A Summary of Police Contacts with Media in Latvia
There have been a number of encounters by the Latvian media with various law enforcement authorities or people using the criminal and civil law to attempt to repress, intimidate or silence reporters, editors and bloggers.
The encounters to be covered here are presented as follows:
1) The most outrageous cases in terms of impact on the media representative.
2) The most recent and/or bizarre cases
More on these matters can be found on the blog Free Speech Emergency in Latvia that was started in November 2008 after the Latvian Security Police detained a college economics lecturer for remarks he made about the Latvian currency, the lat, just as the economic crisis was breaking out. There is also material from recent interviews with journalists and editors around the country.
Outrageous Example 1
The case of journalist Leonīds Jākobsons in 2011 and 2012 definitely stands out as he ended up held in a mental hospital under 30 days' observation after being detained for 48 hours. The cause was his involvement in a Security Police investigation of leaked correspondence which was published on a Russian-language website Jākobsons ran (www.kompromat.lv).
The alleged incident took place in November 2011, so that the filing of charges occurred with remarkable speed for Latvia. The Latvian prosecutor’s office filed criminal charges againt Jākobsons for allegedly stealing and publishing e-mail correspondence by Riga mayor Nils Ušakovs, a member of the Harmony Center party.
There was no evidence that Jākobsons himself had broken into Ušakovs' Gmail account, rather, that someone provided him with the already “stolen” emails, so it is difficult to understand how the journalist could face such charges.
In a previous case in 2005-2006, the Latvian television journalist Ilze Jaunalksne’s phone conversations, recorded by the State Revenue Service, were leaked, and it was the Revenue Service employees who were guilty of illegal wiretapping, not the media that published the transcripts.
The incident is similar to a Wikileaks disclosure or even the Pentagon Papers, because it concerned the Riga mayor’s correspondence in an official capacity, with alleged contact (possibly, if not probably inadvertently) with Alexandr Hapilov, an official of the Russian Embassy in Latvia. The emails also suggested attempts to influence the content of some Russian-language media. The news value of the information provided could reasonably be considered as overriding any privacy issues.
A few months later, on March 29, 2012, Jākobsons, while returning home with his young son, was attacked and had his face slashed by unknown assailants. The police investigation of that case, which left the journalist in a mental hospital healing a slashed cheek, has failed to find the persons responsible. Local reporters, who rushed to the site of the assault, found a disorderly crime scene in the apartment building staircase, with both media (photographers, cameramen, journalists) and apparently nonchalant uniformed police trampling possible evidence.
Another website, pietiek.com claimed that Jākobsons had consented to his mental hospital confinement, something which he categorically denied. He says that he was placed in the hospital despite protesting the decision to put him under observation to the investigating prosecutor.
The police and prosecuting authorities had (they claimed) the legal right to confine Jākobsons for 30 days' observation.
Yet another irony is that Jākobsons' detention was triggered by his own complaint to the police that the kompromat.lv server was coming under cyber attack. His initial complaints (at the end of November, 2011) were largely ignored. The police then returned to search Jākobsons' premises, computers and servers following a complaint from Riga mayor Nils Ušakovs.
Next, the following sequence of events occurred, according to a chronology prepared and distributed to the public by Edmunds Zālīte, the systems administrator of Jākobsons' website at the time:
“December 15, 2011 at 12:30 Cybercrimes unit detective Aleksandrs Bebris and three masked policemen come around at the Riga World Trade Center and, using a sledge hammer, break into the office of an internet club. After an hour and a half, the police leave, taking along the kompromat.lv server, a server labeled “Backup” and two optical drives labeled Norton Systemworks 2005 (as could be determined from a bad quality carbon copy). The search and seizure had been requested by detective Nauris Liepins of the National Police, the search warrant was approved by Judge Rinalds Silakalns. Aleksandrs Bebris and Peteris Reinfelds participated in the search... At the same time, Jākobsons is arrested at his home and all data media found in his residence during a search are seized.”
Outrageous Example 2
The second example is the well-publicized case of Ilze Nagla, a reporter at the time (in the spring of 2010) with the public service broadcaster Latvian Television (Latvijas Televīzija). Nagla, who was the host of the weekly investigative Latvian TV program De Facto, was among the first to report on "Neo" and a cyberactivist group called The 4th Awakening People's Army. "Neo" later published links to compilations of public sector salaries on the social media application Twitter.
Nagla returned home alone around 10 pm and was confronted by a man in her stairwell who put his foot in her door before producing a search warrant requested by the police, authorized by a prosecutor and approved the following day by a court. The search took around two hours. Police officials claimed the extraordinary search was necessary for operational purposes.
A police spokesman said that the search "was not aimed at Nagla's professional activities" although it resulted in most, if not all of her work-related electronic files being seized.
As is well known in Latvia by now, Nagla filed a complaint about the illegal search and seizure at her home and took the case all the way to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which found in her favor.
The Most Recent Case
Edgars Kupčs, the deputy editor of regional newspaper, Zemgales Ziņas, was summoned to a closed court hearing at the Jelgava district court on December 4 in an effort to make him reveal a source that had given him a transcript of a previous (public) court session. However, the court ruled that he could not be forced to name his source, but that was far from the end of the matter.
The transcript, in turn, forms the basis for a criminal libel case against Kupčs, who used the transcript to write about the allegedly shady dealings of a local attorney.
The transcript itself contained testimony in open court by Dzintars Lagzdiņš, an attorney who has represented the Jelgava district local authority. The disputed article by Kupčs cited testimony by Lagdziņš that seemed to support the journalist's claim that the attorney, while on the public payroll, was providing information to a private businessman about public land that could be put on sale. The testimony contained in the transcript was heard in open court and could have been reported by anyone present.
Lagzdiņš 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.
During an initial interrogation by Jelgava region police inspector Kristīne Dzalbe, Kupčs says he was both threatened with night-time house arrest and warned that the inspector could throw his mobile phone out of the window. The atmosphere was one of intimidation, Kupčs says.
Following the court's refusal to order Kupčs to disclose his source, he was taken almost immediately to another interrogation because someone else had filed a complaint claiming criminal libel because Kupčs had referred to the individual as “a friend” of someone with a poor reputation in the Jelgava area.
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 freedom of expression and a remnant of Soviet/authoritarian mentality. It also carries a far stronger chilling effect than a civil lawsuit (which can, of course, be financially burdensome for journalists and publishing houses).
In a remarkable admission, Inspector Dzalbe expressed her conviction to the journalist 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 high-placed whistleblower – but merely someone who had written down what was said in open court.
The Case No-one Noticed
Latvian Television reported on September 23 that a document had been drafted in connection with the state’s dispute with national airline airBaltic's former CEO Bertolt Flick. The document stated that a possible solution to the dispute would be to settle it with the former executive at a cost of around LVL 16 million. Such 'restricted access' or 'confidential' documents are routinely prepared by lawyers outlining various possible means of resolving disputes – in this case including the risk of litigation before an arbitration tribunal and the risk of losing a larger 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.
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.
However, the Security Police was also in contact with Latvian Television (LTV), specifically, those responsible for the September 23 news item. At some point, by exerting pressure and threats, a document was obtained by investigators that may or may not have contained enough information to reveal the source. In other words, the possibility exists 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.
There is also reason to believe that the person or persons with whom the Security Police had direct contact were psychologically pressured into turning over materials by threats of possible incarceration and the consequences of that for family members. The person or persons were also apparently persuaded or intimidated into subsequent silence on the matter.
As a result, little or nothing was written about the rather extensive activities of the Security Police to track down a leak to the media. For instance, journalists at LETA, the privately owned “national” news agency said that they respected the wishes of those involved (from LTV) not to speak about what had happened. All that was reported of this incident by LETA was: "As was determined by the news agency LETA, SP (Security Police) agents have questioned representatives of the mass media."
In an extensive report by Latvian Radio journalist Ivo Leitāns, published after this report was initially prepared, LTV journalist Madara Līcīte, who initially declined to speak of her encounter with the Latvian Security Police, tells how she was pressured to give up a leaked document or face a raid and search at her office and home. A Security Police spokesperson denied that such a threat had been made.
Two journalists have become “regular customers” of the Security Police, the Prosecutor’s Office and some court judges and deserve praise for their uncompomising defence of their sources.
Arta Ģiga, the editor of the Nekā Personīga (Nothing Personal) investigative news program on TV3 has been contacted by the Security Police, prosecution authorities, and the Bureau for Preventing and Combating Corruption (Latvian initials KNAB). She has almost always refused to divulge sources, but sometimes cooperated with KNAB in providing leads and information when it was the program’s journalists who had actually discovered possible corruption (rather than reporting on existing investigations).
One case in which she was ordered to disclose sources by a court was when she published materials that had been obtained during searches at properties owned by controversial Ventspils mayor Aivars Lembergs. The case started in 2006 when the petroleum products transit company Ventspils Nafta complained that its company secrets had been compromised. Ģiga was ordered by a court to disclose her source, but managed to drag the case out until it was no longer within the statute of limitations.
Ģiga has also persuaded the police not to demand that she turn over raw video of rioters during the unrest that broke out on January 13, 2009, pointing out that if that was done, TV crews would in future be the first to be attacked should such unrest happen again.
Another “regular” is Agnese Margeviča of the controversial investigative website pietiek.com. Margeviča has regular confrontations with the Security Police and other authorities, and says she has always refused to give up sources and resisted all pressure to do so.
Both journalists indicated that the police seemed unaffected by the decision of the ECHR in the Nagla case and were quite willing to risk another scandal and lawsuit against the Latvian state.
Busy Times At Ir
The weekly news magazine Ir, founded by journalists and editors who left daily newspaper Diena after a change of ownership in 2009, is the subject of four civil lawsuits alleging slander: one by Riga mayor Nils Ušakovs against an opinion piece by Aivars Ozoliņš calling the City Council a “kleptocracy”; two lawsuits related to a series of articles claiming possible corruption in the process of bankruptcy administration; and one article that examined the goals and financing of a pro-life movement in Latvia.
Ir called this lawsuit “a claim filed with a medieval court of inquisition”. Several persons filing the suit, all associated with right-wing, anti-abortion causes demand that the article be retracted on the grounds (among other things) that it attacked “traditional values” and falsely accused the Latvian pro-life movement of being financed by an international Catholic organization.
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Juris Kaža. Journalist, author of the blog Free Speech Emergency in Latvia and a regular contributor to The Wall Street Journal.