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 draugiem.lv 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.