šmits, a member of the Riga City Council and a minister. Both believe that the Pride event should be banned  to protect children and the "moral climate" of the city.
The debate will take place at the University of Latvia "Mazā aula" lecture hall on Wednesday, May 23, at 16:30.
My view is that freedom of speech and assembly, no matter how "offensive" the purpose, cannot be forbidden. Censorship and the restriction of basic rights is a hallmark of authoritarian and totalitarian societies. Free speech is freedom for the speech we hate. My opponents, who evidently hate the idea of gay rights (they maintain that they don't hate gays per say) should be held to this standard. I certainly hold to this standard when, in this blog, I have defended the right of neo-Nazis to peacefully express their views.
I also will say that the issue is not one of Gay Pride in particular, since I would have exactly the same arguments for free speech and assembly if, instead of Rožkalns and Šmits, I was facing the opponents of allowing the Legionnaire's March (or the anti-Legionnaire protestors) on March 16 or those demanding tht the gathering to celebrate May 9 be banned. I also am against banning, to my mind, the crackpot celebration of the "liberation" of Riga by the Germany military on July 1, 1941, setting off a new round of repression against Latvia's citizens, in particular Jewish Latvians.
Living in an open, free democracy means living in the market of ideas, including ideas that you personally shun (so if you don't like gays or neo-Nazis or various crackpots holding the floor for a few hours, stay away. I personally am somewhat entertained by those whose views are radically different from mine and sometimes radically batshit).
Just for the record, I am straight, married, and have three sons and one grandson. So much for being a destroyer of family values or whatever crackpot accusations participating in this debate may bring down upon me. And yes, I am not homophobic, although being gay for me is second in being personally unimaginable to -- playing golf. It is just not me, neither batting a little ball around in a wide, well trimmed grassy field nor same-sex relationships. But that doesn't motivate me to start a no-golf movement or to declare golfers as a pestilence to society.  Hey-- don't ask, don't tell. And yes, you are free to flaunt your par, your score or whatever it is. This is a free country, let's keep it that way.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Who let the dogs out - a clarification

To update and clarify my earlier post on the concerns I have about using a repressive police agency against some bad journalism, it was not the National Alliance Saeima deputy Jānis Dombrava who complained to the Security Police about coverage of the events of March 16 in a television news spot on the Russian language First Baltic Channel (PBK). Dombrava actually complained to the National Electronic Media Council (NEPLP, the Latvian abbreviation), which, in a sense, is the right place to go. It seems that the NEPLP then submitted the case to the Security Police - the agency that arrests economics lecturers for commenting on banks, the currency and the economy.
Dombrava explained his actions on Twitter but said he was pleased that the Security Police had taken the case. I find that worrisome, but I have set the facts straight as to how this case ended up in the hands of Latvia's neo-KGB lite. Sorry about the inaccuracy, Jānis.
Which brings me to the next point - should the NEPLP (or NEMC in English) be forging this kind of relationship with a repressive agency that has arrested and charged people for exercising free speech (which was clearly the case with the economist Dmitrijs Smirnovs in 2008)? The NEMC has its own means of censuring and administratively punishing the media. The Security Police should be kept as far as possible from any involvement in the content of electronic or other media. If anything, the case in question, where some anti-Semitic shouting on the soundtrack of a news spot was attributed or imputed, in the Russian translation, to the wrong person, merits this kind of censure or administrative action, at worst. There may also be a civil case by the man who was arguing (politely, with no anti-Semitic wording) with two representatives of the Anti-Fascist movement who were trying to restore the wreath they had laid (see the earlier post), since it was implied that he shouted "Jews do not belong here".  Not true, although someone did shout that and it would have been part of a story that, while the man, apparently representing the organizers of the Latvian Legion commemoration, was having a tense discussion with the Anti-Fascists, someone did shout something against Jews.
As for the NEMC, please use your own tools for settling matters with media distortions and inaccuracies. To use the Security Police is so post-Soviet. 

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Nationalists turn dangerous dogs on bad journalism

Latvia’s National Alliance (NA), which I have always suspected to be discreetly (and sometimes not so) teetering on the edge between democracy and (crypto)authoritarianism, has called out the worst of the dogs in Latvia on what I will be the first to say seems to be a ratshit piece of distorted TV news.
Jānis Dombrava, a parliament or Saeima deputy from the NA filed charges with the Latvian Security Police (the guys who arrest college economics instructors for commenting on the economy) against the Russian language TV channel First Baltic Channel.  The reason was an alleged distortion of events ahead of the March 16 commemoration event for the German-drafted Latvian Legion.
I arrived too late at this event to see what happened myself, but from other news reports and You Tube footage, representatives of the Latvian Anti-Fascist Committee and Europarliamentarian Tatyana Zhdanok arrived some time ahead of the planned Legion (formally, Waffen-SS) commemoration and laid a wreath by the Freedom Monument in memory of  the victims of Nazism. The wreath even had a ribbon with these words in Latvian on it.
Some time after the wreath was laid, persons apparently somehow sympathizing with the organizers of the Legionnaire event arrived and covered the anti-Fascist wreath with tulips, then placed a red-white-red emblem representing the Latvian flag and the shoulder flash of the Latvian Legion over the defaced wreath. This was, by any standard, an act of vandalism, since the base of the Freedom Monument is often the site for flower and wreath-layings and different floral arrangements have always peacefully co-existed. Zhdanok and Josif Koren of the Anti-Fascist Committee noticed the defacement of their wreath from nearby and approached to try to restore it and move the large insignia.
At this point a confrontation started with someone who acted as if he represented the organizers of the Legion commemoration.  He tried to prevent Zhdanok and Koren from taking away the insignia and restoring their wreath. He firmly but politely asked them to leave, as “the next event” was about to start. On one of the You Tube videos, there is a point in the confrontation at which a voice off-camera shouts “ Jews do not belong here!” Koren is Jewish and I believe Zhdanok is also of Jewish descent, so this was a provocative and insulting remark, but it was not uttered by the man with whom both were having an argument over the wreath.
In the First Baltic Channel news item (I do not understand Russian, but got the gist of it), the sound of the male voice saying “Jews do not belong here” was attributed to the man with whom Zhdanok and Koren were arguing. From what I have seen, he said nothing of the kind, although the remark seems to have come from one of a not insignificant number of wackos who had gathered for the Legion commemoration.
The Russian language TV spot  appears to have been, to put it mildly, a manipulation of the truth that should be exposed, denounced and perhaps reprimanded by the National Electronic Media Council. Some journalist organizations should also censure this kind of thing.
However, whatever distortion the First Baltic Channel may have made, it is no reason to run to Latvia’s “neo-KGB”, the Security Police, whose record on free speech and press freedom is spotty, to say the least. While the TV channel’s violation of journalistic ethics is reprehensible, it is a greater danger to journalistic freedom to use a repressive police agency as a tool of enforcing “good journalism”. Even if the blatant distortions by the First Baltic Channel is not the best test case, dragging them before the Security Police, even getting the Security Police involved in media content in any way will have a chilling effect on all media (perhaps, especially, the Russian-language media).
All of which leads me back to the nagging thought that just under the surface of the NA’s nationalist and democratic veneer, there may be an authoritarian streak that grabs for the biggest and most (unpredictably) dangerous stick around, to invoke repression rather than criticism and debate. And while on the subject of March 16, it reminds me of a very interesting man, an American academic from Lithuania that I met on the fringes of the March 16 event. He is Dovid Katz, whose main activity is the study of Baltic dialects of Yiddish, but who also aligns with the Anti-Fascist view that yes, fascism is really coming back to the Baltics because some old geezers gather along with some younger wackos and neo-Nazis. I honestly believe that these anti-Fascist guys have the volume, brightness and contrasted jacked up all the way on their picture of things. No, the Nazis are not really coming back in the Baltics or Eastern Europe. Yes, there are wackos around, as in the US (where Nazis marched in Skokie in the 1970s, all kinds of crackpot racist and anti-Semitic or perversely philo-Semitic Jesus is returning to the Temple in Jerusalem so glory to Israel sects about) and that is about it.
As far as I know, the NA didn’t condemn the defacement of the wreath laid by Zhdanok and Koren, which would have been the right thing to do. They at times traipse around issues of anti-Semitism (one of their members, who was criticized for this, even used the term “intelligent anti-Semitism”, whatever that means). This is the kind of stuff that feeds the paranoia about the Nazis coming back. Calling in the Security Police feeds my paranoia about a party in the government undermining media freedom.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Latvian security police end investigation of incitement to desecrate the flag

The Latvian Security Police (Drošības policija) have ended an investigation surrounding calls on the internet for persons to desecrate the Latvian flag. The case has been ended because no "victim" of any crime was found (surprise, surprise!). Had anyone been found guilty of the actual crime of flag desecration, the perpetrator could face a stiff fine and up to three years imprisonment.
The call to desecrate the flag was published on the internet last year and contained a statement that any any "radical" advocate of free expression (say, like the US First Amendment) can only agree with:

In our view, any person, citizen or non-citizen, has the absolute right to do with the flag as he or she pleases. At the same time, the state has no right to punish a person for defacing, burning, tearing, or tramping the flag, The state must guarantee the right of persons to freely express their views. If a person has reason to take such actions with the flag, then he shall not even be deterred from such an action, nver mind punished.

For my Latvian readers:

"Mūsu skatījumā, jebkuram cilvēkam - pilsonim vai nepilsonim - ir absolūtas tiesības rīkoties ar karogu pēc saviem ieskatiem. Savukārt valstij nav absolūti nekādu tiesību cilvēku sodīt par to, ka viņš karogu izķēmo, dedzina, plēš, mīda kājām. Valstij ir jāgarantē cilvēka tiesības brīvi paust savus uzskatus. Ja kāds cilvēks uzskata, ka viņam ir pamats tā rīkoties ar karogu, tad viņu nedrīkst pat atturēt no šādas rīcības, kur nu vēl sodīt.

I fully agree with this statement, although I would never burn a Latvian flag. To me it represents, or should represent, the freedom that allows anyone else to do just that (the same goes for the US flag).
I would qualify the right to burn or desecrate a flag by saying -- desecrate a flag that is your property and don't create a significant public nuisance (setting something other than the flag on fire). Ripping down flags or national symbols that belong to public authorities or private persons is vandalism and should be punished with no greater severity than the damaging or destruction of any other, non-symbolic public property, such as a no-parking sign.
As for the Security Police, maybe they should avoid the chilling effect of investigations of this kind. As for the Saeima, it should repeal the laws that forbid flag desecration or give it any special status above and beyond the laws applicable to vandalism and destruction of public property. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Latvia gets another badge for banana republic repression

Well, Latvia got what it was “working” for – a drop of 20 places to 50th place in the world in the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index. It was in “good” company, just three places behind the 47th place United States, which has disgraced its own benchmark First Amendment press freedom protections by arresting journalists covering the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations in several cities.
Latvia earned its sharp drop, according to Reporters Without Borders, for two incidents this year – a raid by anti-corruption police on the newspaper Neatkarīgā Rīta Avīze (NRA) and the detention, for 48 hours, of the editor of a website in Latvian which exposed what it claimed was suspcious e-mail correspondence between Riga mayor Nils Ušakovs and the Russian Embassy.
Unfortunately, I missed the NRA incident in this blog, or perhaps I thought that an investigation by the anti-corruption police (KNAB) was justified, since the newspaper is effectively controlled by Ventspils mayor, oligarch and accused money-laundered and economic criminal Aivars Lembergs. I may have been wrong.
In any event, if you scroll back through what I have posted during 2011, there is plenty of reason to consider the freedom of expression (not just the rights of journalists) to have been dragged down to the level of a black humor banana republic by several actions of the authorities. So this ranking is well deserved, though I am more worried about the decline of press freedom in the country where I grew up – the United States. I frequently refer to the clear language of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law...”. That, for me, sets the standard for freedom of the press and speech, and it is very disturbing that the US cannot live up to its own standards. What can one expect of Latvia.
Nonetheless, respecting the rights of journalists and the freedom of expression is a low cost enterprise. Just let them be. And it has been proven possible in a country with much the same historical experience and “post-Soviet” political culture as Latvia – it's neighbor to the north, Estonia, ranked number three in the press freedom index after Finland and Norway. Another lesson not learned by a country that seems to want a downward spiral into cheap-ass (no concentration camps, just petty and stupid repression) banana republic status.