Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Latvian editor faces order to reveal sources in a closed court hearing

Edgars Kupčs, the deputy editor of a regional newspaper, Zemgales Ziņas, has been summoned to a closed court hearing at the Jelgava district court on December 4 to be ordered to reveal a source that gave him a public court transcript.  The transcript, in turn, is the basis for a criminal libel (yes, the kind where a journalist can be jailed fro what he or she wrote) case against Kupčs, who used the transcript to write about the allegedly shady dealings of a local attorney.
The attorney, Dzintars Lagzdiņš, has represented the Jelgava district local authority and a disputed article by Kupčs cited testimony by Lagzdiņš that seemed to support the journalist’s claim that the attorney, while on the public payroll, was providing information about public lands that could be available for purchase to a private businessman. This testimony was heard in open court and could have been reported by anyone.
Lagdziņš filed the criminal libel charges saying that his testimony, as lifted from a transcript of the open and public proceedings, was distorted to place him in a bad light and make allegations of unethical and corrupt behavior.
While Latvian law, like the legal systems of most countries, offers civil remedies for blatantly false publications and statements, the criminal libel law is seen as a blunt tool against the freedom of expression and a remnant of a Soviet/authoritarian mentality. It also carries a far stronger chilling effect than a civil lawsuit (which can, of course, in some contexts, be financially burdensome for journalists and publishing houses).
Another curious aspect of the case is that the demand to disclose the source of a transcript of open court testimony comes from a local police inspector who has reportedly expressed her conviction that Kupčs is guilty and that Lagdziņš is right to prosecute him. While she may hold that view, the police inspector seems to have ignored the absurdity of breaking a basic journalistic right to protect sources in order to reveal – not some damaging whistleblower – but merely someone who had a written version of what was said in open court. The source or sources did nothing wrong – unless there is another agenda to take revenge on them in addition to jailing and muzzling Kupčs.

This case should be on some kind of short list at Index on Censorship or Article 19, and perhaps the Committee to Protect Journalists (although Kupčs’ life is not being threatened by, say, some African militia). Latvian authorities, even in the  “provinces” must understand that they cannot violate fundamental media freedoms and the right to protect sources.  At least the Latvian Journalists’s Association has clearly stated that Kupčs must not reveal his sources. He should have the support of fellow journalists and editors around Europe and in the world.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Fear and Loathing in Latvia (or among its media)

Fear and loathing in Latvia? The borrowed phrase from the late Hunter Thompson may be just what fits the situation. Moreover, the “situation” is that nobody in the Latvian media is fully reporting the situation, especially not reporting as it affects them and their own people and, possibly, their sources.
I have already touched on this in an earlier blog, but I will repeat it here. Based on a number of sources and observations, Latvian Television has been visited by the Latvian Security Police because of a news item that was run on September 23 concerning the possible settlement of an investment dispute surrounding the “national airline” air Baltic. The report cited the possibility that former air Baltic CEO Berthold Flick could be awarded as much as LVL 16 million. This was part of a legal risk analysis prepared in connection with the investor claim filed against the Latvian state by Flick.  
It appears that a person involved in preparing the news item, based on a leaked document or documents, burned the source by either giving up the documents or other information that led to the source. All this has been hushed up or only minimally reported, at least the media part.
While the document or information that was leaked was something less critical than Latvia’s nuclear launch codes (well, assuming Latvia had any), the search for those responsible is as intense as if something like that had happened. The Security Police questioned around 12 employees of the Ministry of Justice, which apparently had a significant role in preparing the legal risk analysis. This was, in fact, reported in the Latvian media. However, as far as the apparently critical and decisive Security Police contact with Latvian Television, there is only one line in a LETA story (a story that, of course, could have been picked up by other media and the press). It says: As was determined by the news agency LETA, SP (Security Police) agents have questioned representatives of the mass media.  And that, so far, is all.
One reason may be that some of those involved, for whatever psychological reasons, simply don’t want to talk about it (it seems unlikely that the Latvian Security Police, tried to impose a gag order on anyone like the Lithuanian Special Investigation Service did with some of the journalists it questioned at BNS). But there was enough information available from other sources to see that there was a serious violation of media rights and probably a failure or lack of journalist training.
Once they had the necessary information, the Security Police followed the whole chain of custody  (and of production) of the document, including the aforementioned searches and interrogations at the Ministry of Justice, and by some accounts, at the State Chancellery as well. Apparently, the investigations are continuing. Certainly, state employees have a duty to protect confidential information, but as I said, these were not nuclear launch codes.
There is another possible explanation for the – to put it mildly- vigorous activities by the Security Police to track down leaks. It is that the law-enforcement and investigative agency may be being wittingly or unwittingly  used as a political bludgeon against a new approach to settling investor disputes. In some past cases, Latvia used rather expensive private law firms to litigate these cases – everything from the black humor case of dismantling a derelict Swedish-owned ship to the case brought by TeliaSonera against the shortening of the monopoly granted to telecoms operator Lattelecom (it was ended in 2003 instead of 2013). The new approach has been to handle these cases “in house” and to find a least-risk, least cost way of settling the matters.
The thing is – international disputes based on violation of investment protection treaties are seldom frivolous. Often they involve diplomatic support from the disputant’s nation (to be honest, I don’t know the procedures in detail). In any case, to get your government on your side, you have to have something more than an imaginary or crackpot theory of how your investment was compromised – usually by using the legal system or government action by the country that is accused of a violation.
Indeed, some of the recent cases in Latvia – the attempt to declare the Lithuanian IKI retail chain bankrupt over a small debt – as well as alleged shenanigans around the Estonian-owned Winergy wind farm project – seem to suggest that frivolous or contrived attempts to compromise foreign investments have happened with the assistance of Latvian courts or authorities. If this is the case, then these claims are not  frivolous and the risk to Latvia is significant. This may also have been the case with air Baltic, where the government moved quickly, but perhaps without taking all the necessary legal steps – to take control of the airline from what it perceived as a untrustworthy Flick and other shady interests, including Vladimir Antonov, a Russian businessman blamed for the failure of Lithuania’s Snoras Bank and the Latvian bank Latvijas Krajbanka.
If mistakes have been made by courts or state authorities, then it is not unreasonable to assume that there are significant risks for the Latvian state and that a negotiated settlement may be the least costly and time-consuming way out of the situation, even if it involves “paying off” parties to the case who are less than, as Latvians would say, “white and fuzzy clean”. Under the law, thieves are also protected against theft.
However, if this approach is taken, two sets of interests may suffer. First – those parts of the legal profession in Latvia for whom endless litigation is a source of revenue, regardless of the ethical norm that lawyers represent the best interests of their clients, and it is rarely in anyone’s best interests to have long, dragged out legal or arbitration proceedings with doubtful chances of success.
Secondly, a more forthright approach to settling investor disputes (which generally are not initiated “just for fun”, but instead following local legal actions, such as a crackpot insolvency case and the like) will affect the interests of schemers who exploit foreign companies to “legally extort” money or even to execute takeovers of profitable foreign subsidiaries (nevermind that the local goons put in charge if this succeeds cannot continue profitable operations, it suffices that they can empty the bank accounts). Some of these schemers, so it is said, have friends in high places and political influence – some would even say, some extent of state capture. However, to prove that would require some pretty heavy legwork by local journalists, which most local media cannot afford in terms of staff time and money. And some are simply afraid to do it because if they do, will be visited by the Security Police and no one will say or publish a word about it.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

UPDATED Uproar over BNS in Lithuania, strange silence over police actions in Latvia

There is shit going down in the Baltics and everyone reading this (yeah, the both of you and the lady who stumbled in here from the blog next door with that arrow icon thing) should know about.
There has been reporting already on the bizarre events in Lithuania. Seems that a while ago, the Lithuanian president Dalia Grybuskaite mentioned (while in Latvia at a Baltic presidents’ summit) that it looked like someone, probably Russia, was planning a disinformation campaign against Lithuania and her in particular. The reasons were easy to guess - Lithuania holding the presidency of the European Union (EU) and moving along with the process of bringing Ukraine closer to the EU (on behalf of the whole EU, not some nefarious Lithuanian plot). Well, Putin’s Russia will be Putin’s Russia, no surprise there.
What was surprising is that after this possible Russian disinformation plot was reported by the Baltic News Service (BNS), citing intelligence sources, it was confirmed by President Grybuskaite and, apparently, by the head of the intelligence service. Nonetheless, since the story was first reported based on “leaked” intelligence information, an investigation was launched by the Lithuanian authorities to find the source of the leak.
On November 7, about a week after the first reports of the alleged disinformation plot, agents of the Lithuanian Special Investigation Service (SIS) descended on the BNS office in Vilnius and on a small office that BNS keeps at the Seimas, or Lithuanian parliament. Six journalists and editors were interogated, one had her home searched in the presence of her children and a lawyer called in by BNS. Neither the editor nor the lawyer were allowed to communicate with anyone for six hours. Computers and a phone or two were seized.
As my colleague Mike Collier wrote, it was almost as if Lithuania had beat the Russians to discrediting itself by intimidating journalists and creating an international scandal (I wrote about it for The Wall Street Journal). Even Lithuania’s Prime Minister Algridas Butkevicius, who was confronted with the raid on BNS when attending a Baltic prime ministers meeting in Riga, later said the action was excessive. A political firestorm ensued, and it also emerged that the SIS had questioned journalists at the news portal Delfi.lv and IQ magazine.
In an update, I have learned that the SIS agents "completely tore apart" the home of one female editor in the presence of her children. She was not used to such treatment (it has been more than 20 years since the Soviet KGB did this kind of thing to people in the Baltic countries) and suffered a severe psychological trauma. 
So much for Lithuania, but there is also strange news from Latvia. My version (based on various sources) is as follows:

Latvian Television reported, on September 23, that a document had been drafted in connection with the state’s dispute with air Baltic’s former (and deposed) CEO Berthold Flick stating that a possible solution to the dispute would be to settle it with the former executive for some LVL 16 million. The restricted access or confidential document was routinely prepared by lawyers outlining various resolutions of the dispute – probably including litigating the issue before an arbitration tribunal with all the costs that implies and the risk of losing a large sum if the tribunal found for Flick. The following day, the State Chancellery, from which the document was reportedly leaked, said the leak was apparently aimed at pressuring the government to take this course of action. The Chancellery did not deny the substance of the document.
What follows I have pieced together:

Security Police visited both the Ministry of Justice and the State Chancellery to find out how the leak happened. This was, to some degree, legitimate, as it is the duty of state employees to keep confidential documents confidential.

The Security Police was also in contact with Latvian Television, specifically, those responsible for the September 23 news item. At some point, by exerting pressure and threats, something (a document) was obtained that, in all likelihood, contained enough information to trace it back to the source. In other words, it would appear that Latvian Television may have burned its source, though it says that it did not. LTV officials do not deny that something was given to the Security Police, but say that they protected their sources.

So far, well.. so, so. But it is also disturbing that little or nothing was written about the rather extensive activities of the Security Police to track down a leak to the media. Normally, any contact by national security services with the media should be taken very seriously – overreported, rather than underreported- especially in light of disclosures about global surveillance by the American NSA, the detention of journalist Glenn Greenwald’s partner David Miranda by the British security service and the attempts to silence Wikileaks.

This has to change.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Taking away the Latvian public' s right to choose what they see in public

I’m no fan of swastikas and hammers and sickles. I would avoid a public event where lots of either were present. Then again, I might want to get an answer to my WTFs on seeing such a spectacle and go take a closer look and maybe listen to what these people were saying (if they were amenable to having spectators and being listened to).
The point is – regardless of whether it is five guys waving a swastika flag, or a speaker haranguing passersby under a Communist hammer and sickle poster – or a non-political street juggler – the choice of whether to look at or listen to what is being expressed is MINE! It seems quite reasonable that as an adult, I have the right to choose what I see or hear in a public place without interference by the government, especially if those bringing the message are not forcing me to listen to it. As far as the message being offensive to me, to others, anyone can choose not to listen or to go away.
Today, the Latvian parliament or Saeima took another step toward limiting what I may see, listen to, or read on display at a public event – not just a political demonstration, but any public gathering. A law banning the display of Nazi and Soviet flags and symbols was passed in the so-called second reading, which still leaves some time for final editing and modifications, but the decision in principle was made. The Latvian state is going to tell me and all other adults in this country what they may or may not see, hear or read. I think they called that censorship back in the day.
Moreover, the choice as to the whether the banned symbols are being displayed with the intent, as the draft law says, to glorify the crimes of the Nazi or Soviet regimes, to advocate war, the violent overthrow of the government, or disobedience and violations of the law – will basically be left to the police on the street. In other words, the guy or girl who can clearly see the criminal intent in someone stealing another person’ s wallet or slapping, unprovoked, someone else upside the head – will have to decide on the matter of criminal intent in some pretty complex situations and contexts. Can a police officer know whether a man reading from a critical annotated edition of Lenin’ s essays (with a Soviet flag on the cover) at a public meeting (to promote his book) is “glorifying the Soviet regime”  or calling for the overthrow of the government – or merely presenting a part of his work?  One wrong decision and the police will have put a strong chilling effect on – book tours? While this is a somewhat contrived example, the point is that it is harder to undo a mistaken decision to arrest and disperse a public gathering because someone has the “wrong” symbols than to not do it at all. Those in power in Latvia have such chronically low trust from the public that any promises of  “it won’t happen again” will never be believed, and those most easily intimidated will hesitate to express radical views.
This law is a mistake and will need to needless repression and chilling of public debate. Hateful symbols and speech must be met with arguments, not the threat of prison, especially when the choice of who to arrest may be arbitrary or based upon insufficient understanding of a situation. On the whole, more laws against hateful symbols serve only to reduce the right of Latvia’ s inhabitants (free access to viewpoints is not only the privilege of citizens, but a right for all) to see, hear, or read whatever they please. Such laws are also an infringement of the freedom of expression, which I believe should be as close to absolute as is possible 

Monday, April 8, 2013

Some belated (unpublished) thoughts on the March 16 events in Latvia

This was submitted to a major international publication, but didn't fit into what it needed (also, perhaps, it was a little late, as we hadn't agreed on covering the events of March 16). I post it here because I think there are some interesting points to be made about the repercussions of the annual March 16 war veterans march and counter-demonstrations. It is written in a news analysis style. 

Deafening sirens from “anti-fascist” counterdemonstrators on March 16 disrupted a march to commemorate Latvians, mostly draftees, who fought on the German side in World War II, but they also started off a week of political tremors in the Baltic country that uncovered some sinister cracks in Latvia’s ruling three-party coalition.
The loud counter-demonstration against the march by a dwindling number of Waffen-SS veterans and around 1 000 supporters, set events in motion that could tighten laws regulating freedom of assembly in Latvia and perhaps impose special restrictions and penalties on forms of expression deemed to commit “sacrilege” against national symbols.  
Going along with such measures could be the price that Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis of the centrist liberal Unity party must pay for maintaining the tense “stability” of Latvia’s coalition and for turning a blind eye to the creeping influence of the nationalist right. Otherwise, nationalist politicians would have sought a vote of confidence against the man responsible for policing the annual veterans march and accompanying counter-demonstrations, Minister of Interior Rihards Kozlovskis, a member of the liberal Reform Party. The relatively new party has been moribund in recent voter polls and its unlikely to get seats in Latvia’s parliament when elections are held in late 2014. 
The screws on expression could be tightened because another member of Latvia’s government coalition, the National Alliance, which brings together several right-of-center nationalist factions, was outraged at the disruptive protest by a small group of demonstrators, many of whom were Latvian Jews. The counterprotestors denounced the Waffen-SS march as a glorification of Nazism even while admitting through a spokesman, Josif Koren, that most veterans were probably not Nazis.
As non-Germans, Latvians were not allowed to join the Nazi party. In pre-war Latvia, which had an authoritarian regime from 1934 to 1940, the small fascist “Thundercross” movement was banned. Its leader Gustavs Celmins was driven into exile only to return with the German occupation of Latvia in 1941, then fall out with the Germans and end up in a series of concentration camps to finally be liberated by American forces in May 1945. Mr. Celmins died in San Antonio, Texas, in 1968.  
As the March 16 sirens turned to booming Russian wartime music and then to a stentorian voice reciting wartime Nazi crimes in Latvia and elsewhere, two members of the Latvian parliament or Saeima, representing the National Alliance, rushed a rapidly-set-up cordon of riot police and, failing to get close enough to topple the counterdemonstrators’ loudspeakers, tore down some posters of photographs of cringing Latvian Jewish women about to be shot by a German Einsatzgruppe or unit dedicated to executing civilians.
One of the parliamentarians, Janis Dombrava, threatened to have fired the policemen who restrained him from continuing his rampage ripping down posters. He later apologized on television for having acted “in an emotional state” because the Latvian police had been ordered “to protect those committing sacrilege against our sacred place (the Freedom Monument) and our national soldiers.” Mr. Dombrava’s quasi-religious phrases may set the tone for what the National Alliance wants included in any new legislation pertaining to public assembly, demonstrations and the like.
Mr. Kozlovskis apologized for the events of March 16 despite the fact the City of Riga under mayor Nils Usakovs of the opposition and allegedly “pro-Kremlin” Harmony Center was responsible for granting permission for both the march and the counter-demonstration. In withdrawing its demand to call a vote of no confidence against Mr. Kozlovskis, the National Alliance under its co-chairman Raivis Dzintars, who was also involved in the March 16 scuffle with police, gave the Interior Minister a three-month grace period to push through legislation to prevent a repeat of the events of March 16, by which the nationalists meant the use of deafening sound and permitting two opposing events in such close proximity, but also the “ sacrilege” of allowing a protest by those seen as disloyal and subversive – among the milder epithets hurled at the counterdemonstrators.
Some of the harsher remarks were phrases like “Jews don’t belong here” using an older Latvian word, which phonetically is pronounced zheeds but is close to the Russian zhid, a term of abuse. While pre-war Latvian Jews referred to themselves as (plural) zheedee, the accepted present day word is the Latvian word ebreji or Hebrews, a shift in use roughly like the move from “Negro” to “Afro-American” in the US over the past few decades. In another disturbing sidelight to the March 16 events, wreaths left at the Freedom Monument by the counterdemonstrators to Jewish victims had ribbons with memorial texts removed and were then covered by flowers laid by the veterans and their sympathizers.
While no public figures from the National Alliance made any remarks about Jews, the mutterings among those gathering ahead of the Waffen-SS veterans march suggested that there were some anti-Semitic and extremist elements in the crowd, almost all of them too young to have participated in World War II. This gives some credence to claims by Latvia’s “anti-fascists” and some sympathizers who came to Riga, such as New York Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, that the Nazi aspect to March 16 was not in the veterans, but in some of their younger followers.
It would be unfair to say that the National Alliance has anything to do with Latvia’s handful of neo-Nazis. The “All For Latvia” component of the National Alliances states that it is for “positive nationalism” in the English-language page of its website and elaborates by saying that “Latvian nationalism to us means the elevation of kinship to the level of whole nation. Each Latvian is like a family member, who may not be forsaken in adversity, who must be cared for in difficult times, and who is worthy of respect or compassion by the mere fact of being one of our own.”
Nonetheless there are parallels between the Latvian nationalists and similar political movements elsewhere in Eastern Europe, such as the Jobbik party in Hungary. The readiness of the party not only to urge respect for Latvian national symbols but to enforce it under penalty of law suggest an authoritarian streak, although elsewhere in the world, there is a mixed picture of laws on such matters as flag desecration, ranging from First Amendment protection in the US to misdemeanor and disorderly conduct penalties in some European countries.
The National Alliance and some of its sympathizers in recent months have also pushed such “culture wars” issues as opposing gender equality education in primary schools. The nationalists criticized a book adapted from a Danish textbook suggesting that kindergarten children switch gender roles, with girls playing boys’ games and the like. However, a nationalist politician didn’t hesitate to bring military weapons (presumable disabled) such as rifles, machine guns and grenades into a private kindergarten he owns as part of a lesson in “patriotism” for pre-school children.
Some political analysts, such as Iveta Kazoka, a researcher at Latvia’s Providus Center for Public Policy says “ I am not convinced that the National Alliance wants more repressive laws with regard to demonstrations because they themselves may wish to organize such demonstrations. They will try to define restrictions that their own activities won’t fall under, but that will be hard to do in human rights terms.
Ainars Leijejs, a Latvian journalist covering political affairs points out that the nationalists are not the only politicians narrowing democratic rights. Mr. Dombrovskis Unity party backed a change in Latvia’s law on referendums, raising the minimum number of signatures to get a referendum initiative started to 30 000 for 10 000 earlier. This was a reaction to last year’s failed referendum to make Russian a second state language in Latvia, which some commentator said was evidence that the voters at large will simply reject controversial referenda without raising the threshold for initiating them.