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.